Alfred de Montesquiou/AP Images

Recently deposed Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his wife, Leila, greeting supporters in an affluent Carthage neighborhood near the capital, Tunis, October 2009

Dictators do not usually die in bed. Successful retirement is always a problem for them, and not all solve it. It is a problem for everybody else when they leave. What’s to be done afterward? The popular uprising that overturned the dictatorial Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali regime in Tunisia in mid-January sent a thrill of hope through Arab populations.

Aside from the exceptional and complex case of Lebanon, Arab nations have since the demise of the Ottoman Empire mostly suffered from European quasi empire, their own exploitative military and party dictatorships, and recently, hereditary family dictatorships, a reversion to absolute monarchy in secular guise. The dream of a united independent Arab nation to replace the Ottomans was destroyed by World War I peace settlements, which left the major Arab peoples in European empires as mandated states under the League of Nations.

Following World War II and the Suez fiasco, in the cold war setting of the American alliance with Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel, the region found itself dominated by Israeli arms and American support for existing regimes. The rise and subsequent failure of Colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser’s Arab Socialism in Egypt and Yemen did not interrupt most of the region’s political passivity, and Egypt itself, after the Camp David accords in 1978, became an American client state. This calm was disturbed only by the Iranian popular overthrow of the Shah, communal turbulence in Lebanon, and then the Gulf War and American invasion of Iraq.

However, the last began a chain of anti-American resistance and anti-status-quo movements that now have found explosive expression, casting the regional order into doubt. The Tunisian revolt has been followed by popular anti-regime protests and violence in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities, in which four people died on January 25. At least six people have attempted immolation in recent days in Egypt and there have been similar acts in Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, and Saudi Arabia. More than 90,000 Egyptians signed up on Facebook to participate in the January 25 rallies (CNN estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 took part), which despite a government ban resumed on the 26th, with calls for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. And on January 27, over 15,000 protesters marched in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, demanding that President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down.

The immolations of recent days in the region, one of them by a woman, have been motivated by the presumed hope to inspire in their countries what a despairing Tunisian provincial fruit and vegetable vendor—who was trying to support his widowed mother and seven siblings and was humiliated by a slap in the face by a policewoman—accomplished when he immolated himself on December 17, igniting the Tunisian uprising. His photo is now everywhere in Tunisia—in the places where Ben Ali’s portrait used to be.

The meaning of this is that the old order has been challenged, at the least badly shaken, and possibly dealt a fatal blow. Typical of that American-endorsed order was the deposed Tunisian president Ben Ali, who spent the first part of his career as a promising young army officer. This led him into intelligence and security, always a highway to success in the contemporary Arab world. He attended courses at the French military academy of Saint-Cyr and the US Army Intelligence School at Fort Holabird in Maryland. His 1987 succession to the Tunisian presidency—in the “medical coup” that followed when Habib Bourguiba, the republic’s founder (in 1957) become president-for-life, was too enfeebled to carry on—was reportedly arranged collaboratively by Italian and Algerian intelligence. According to some experts, the French, former colonial rulers of the country, and the CIA were not directly involved, but they soon took a proprietary interest in the regime that followed.

Even conventional reform backfires. Ben Ali’s economic and educational reforms produced the best-educated and most prosperous of the Maghreb states (which also include Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Mauritania), but resulted in an overqualified and underemployed population of young people and a restless and frustrated middle class who contributed crucially to his downfall.

After he took power in 1987, Ben Ali quadrupled the number of police to some 600,000 while largely ignoring the army, which numbers fewer than 30,000 men, leaving it underequipped (only a dozen or so helicopters) with an officer corps republican in sentiment (according to a former French ambassador to Tunis, the Admiral Jacques Lanaxde), and “not an army given to coups d’états…a moderating and stabilizing element.” The army did not join in the repression of the uprising and according to credible sources advised Ben Ali on January 14 that he had a three-hour window of air traffic space in which to leave, and should use it.


His wife and her immediate family were associated during the Ben Ali period with a rapacious personal enrichment that played a large part in the ruling family’s popular repudiation. According to the French press, thirty-three members of the families of the former president and his wife have been arrested. It is a familiar story. In Western countries, where enrichment is also prized, captains of industry and finance, and millionaire politicians and their second (or more) wives, are usually more discreet.

At this writing, efforts to construct a transitional Tunisian government are going badly, since the public, having—to their astonishment—got rid of Ben Ali, now seem unwilling to see him replaced by his former associates or unfamiliar figures from an opposition that mostly has existed in exile.

This, traditionally, is where a would-be Napoleon steps in, although the army in Tunisia has fairly successfully kept its hands clean during the regime’s rise and fall. The hope is that fair elections will take place after opposition groups, including exiles, have a reasonable amount of time in which to organize themselves. But next-door Algeria, during its years of military rule, Libya under the grotesque Colonel Qaddafi, and Egypt’s now-challenged Hosni Mubarak (with an ambitious son) provide deplorable precedents for the succession hoped for by those Arab elites who want to believe that events in Tunisia are the dawn of a new future. Hundreds of imprisoned Islamists have been released. There were new demonstrations in Tunis and in provincial cities on January 21, demanding that officials associated with the Ben Ali regime leave the government.

Rached Ghannouchi, past leader of Tunisia’s Islamic movement, who has been in exile in London for twenty years, plans to return not to claim the presidency but to name candidates for the legislative elections proposed for July. Eric Gobe, one of the leading French experts on the Arab and Muslim world, thinks the Islamists may become the largest party in the legislature but without an absolute majority, noting that the generations educated under Ben Ali may have no wish to see him replaced by a religious dictatorship.

This is a situation ripe for American intervention, as urgently recommended last week by The New York Times, which said that Washington should warmly congratulate the Tunisian people, “help organize voter rolls and monitor the election…,” and offer “modest economic help.” This could only have been written in total blindness to what has been going on in the Islamic world during the past decade. Another page of the same newspaper offers a sympathetic interview with a moderate Tunisian Islamist leader, Ali Larayedh, who talks about enlarged views of the West in his party, and “a uniquely liberal version of Islamic politics.” However, he has no apologies for past calls for violence against American interests in the region, and makes clear his hostility to continuing American interference in Arabic countries and support for dictatorships, including the one just ousted in Tunisia.

Surely it should be clear that any American effort to become the foreign patron of a new Tunisian government would fatally compromise existing moderate forces, further radicalize the Islamic movement, and polarize what at present seems a promising situation. Neither Tunisia nor the United States needs another American political-military intervention in the Islamic world—opening still another front.

And what about Laurent Gbagbo in the Ivory Coast? Former member of the Socialist International, helped toward power by French Socialists during the Mitterrand presidency, he contends (or at least his evangelical Protestant wife contends) that God sent him to rule the Ivory Coast, no matter what internationally supervised presidential elections last month, the United Nations, the African Union, and various foreign countries have to say about the electoral victory of his long-time rival Alassane Ouattara. His French lawyers want a recount.

He still controls the seat of government in Abidjan and his supporters roam the city. The internationally recognized president is besieged by Gbagbo’s army and volunteers in the luxury Hôtel du Golfe, living on provisions helicoptered in by the UN force in the country, which, like the African Union troops to which it is officially allied, excuses itself and backs off when bands of Gbagbo-supporting youths block roads and tell it to go away. One of the French journalists there, who was also in the Balkans in the 1990s, calls the UN troops “extravagantly useless.”

But if the UN were to go about installing leaders by force in various countries, no matter how just the cause, there would be hell to pay elsewhere, including the United States. Hasn’t the American right wing been explaining for years that the UN, instigated by liberal elites and the “left-wing” New York Times, is waiting to send its black helicopters to arrest American patriots and install aliens and androids in high Washington office? It could be practicing in Africa.


Gbagbo has the support of a solid ethnic bloc of some 45 percent of the electorate, whereas Ouattara, a Muslim with a French wife, is supported by heterogeneous minorities and by foreigners. Gbagbo is playing the nationalist and anticolonialist cards—he aspires to be president-for-life, no longer a promising ambition.

January 27, 2011

The NYRblog ( has published an eyewitness account of the January 25 protests in Cairo, “‘Hosni Mubarak, the Plane Is Waiting,'” by Yasmine El Rashidi, January 26, 2011.

—The Editors

This Issue

February 24, 2011