India Today - - BY WORD - by M.J. AK­BAR

The Arab Spring is a re­bel­lion on the cusp of be­com­ing a rev­o­lu­tion. It started as a sud­den upris­ing ten months ago in Tu­nisia. Last Sun­day it took its first stride into the fu­ture when Tu­nisia held its first free elec­tions. The last time Tu­nisians “voted”, in 1994, in­tel­li­gence agents checked bal­lots and ar­rested those who had not stamped the bal­lot in favour of their pre­ferred dic­ta­tor Zine al-abidine Ben Ali. On Oc­to­ber 23 thou­sands of can­di­dates from 80 po­lit­i­cal par­ties sought a place in the new Con­stituent Assem­bly.

A rev­o­lu­tion, as has been fa­mously ob­served, is not a tea party; a re­bel­lion even less so. Peace­ful tran­si­tion in Tu­nisia and war in neigh­bour­ing Libya il­lus­trate an old fact: it is up to the an­cien regime to de­ter­mine the dif­fer­ence. Ben Ali un­der­stood that he had cheated his peo­ple long enough, and dis­ap­peared into ex­ile with his pot of gold. Libyans would have given Muam­mar Gaddafi gold enough, and his ret­inue of nurses plus an Ital­ian foot­ball team for his vi­cious sons, as farewell gifts if they had left qui­etly. In­stead the mega­lo­ma­niac Gaddafi de­cided that Libyans were rats who should be ex­ter­mi­nated.

I am sur­prised that any­one is sur­prised at the man­ner of Gaddafi’s death. What did we ex­pect the rebels to do? Of­fer Gaddafi but­tered scones and an air­line ticket to Geneva while the clock struck four at Grantch­ester? Lenin un­der­stood the dan­ger­ous ro­mance of nos­tal­gia fanned by dis­pos­sessed elites, par­tic­u­larly the me­dia, and their abil­ity to idolise false mem­ory. He knew the halo of death can ob­scure the ob­vi­ous and did not waste much sym­pa­thy on the Ro­manovs. Libyans had none for the despotic, avari­cious fam­ily that turned a na­tion’s re­sources into per­sonal wealth, ruled by de­cree and ter­ror and tor­tured any­one who op­posed them till its dy­ing day.

There is al­ways some dis­tance be­tween a first step and desti­na­tion but if Tu­nisia’s elec­tion be­comes a mo­ment of true lib­er­a­tion it will shape the con­tours of the 21st cen­tury. Ex­actly a hun­dred years ago, a group of army of­fi­cers known as the Young Turks launched the mid-east­ern Mus­lim world’s first search for moder­nity on the deathbed of the Ot­toman em­pire, but his­tory dumped this op­por­tu­nity into the blood-soaked dust­bin of the First World War. This move­ment rein­vented it­self, un­der Mustafa Ke­mal, as a Turk­ish res­ur­rec­tion. The Arab ter­ri­to­ries of the Caliphate re­lapsed into feu­dal neo-coloni­sa­tion or, later, into the mi­rage of of­fi­cer sul­tans who promised so­cial­ism and jus­tice but de­liv­ered tyranny. Gaddafi was Libya’s ver­sion of this cor­ro­sive delu­sion.

It is en­tirely in or­der that the party ex­pected to win Tu­nisia’s polls, En­nahda, of­fers Turkey as its role model. Its leader Rachid al-ghan­nouchi, is clear about his vi­sion: a durable, plu­ral democ­racy which pro­tects mi­nori­ties and prom­ises women equal­ity in ed­u­ca­tion and em­ploy­ment and the free­dom to wear or re­ject a head scarf if they so choose to. This, nat­u­rally, is suf­fi­cient to in­vite the ap­pendage “mod­er­ate Is­lamist”, as if that were a vaguely ac­cept­able but not quite de­sir­able sort of crime. I await the day when the great lib­eral news­pa­pers of Europe and Amer­ica call the Chris­tian Democrats “mod­er­ate Chris­tists” or Amer­ica’s Repub­li­can Party a “Bi­b­li­cist Planet Coali­tion”.

The Arab fu­ture will be rough, as free­dom also en­ables the re­lease of poi­sons in the store­house of the de­feated es­tab­lish­ments. Egypt has al­ready wit­nessed vi­o­lence against Cop­tic Chris­tians. But com­mu­nal ri­ots con­tin­ued in In­dia af­ter free­dom with­out de­rail­ing the na­tion’s com­mit­ment to democ­racy. It took a cen­tury to reach from the Young Turks to Elec­tion Sun­day; it will take per­haps a decade for the demo­cratic rev­o­lu­tion to be­come durable.

His­tory is not an even story. A life­time may de­serve noth­ing more than a foot­note, and a year that en­er­gises an epoch could re­quire many vol­umes to com­pre­hend. The last year has been a stir­ring chap­ter but the book is still be­ing writ­ten. Dic­ta­tors need paid chron­i­clers. Tu­nisia’s nar­ra­tive be­longs to 30year-old Amin Ghouba who told The New York Times on polling day: “To­day is the day of in­de­pen­dence. To­day we got our free­dom and our dig­nity from the sim­ple act of vot­ing.”

Democ­racy is dig­nity.

There is al­ways some dis­tance be­tween a first step and desti­na­tion but if Tu­nisia’s elec­tion be­comes a mo­ment of true lib­er­a­tion it will shape the con­tours of the 21st cen­tury.

SAU­RABH Singh/­di­a­to­day­im­

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