Tunisia and the Frozen Sunset of History
January 20, 2011

110118 Tunisia unity government unravels 07 | ...
Image by magharebia via Flickr

I welcome the overthrow of an authoritarian thug as much as the next guy, but I would caution Peter Beinart to take a deep breath and count to ten before declaring Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution a victory for the end-of-history crowd. For one thing, the dust hasn’t quite settled yet. Messrs. Henry and Springborg write:

When Chief of Staff General Rachid Ammar refused to order his troops to fire on demonstrators, President Ben Ali had no choice but to flee. Thus the military has emerged from the wreckage of the post-colonial state with its good reputation further enhanced. It provides, therefore, a potential political base for a new regime. Given the paucity of viable political organizations after a generation of repression under Ben Ali, the scenario of a military caretaker government is not out of the question. One but need recall that Nasser’s Revolutionary Command Council was initially presented as such to know how such caretaker status can become permanent.

The further temptation to open the state’s coffers may be difficult to resist. Indeed, then Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, two days before the regime fell, sought to quell discontent by announcing a dramatic increase in governmental jobs for young graduates. Since it is they who sparked the Jasmine Revolution, they can now reasonably expect rewards yet more generous than Ghannouchi promised.

So the political ingredients for a new authoritarian populist regime are present. It would be history as farce, however, were Tunisia, and possibly others in the Arab world, to squander its revolutionary opportunity by going back to the future in this fashion. But the task of building a new political order that can provide democracy and development is, if anything, even more challenging than it was for the immediate post-colonial political elites.

If there’s any lesson to be drawn from Tunisia, then we’ll probably have to wait a few months or even years before we can even properly disagree over its content. But in the meantime, here’s a lesson we’ve already learned many times over: infant democracies are exceedingly fragile things. Especially when there aren’t many stable institutions left over from the old regime that can be used as building blocks. And especially if the populace doesn’t have much in the way of bread or security. Extraordinary counterexamples aside, I think this works as a general maxim about human nature: the will to freedom is strong, but not as strong as the will to live.

Will that be a deciding factor in Tunisia? I have no clue. Color me cautiously optimistic, but cautiously.

But let’s say now that things go well. Does that lend greater credibility to the claim that democracy is an inexorable force that will eventually consume the globe and usher us into a glittering age of peace and prosperity? Nah. Don’t think so. My deep suspicion remains that the arc of history isn’t actually an arc but a semi-intelligible series of events. As much as we may try to divine an overarching theme from this series of events, none exists but blind causality. And history will only end when there’s no one left to take notes.

If I get frozen in carbonite, am thawed out several millennia from now, and I’m subsequently forced to admit I was wrong and apologize to the citizens of an Earth governed entirely by glittering liberal democracies, I will be overjoyed to do so. But in the meantime, I think the prudent thing to do is plan for a world in which I’m right, meaning a world in which the forces of history are not aligned in favor of human freedom and dignity. The smart optimist still wears a seatbelt, no?

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