The dramatic exodus of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali on Jan. 14 has been hailed by some as the fall of a ruthless Arab autocrat and a potential win for democracy in the Arab world. This is the first time an Arab leader has been forced from office by street protests. However, this is not the first time in modern history that a Tunisian dictator was removed in the wake of popular discontent. The fight for Tunisia may be far from over.
When Tunisia gained its independence from France in 1956, the country's founder Bourguiba implemented drastic secular policies. The famous Zitouna Mosque became a western-style university, sharia courts were abolished and women were discouraged from wearing the hijab. While devout Muslims were uncomfortable with these changes, it was not until Bourguiba drank a glass of orange juice on television during Ramadan in 1960 that they began to voice their discontent.
The Islamist movement grew during the 1960s and 1970s, urged on by Muslim Brotherhood acolyte Rashid Ghannushi. However, only after the Iranian revolution in 1979 did the Islamist movement hit its stride.
In 1981, when Bourguiba called for the first multi-party elections in Tunisia's history, Ghannushi formed the Islamic Tendency Movement, or MTI. Ghannushi and many others were soon arrested for forming an unauthorized association. Bourguiba's National Front took all 136 seats in parliament, and started a crack down on the MTI. Companies were ordered not to hire Islamists. Women wearing the hijab were barred from public places and taxi drivers caught with Islamist materials had their beards cut and their licenses revoked.
Tensions peaked in March, 1987, when Bourguiba arrested over 3,000 Islamists, including Ghannushi, for speaking at a mosque without a license. When Ghannushi was given a life sentence street riots erupted, followed by bombings at four Tunisian hotels.
At this point, it had become clear that Bourguiba had lost control. His lieutenants realized that he had to be deposed if they were to continue ruling.
In November, 1987, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, formerly director general of national security, took control of the government amid reports that Bourguiba was in poor health. Ben Ali quickly moved to placate the Islamists. He released Ghannushi, went on a publicized pilgrimage to Mecca and ordered the observance of Ramadan. He pardoned other MTI members, and scheduled elections for April, 1989.
European capitals heralded this smooth transition in the hope that Tunisia would remain a secular and stable neighbor.
Optimism surrounding the 1989 general elections dropped, however, when Ben Ali barred Ghannushi's Renaissance Party on the eve of the vote. Islamists ran individually and officially captured 14.6 percent of the vote, although the true results were estimated at between 30 percent and 40 percent.
Ben Ali, however, had the victories annulled. State media announced that Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Party won every seat in the election with 99 percent of the vote. When Islamists took to the streets in protest, the regime dismantled the Renaissance Party and arrested thousands, beginning a long campaign of government repression.
Until Jan. 14, Ben Ali had successfully held the Islamists and all other challengers at bay. However, Tunisians quietly chafed under his regime. The recent economic discontent was only a symptom of the widespread frustration in this North African nation.
In Tunisia's cyclical modern history, it is clear that autocracies ultimately give way to frustration and instability. The regime could offer some small cosmetic changes to placate the angry Tunisian street. However, it could also simply regain control by oppression. Neither approach will solve Tunisia's endemic and systemic problems.
Today, however, the masses still rule the streets, and the regime has not yet consolidated power. Amidst all of groups that participated in this street revolution, the Islamists are clearly the most organized, as they were during the Iranian revolution in 1979, and as they are across the Arab world today. To ensure that neither the Islamist theocrats nor the regime autocrats gain power, the West must support a genuine liberal democratic process in Tunisia.
The West now has an opportunity to ensure a political transition in the Arab world resulting in neither theocracy nor autocracy. The former has been a force for instability to both Arab states and Europe while the latter creates the façade of stability but ultimately gives way to great tumult.
Hayri Abaza is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Jonathan Schanzer is the vice president of research at FDD