Five years ago, I spent a week in Tunisia covering a United Nations conference on the “information society”; my interest was the U.N.’s attempt to wrest control of the Internet’s “plumbing” away from a U.S.-based non-profit. In some ways, the country was much more modern than the rest of the Muslim world: You were more likely to see a Tunisian woman walking down the streets of Tunis wearing a tank top and tight jeans than wearing a burqa (although, as my wife observed, you saw fewer and fewer local women out in public as evening approached). At the same time, outside the sprawling but remote grounds of the conference, the ubiquitous Tunisian police made it clear that the U.N.’s presence didn’t mean more freedom for the press, even temporarily.
The only thing rivaling the ubiquity of the police — uniformed and plain-clothes — were the photographs of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. His grip on power seemed, to an outsider, unshakable.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that the longtime dictator fled the country today in the face of mass popular protests.
It’s hard to tell, just by reading various press accounts, what will come next. Having the army take over a police state from a dictator may not be progress in the short term. In the not-too-long term, though, Middle East expert Elliot Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations suggests Tunisia has a good shot at establishing a durable democracy. Let’s hope so, because that would be a very good development in a part of the world expected to see significant political upheaval in the coming years.
In any case, any time an event like this one happens, I think it’s worth remembering how few of us in the world get an actual say in who leads our government — and celebrating the possibility of adding to our ranks.