What we see now in Tunisia is wondrous with dangerous challenges and potential for beauty or catastrophe, democracy or theocracy, peaceable liberation or bloodbath. The forces working to undermine this uprising, which has already succeeded in deposing President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (who ruled since 1987 as a dictator in practice) in what is being called the Jasmine Revolution (for the national flower and the general nonviolent conduct of the protesters), are numerous and both internal and external. Statements of support are sometimes genuine, sometimes superficial, and the whole affair makes the powerful very nervous. When those in power are jumpy, everyone else is at risk.
Reporters, reflecting this general fret, seem to be sure to inquire on the ground or in interviews via phone, What about fundamentalists? Is this an Islamist revolution? The subtext is always, Will this former client state of the US now be on the side of the terrorists? Will we see a state that violates human rights like Iran? A nonviolent revolution is great, but is the result going to be even more polarizing than the original problem?
Tunisia is, after all, the most northern country in Africa, on the Mediterranean Sea, and has a long history of complex conflict with Europe, including the Punic Wars with the Roman empire that resulted in some of the earliest environmental warfare when Cato the Elder convinced his Romans to attempt to make Carthage more like the Sahara to the south, by salting the fields to make agriculture impossible.
That failed, and Tunisia has long been an agricultural exporting nation from its northern fertile farmlands. Massive corruption, proven by recent Wikileaks documents showing the enormous flow of resources to the Ben Ali clan, may have been the final triggering bit that brought so many thousands into the streets in what became a de facto general strike.
Part of the shakiness of the West is that, following the Lebanese civil war of 1982, Tunisia hosted Yassir Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which is certainly related to the jubilation amongst the citizens of Gaza that has been so widely reported recently. The other anti-democratic governments in the region and in the rest of the Arab world are frightened too, even those hostile to the West, such as Syria, whose leader squeaked out his latest victory in the polls with just 97.6 percent of the counted votes. That kind of democracy, the kind with one party on the ballot and your thumbprint alongside any write-in vote, is indeed threatened by the kind of Jasmine Revolution in the neighborhood. Indeed, from Saudi Arabia to Syria, Arab dictatorships have suddenly decided to lift some austerity measures and have been more generous to their people. Thus, whatever happens, the Tunisians have already helped common folk throughout the region.
May the flowers of nonviolent revolution continue to blossom in peaceful turmoil.