Tunisian democracy: To hope or despair?

Kamel Labidi calls for Western states to walk the walk and urge Ben Ali not to run again in 2009:

Tunisian democracy: To hope or despair?

The policy of repression, compounded by confiscation of public property and murky privatization deals by Ben Ali's relatives and cronies, has prompted many Tunisians to take steps publicly to help stop the degradation of what used to be a well-managed economy and educational system. "Tunisia needs us," says Mahmoud bin Romdhane, an economist and former chair of Amnesty International Tunisia. His diagnosis of the Tunisian economy is alarming, but seems to reflect that there is still hope to push Tunisia forward on the road to democracy.

Thousands of competent professionals and committed human rights and political activists of different leanings are eager and able to help lead reform Tunisia. Tunisians and foreign observers who believe that the country is one of the best candidates to become democratic argue that it is the responsibility of Ben Ali's friends in the European Union and the United States to advise him not to run for the presidency in 2009 and to start paving the way for a democratic transition.

But this would mean Western states will have to believe that Tunisians and Arabs in general deserve to live in democratic societies. The Westerners must also be able to address, and to accept, the sometimes dangerous consequences of compelling dictators like Ben Ali to take the healthy initiative of ceding power. Will they go through with it?
The odd thing is that it's not like Tunisia provides a strategic service to Western powers -- aside from intelligence on radical Islamists and torture services -- so what's the cost of providing a little push? Ben Ali is as deserving of Western pressure as any of the dictators whose names are well-known in European countries. Just because Tunisia is a small country does not mean it's not worth the effort.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.