• Richard Murff

Tunisian Gold, If They Can Keep It

It was always the long bet.

Every two (or so) years Mrs. M more or less commandeers the television for the Olympics. Its always couched as a polite, even sweet, request but it’s going to happen. I actually proposed during the 2008 Olympics and, I kid you not, was forced to repeat the offer.


I was watching the men’s 400 meter when I saw something odd at the corner of the screen. Namely that Ahmed Hafnaoui, the slowest swimmer to qualify for the finals, way over in lane eight, was actually overtaking the Australian and US favorites. On coming heads up out the water, the 18-year-old Tunisian seemed as shocked as anyone to be an Olympian gold medalist. Big moment for Ahmed. It should have been a big moment for Tunisia – that hallowed moment when the Arab Springs’ only success story could start to enjoy the sort of foolishness that stable societies consider “normal.”


Ahmed was a scant eight years only when, on 17 December 2010, a frustrated fruit vendor named Mohammed Bouzaizi lit himself on fire in front of a municipal building to protest abuse at the hands of the government and police. The blast radius of Bouzaizi’s act was huge and it changed the Arab world. In less than a month the country’s long-time dictator had fled and the country was trying to put together some form of a workable democracy. It was chaotic, but it was Tunisian. Because events took the world by surprise, and moved so fast, outside forces didn’t have time to come it to hijack events. That Tunisia’s revolution worked was largely a testament to not using foreign intervention. Success – such as it was – came largely from being left alone to hack it out unmolested. Like Ahmed’s surprised shock at finding himself a gold medal Olympian – Tunisian’s seemed shocked to find themselves in (somewhat) command of a democracy.


Other countries wouldn’t be so lucky. Iran – after the US invasion of Iraq was freed from the fear of both its regional rival, Iraq, by a US too entangled to be a threat. Regional chaos was in Iran’s interest, and now could funnel expeditionary and proxy forces to harness the movement to its own ends: Using Namely Islamist parties of varying extremities to shift the movement from a pro-democracy to an anti-western one. When the movement had spread next door to Libya, in February 2011, Iran had mobilized a game plan to hijack the movement.


A year after Tunisia first free elections – which put Islamists and secularist, as well as Western leaning free-market sorts and communist all in the same legislative body, I was in Benghazi. Tunisia was emerging as a qualified success story and Libya was in that surreal fade between revolution and civil war. The Libyans were still hopeful, and the major drift of the interviews I conducted was that beginnings were a tricky place. They are.


The United States first government, outlined by the Articles of Confederation, saw a Shay’s Rebellion triggered by a debt crisis before it was scrapped in 1789 after only eight years. Three years later, the new federal government saw the attempted succession of the Whiskey Rebellion and the next 60 years saw South Carolina (the last state to join the revolution) attempt to succeed twice the second time triggering the Civil War.


So, the gold medal of the Arab Spring Democracy, the only one to make to the podium, in fact, is having a tough go of it. Democracy is a high-flown and slippery concept. Most government’s falter on smaller issues like the economy, public services and the sort of blatant government graft that triggered the revolt in the first place – all of which has been ignored but the chattering political classes. What is happening in Tunisia is a reaction to the political classes. Tunisian’s elected a law college professor – a political outsider and independent, Kais Said – on the grounds that had no political experience in order to - whatever is the Arabic euphemism for “drain the swamp.” This, as we’ve recently learned, is also a tricky maneuver to execute well.


In his defense, Said is largely popular and appears to be incorruptible. Whether he’s a friend to democracy remains to be seen. The country has seen 10 presidents in ten years, so something must change. Said is within his right to take on emergency powers for 30 days – but hints that he might extended his special powers until “things settle down.” He is open about radical reform to the existing political system which included circumventing the willful political deadlock of the Prime Minister and Parliament – by increasing presidential power enough, he claims, to actually get something done. Here the man has a point, although his desire to abolish political parties is a little alarming.


Will Tunisian democracy land on its feet? The odds aren’t good, but then again neither were Ahmed Hafnaoui’s, and he’s wearing gold right now. The country’s best hope is that, like the first hours of the United States, by virtue of being in the far lane, they avoid outside intervention.