Advancing a Free Society

Taking Sides in the Tunisian Crisis

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tunisias’s “President” has been overthrown. Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali controlled Tunisia and its people for twenty three years, creating “stability” by developing a repressive police state. He was forced from power by protesters in the streets and the refusal of his military chief to shoot his countrymen and women. General Ammar refused his presidents order to fire on protesters, and individual soldiers stepped in to prevent security forces from doing so, precipitating Mr. Ben Ali’s departure from power.

Rather than take control of the country, as has so often been the case in Tunisia’s neighborhood (think of Colonel Qadaffi in Libya, Colonel Saddam Hussein in Iraq, General Hafez al-Assad in Syria), General Ammar left the business of governing to civilians. This is a huge and hopeful sign for Tunia.

The transition to democracy is difficult, as our own experience illustrates. When our democracy was new, the formation of political parties was the thorniest and most vituperative transition – one that brought out the worst in many of our revered founding fathers. As historian Joseph Ellis nicely captures it, the men of the revolutionary era had no language other than accusations of treason to describe deep political differences.

As we shifted from rebellion to governing, those differences emerged and made political discourse in the Adams and Jefferson Adminstrations particularly spiteful. The Alien and Sedition Acts were an effort to set boundaries on the debate; instead they left an enduring stain on the presidency of John Adams. And we know about Jefferson’s children by Sally Hemings because the same writer he hired to defame Alexander Hamilton bit the hand that fed him.

Much may yet go wrong as Tunisia charts the difficult course from enforced stability toward representative government. But true stability – the strength of a foundation set on the belief that government has responsibility to those it governs – has a chance to be established in Tunisia because the military leadership had the decency not to shoot the public it is charged with protecting, and the restraint not to seize power.

Thus is it especially disappointing that as protests were occurring, Secretary Clinton declared the United States “was not taking sides,” even as she criticized in general corruption in the so-called Arab world. We should always take sides with peaceful protesters seeking to make their government responsive. The people of Tunisia deserve better from us.

(photo credit: nene9)