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.