Will the Jasmine Revolution that toppled Tunisian strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali create more political freedom and liberty for Tunisia's people? Or could it pave the way for creation of an Islamist-dominated state that imposes harsh new curbs on civil liberties and political freedom? Writing at Slate.com, veteran journalist Christopher Hitchens suggests that the jury is still out.
Visiting Tunisia in 2008, Hitchens said the regime "was publicly dedicated to modernity and secularism and development" but "didn't really trust its citizens to be grown-ups." The country had had just two leaders since winning independence from France in 1956: Ali and the man he overthrew 24 years ago, President Habib Bourgiba, who spent close to 31 years in power.
Ali won elections with as much as 90 percent of the vote, and pictures of him were plastered everywhere one looked.
"Still, it wasn't as if Tunisia had a massive and wasteful military or an exorbitant dictator who named every building after himself," Hitchens writes. "When compared to its immediate neighbors, Libya and Algeria, the country had done relatively well in avoiding the extremes of megalomaniacal despotism a la Muammar Qaddafi and full-blown civil war (which in Algeria's case took the lives of almost 150,000 people.)" When a synagogue was bombed by al-Qaida in 2002, the government moved quickly to express solidarity with the victims and to rebuild.
One reason that Tunisians were able to mobilize so swiftly against the Ali regime "was simply that they knew they could. There was scant likelihood of the sort of all-out repression and bloodshed that was met by, say, the protesters against the Iranian mullahs," according to Hitchens.
During his 2008 visit to Tunisia, Hitchens met with Mongia Souahi, a theology professor who argued that the Koran did not require women to wear a veil. Souahi's reasoning was denounced by Rachid al-Ghannouchi, an exiled Tunisia Islamist who declared her a kuffar, or unbeliever.
"This, as everyone knows, is the prelude to declaring her life to be forfeit as an apostate," writes Hitchens, who notes that the New York Times referred to Ghannouchi and his Hizb al-Nahda group as "progressive." Ghannouchi reportedly is returning to Tunisia after years in exile in London.
Thus far, the Jasmine Revolution has been relatively free of Islamist tinges. But Ghannouchi's looming presence and the rise of groups like Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb serve as a reminder that its future remains undecided.