It is hard to believe only last month, on Jan. 14, the regime of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted by a people’s uprising, and while there have been numerous popular uprisings in Arab countries, this was the first that resulted in the overthrow of the regime and the beginning of a transition to democracy. The basic causes of the Tunisian Revolution were unemployment, poverty and a near-total lack of civil liberties. Many were forced to flee — often after torture and long prison terms — in fear of further persecution by Ben Ali and his security apparatus, which was much larger than Tunisia’s national army.

Earlier in the 20th century there was a vibrant civil society and a highly educated workforce in Tunisia. There were labor unions, active student groups and an Islamic movement. The nationalist leader and later, the first president and dictator for life, Habib Bourguiba, co-opted the independent activists and for thirty years manipulated politics and society to maintain power. In 1987, Ben Ali, who was Interior Minister, led a coup against Bourguiba and promised to restore democracy, human rights and civil liberties. Political prisoners were freed, and for a few months it seemed things had changed.

But soon Ben Ali was repressing all civil liberties to keep himself in power by rewarding the elites who collaborated with him. He created phony opposition parties and the real ones, the Islamic an-Nahda (Renaissance) Party and the Tunisian Community Workers’ Party (POCT), were suppressed with great brutality while France kept praising Tunisia for its commitment to human rights and economic development. The police were like a mafia. They followed journalists, student leaders, labor organizers and foreigners — anyone who might know or find out what was going on.

In 1993, I attended the Non-Governmental Forum of the United Nations world conference on human rights in Vienna. I came upon a table staffed by representatives from the Nahda party who were handing out mimeographed information. The next day they were gone, and in their place was a lavish table with expensively produced glossy brochures about women’s advances in Tunisia. A woman behind the table asked me to come forward, and suddenly Tunisian television cameras began to role. I walked away and a few minutes later returned to find the women, the table and the cameras had vanished. The sole purpose was to film the table for a few minutes and leave. Later, I ran into some of the Nahda people who told me Tunisian undercover agents had confiscated their materials, broken up their table and were going after them, even though they were at an international human rights forum in Vienna.

The West’s unconditional backing of Tunisia’s president — as an ally in the “war on terrorism” and an alternative to a potential Islamist threat — gave Ben Ali the freedom to act with impunity. After a few years of rapid economic growth in the early 1990s, the corruption of the ruling elite wrecked the banking and the financial sectors. Foreign investors gave up and the result was high unemployment among the educated youth. The corrupt elite ended the “Tunisian miracle” or “the country that worked.” Growing discontent with Ben Ali’s mafia and its intelligence apparatus started undermining the popular consensus that had put up with repression because the country worked — it no longer worked.

The revolution began with Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in the town of Sidi Bouzid who, disgruntled by a lack of economic opportunity, burned himself to death to protest the confiscation of his cart by government authorities. He was not the first, but the self-immolation was videotaped, posted online and spread around the country and the world. At the same time, WikiLeaks revealed U.S. embassy officials were reporting on the extent of governmental corruption and the repression of journalists and activist of all kinds. As noted by the U.S. embassy cables from American diplomats, the kleptocrats within Ben Ali’s clan coveted everything. The slogan of the protesters became “Employment, liberty and dignity.”

The police tried to stifle the uprising that followed Bouazizi’s death, but the military refused to act. On Jan. 17, the incumbent Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi announced a temporary national unity government. Elections were set for the first 60 days, followed by another six months later.

During the days of ruthless police suppression, the United States chose to remain silent. Only after the flight of Ben Ali did President Barack Obama come to applaud “the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people.” He eventually asked the interim government “to respect human rights and to hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people.” In a similar vein, on Jan. 23, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton telephoned the Tunisian Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi to reiterate U.S. support for Tunisia’s democratic transition.

The U.S. policymakers feared Tunisia would be taken over by Islamists if Ben Ali were to leave. Let us then turn to Rachid Ghannouchi, the long-time leader of the leading Islamist party, the Nahda. In an important interview with the Financial Times Ghannouchi said, “The first step of building a democratic system is to build a democratic constitution. For this we need a founding council for rebuilding the state, one in which political parties, the trade unions and the civil society join.”

When asked who would participate in the council, Ghannouchi spoke of the labor leaders, student activists and lawyers who led the protest marches. He said Nahda was part of the October 18 Movement — a coalition of the Progressive Democratic Party, the Tunisian Communist Workers Party, the Conference for the Republic and other human rights organizations — which was founded in 2005 to work for freedom of expression and association. The first principle was political pluralism. The second was the rights of women. The coalition called for freedom of conscience to make it clear Islamists would not accuse opponents of apostasy. He concluded by calling “for the Tunisia that we are working for, one in which women enjoy equality, people can establish and join any party and they have the freedom to believe any faith.”

He said in the early 1990s, the government had imprisoned 30,000 Nahda supporters and over 100 died or suffered torture in prison. And all that time, European leaders were supporting Ben Ali. Tunisia entered into an Association Agreement with the European Union. Ben Ali was manipulating elections and giving himself 99 percent of the vote. Europeans were willing to overlook that because Ben Ali presented his government as an ally against fundamentalism, an ally in the war on terror.

Ghannouchi pointed out that when Nahda was able to function in Tunisia there was no religious violence. Now there are hundreds of  Tunisians fighting in Afghanistan and Somalia. They didn’t have the opportunity to be part of a moderate Islamic movement.

Ghannouchi said his party was similar to that of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in Turkey, which is currently the ruling party. He said his books had been translated into Turkish, but he had no political aspirations. He said, “Some are presenting me as a Khomeini who will return to Tunisia — I am no Khomeini. I am nearing 70 years old and there are new generations inside Nahda more able and suited to political activism. I intend to concentrate my contribution to the development of Islamic thought and my involvement in the causes of the Muslim world, and I hope to dedicate the rest of my life for working towards these endeavors.”

He said that shortly after coming to Britain, he gave a lecture at Manchester University in which he stated that democracy should not exclude communists. At the time, this was rejected strongly by Islamists who saw it as accepting atheism. He said, “It is not ethical for us to call on a secular government to accept us, while once we get to power we will eradicate them. As the Prophet Muhammad said, one should wish for his brother what he wishes for himself. And Kant said you should use your behavior as your base for treating the rest of humanity.”

Ghannouchi said he thought Islamists now realized the danger of dictatorships and the benefits of democracy. And they have also realized the harm of Islamic regimes that are not democratic such as the model seen in Afghanistan under the Taliban and Islamist Sudan. He added that the Ikhwan, the largest Islamic movement, had accepted democratic principles and has since issued many papers on the principles of pluralism and political participation of women. He commented on a statement by the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt that there could not be a woman or a non-Muslim head of state. He disagreed with this position because he believed all citizens should be able to serve as head of state.

He later said Ibrahim Munir, Secretary General of the International Organization of the Muslim Brotherhood, had retracted that statement. Finally, he said several thousands of its members were accepted as political refugees in European countries — in France, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, Britain and almost all European countries, despite great pressure from Ben Ali who claimed these were extremists. Over 1,000 Nahda members had become citizens of Europe, involved in all aspects of life and working for the forces of Islamic moderation. He hoped they had not been a burden on Europe but rather a positive force.

A few days after Ben Ali left for exile in Saudi Arabia, Ghannouchi walked off the flight at Carthage airport, raised his arms in the air and cried out, “Allahhu Akbar.”

According to Reuters, “Thousands of Islamists came to the Tunis airport Sunday to welcome home Ghannouchi. They hugged each other and prayed publicly on the grass, which would not have been possible before the recent revolution. Up to 10,000 young men and veiled women packed the arrival hall and car park. Some climbed trees and electricity pylons to catch a glimpse of the 69-year-old Ghannouchi, who says he has no ambition to run for state office.”

Ghannouchi told the crowd, “Oh, great people who called for this blessed revolution, continue your revolution, preserve it and translate it into democracy, justice and equality.”

The overthrow of Ben Ali on Jan. 14 was not attributed to Islamist groups in the country, but it is likely to pave the way for Islamic groups to compete for power in Tunisia.

“The revolution in Tunisia has opened the way for long-suppressed Islamic groups such as Ennahda, which means renaissance, to emerge from hiding and begin pursuing their political agendas with an eye on elections scheduled to be held within six months. Ennahda’s leaders have quickly made their presence felt here,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

The Nahda and other political parties, even including the Communist Party, should be invited to participate in the upcoming elections.
Before its revolution, Tunisia had a reputation as an unusually European-like Arab country — Arab-like with French-speaking men wearing bouquets of jasmine (mashmoun) behind their ears. It was far from a central player in the region, but this has changed overnight. The revolution in Tunisia has changed the political equation in North Africa and the Middle East, and it has created a rapidly expanding movement that is antiauthoritarian and secular. The horrific events unfolding in Libya were unforeseen just a few days ago, and it is impossible to predict the future. However, we can say with confidence the region will never be the same again.