The weakness of Tunisia’s Islamist opposition also makes it difficult to forecast how other Middle Eastern regimes would react to similar protests. It is unthinkable, for example, that Mubarak would not choose to crack down more viciously on protesters given the very real possibility that, if overthrown, Egypt would become an Islamist state. Given the unique nature of Tunisian society, observers hoping that Ben Ali’s fall will portend a similar fate for other Arab autocrats may be left waiting a lot longer than they might now think. ~Michael Koplow
As I was saying yesterday, Islamism is not what anyone needs to worry about in Tunisia. That could suggest that Tunisia will move towards something more closely resembling representative government more quickly and with less opposition from the military. The existing state institutions will not feel obliged to quash the political goals of the majority for secularist ideological reasons. They might decide to quash those goals for reasons of preserving economic privileges and power, but that’s a different story. The Kemalist and early Arab nationalist states were secular and modernizing states, and they were necessarily authoritarian because the broad majority of their nations were reluctant to embrace secularization and modernization to the same degree as the nationalist leaders. Tunisia does not have the same secular-religious tension that has defined the evolution of the Turkish and Arab nationalist republics, so as Koplow says the nature of Tunisian society is not at stake in the same way that it might be in other Arab countries.
Indeed, what can we say? In the past, we’ve said one of two things: First, that this form of leadership is part of Arabic culture and tradition and is, therefore, broadly accepted by Arabs in ways it wouldn’t be by anyone else. Second, that the democratic option would inevitably lead to rule by radical Islamists, and that the besuited fellows whose pictures adorn the wall of every room are the alternative.
That’s true, but what if at least one of those two “myths” is true in most other cases? Yesterday, I said, “If you are strongly committed to the idea that the only alternative to Arab authoritarian regimes is Islamist radicalism, Tunisia creates a problem for you.” Yes, it creates a problem for people making this argument, but it may be one that is overcome more easily than I originally thought. If Tunisian Islamism isn’t a factor in Tunisian politics right now because of almost fifty-five years of secular authoritarianism, and if Tunisia is fairly unique in this regard, that could oddly enough use the Tunisian example to argue for preserving the status quo elsewhere.