In conventional thinking about the Middle East, perhaps the most persistent cliché is "moderate Arab country." The label seems to apply indiscriminately to monarchies and republics, ancient dictatorships and newly installed ones, from the Atlantic Coast to the Persian Gulf, so long as the country in question is of some use to the United States. And, almost always, it crops up in articles and policy papers vaunting the need for America to support these countries, bulwarks against growing Islamic extremism in the Arab world.
A perfect example is Tunisia. Just three summers ago, Christopher Hitchens delivered a 2,000-word ode to the North African nation in Vanity Fair, describing it as an "enclave of development" menaced by "the harsh extremists of a desert religion." This is a country with good economic growth, a country where polygamy was outlawed in 1956, a country with high levels of education, a country with perfect sandy beaches. And, Hitchens wrote, it "makes delicious wine and even exports it to France."
Never mind that the president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, in power for twenty-three years, was regularly winning elections with 90 percent of the vote. Never mind that his wife, Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser, had a stake in almost all of the country’s businesses. Never mind that the unemployment rate among college graduates was reportedly as high as 20 percent. Never mind that there was a police officer for every forty adults and that the Internet was censored. In January all these things added up, making the ouster of Ben Ali seem not only possible but probable, and later inevitable.
The Tunisian uprising began on December 17, when Mohammed Bouazizi—a college graduate eking out a living selling vegetables whose unlicensed cart was confiscated by the police—set himself on fire, an act of desperation that inspired the country’s thousands of unemployed graduates to take to the streets in protest. Despite severe police repression—arrests, beatings and murders—the protests continued for several weeks, spreading from Bouazizi’s hometown of Sidi Bouzid to the rest of the country and culminating on January 14, when Ben Ali and his family fled the country.
What is striking about the Tunisian revolution is how little attention it received in the mainstream American press. The Washington Post mentioned the protests for the first time on January 5, two and a half weeks into the unrest, when it ran a wire report about the burial of Bouazizi. Time ran its first piece about the protests later yet, on January 12. Even those who, like Thomas Friedman, specialize in diagnosing the ills of the "Arab street" did not show much interest.
When the mainstream press finally paid attention, it was often to explain the success of the Tunisian revolution in terms of technology. "Tunisian Protests Fueled by Social Media Networks," read one typical headline, from CNN. Was it Twitter, which allowed activists to communicate swiftly and widely with one another? Was it YouTube, where videos of protesters and police abuse were posted? Or was it WikiLeaks, whose cables revealed that Ben Ali and his entourage were mind-bogglingly corrupt? But Twitter seemed to be most helpful in keeping those of us outside the country informed, since few in the Western media were reporting the story; YouTube was censored in the country; and WikiLeaks didn’t reveal anything that the Tunisian people did not already know.
In contrast, the Iran uprising of 2009 captured much of the American media’s attention. The Atlantic‘s Andrew Sullivan posted videos, tweets and eyewitness accounts during the weekend following the Iranian elections. William Kristol took to the pages of the Washington Post to applaud the brave protesters. In The Weekly Standard Michael Goldfarb urged the president to speak up for the Iranians on the street. Although Twitter, YouTube and Facebook were used widely to disseminate information, Ahmadinejad remained in power, highlighting the limits both of social networks and foreign media in affecting internal developments.
The Tunisian revolution occurred thanks primarily to the men and women who protested despite the intimidation, beatings, tear gas and bullets. The death of Bouazizi, the refusal of Gen. Rachid Ammar to obey Ben Ali’s orders to shoot, the arrest of dissident Hamma Hammami and the solidarity of trade unions and professionals with college students—all these factors played an incremental role in keeping the momentum going. In this modern revolution, the protesters had access to Internet tools that made it easier for them to get the word out, but those tools on their own could not topple a dictator.
The initial lack of interest by the American press in the Tunisian protests may have something to do with the fact that there was no Islamic angle: the Tunisians were not trying to oust an Islamic regime, nor were they supporters of a religious ideology. In other words, this particular struggle for freedom was not couched in simple terms that are familiar to the Western media—Islam, bad; America, good—so it took a while for our commentariat to notice.
While Tunisia, the poster child of a "moderate Arab country," was in revolt against tyranny, the French foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, suggested to the Assemblée Nationale that, as part of the cooperation between the two countries, French troops could be sent to help stamp out the protests. The minister of culture, Frédéric Mitterrand, said that calling Tunisia a dictatorship was an exaggeration. Yet after Ben Ali was ousted, President Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly refused him entry into France. In a final irony, the dictator who had been praised in the West as a bulwark against Islamic extremism ran off to Saudi Arabia for safe haven.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was on a tour of Gulf countries, lectured Arab states about the need for democratic reforms but scrupulously refrained from mentioning the Tunisian protests. The only official statement from President Obama came after Ben Ali had been ousted. Perhaps the Obama administration remained quiet because it had learned from its experience with Iran that it is best to let internal matters play out. Or perhaps it was a stunned silence at the realization that all the conventional thinking about the Arab world is wrong and that a popular revolution against tyranny can occur without American involvement.
The reverberations of the Tunisian revolution were felt almost immediately, when Muammar el-Qaddafi scolded Tunisians that they should have had the patience to wait for Ben Ali to step down in 2014 and warned them about civil chaos. Of course, this was a warning to the Libyan people, who might feel inspired to topple their own tyrant. In Mauritania and Egypt—yes, two other "moderate Arab countries"—copycat self-immolations are creating deepening worry. And in Jordan the government has hurriedly put together a plan to lower the price of fuel and basic commodities.
It is too early to tell whether Mohamed Ghannouchi’s interim government will be democratic. The appointment of the activist Slim Amamou as state secretary for youth and sports seems inspired, but the inclusion of several Ben Ali allies, particularly at the Interior Ministry, does not make for an auspicious start. Nor does the exclusion of parties banned under Ben Ali. The Tunisian people do not yet seem content with the government that is shaping up, and there are reports of continuing protests. The revolution is not over. In fact, it may have just begun.
The Tunisian people are expecting justice for those who died, free and fair elections, and a new political order. But the three biggest lessons of their uprising have already been delivered far and wide. To the Arab dictators: you are not invincible. To the West: you are not needed. And to the Arab people: you are not powerless.