Help­ing the Tu­nisian revo­lu­tion end well

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY ROBERT SAT­LOFF The writer is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Washington In­sti­tute.

Fu­eled by courage and des­per­a­tion, the peo­ple of Tu­nisia top­pled their au­thor­i­tar­ian govern­ment this month, send­ing a mes­sage of warn­ing to lead­ers of Arab states. The cit­i­zens of some of those states, most no­tably Egypt and Ye­men, have been study­ing this mes­sage and craft­ing their own.

In writ­ing a book and nar­rat­ing a film on what hap­pened in Arab lands dur­ing the Holo­caust, I have stud­ied Tu­nisia closely over the past decade. Only 90 miles from the south­ern tip of Italy, this small North African coun­try was the sole Arab state to suf­fer a full-fledged Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion dur­ing World War II. I have vis­ited the places where SS of­fi­cers rounded up Jews and sent them to con­cen­tra­tion camps.

Yet Tu­nisia was also where I found the most sto­ries of Arabs pro­tect­ing Jews dur­ing the war. As in Europe, these Mus­lim res­cuers were or­di­nary peo­ple per­form­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary acts — like the Tu­nis bath­house owner who hid a Jewish man in his ham­mam or the Mah­dia coun­try squire who shel­tered two dozen Jews on his farm. This moment in Tu­nisian his­tory — which had a much hap­pier end­ing for Jews than did events on the other side of the Mediter­ranean — gives hope that the cur­rent chaos will end rea­son­ably pos­i­tively.

Tu­nisia’s largely ho­moge­nous pop­u­la­tion has blended a 1,400-year-old Sunni Arab iden­tity with an or­ganic, deeply embed­ded con­nec­tion to Europe. Its cap­i­tal once ri­valed Beirut and Alexan­dria as the most cos­mopoli­tan Arab city, with large com­mu­ni­ties of Ital­ians, French, Bri­tish and Mal­tese in­ject­ing a heady mix of en­ergy and ideas into the lo­cal cul­ture.

One re­sult is that the Tu­nisian peo­ple have his­tor­i­cally sought en­gage­ment with the world and re­jected ex­treme ide­olo­gies, whether fas­cist, Nasserist or Is­lamist. This open­ness has en­abled Tu­nisia to es­cape the self-in­duced sav­agery and back­ward­ness, re­spec­tively, of neigh­bor­ing Al­ge­ria and Libya. Tu­nisia has its share of rad­i­cals, many of whom have re­cently made their way to the in­fantry of al-Qaeda and other move­ments, and the threat of re­li­gious ex­trem­ism is not fan­tasy, as some sug­gest. But the lo­cal Is­lamist move­ment, an-Nahda, is not poised to step in.

In­deed, most Tu­nisians ap­pear united in re­ject­ing or­ga­nized Is­lamism as the so­lu­tion to their po­lit­i­cal ills. Their cry is for free­dom, jus­tice and jobs, not the im­po­si­tion of sharia law. They seem to want to bring Tu­nisia’s pol­i­tics into the 21st cen­tury, not drag it back into the sev­enth.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion should be a full part­ner in this ef­fort. So far, it has con­grat­u­lated it­self for a hand­ful of pub­lic state­ments that, un­like the re­luc­tant Euro­peans, put the United States on the side of the street pro­test­ers. But there is much more for Washington to do, es­pe­cially if it wants to ad­vance the prospects of non-Is­lamist re­form move­ments tak­ing root in other Arab coun­tries.

First, the ad­min­is­tra­tion should en­dorse the in­clu­sion of all sec­u­lar po­lit­i­cal part­ners in Tu­nisia’s na­tional di­a­logue and up­com­ing elec­tions. While many left­ists and na­tion­al­ists may cri­tique spe­cific U.S. poli­cies, our in­ter­est in the suc­cess of the Tu­nisian peo­ple’s com­mit­ment to a sec­u­lar state, gov­erned by the rule of law and with a vi­brant civil so­ci­ety, trumps those dif­fer­ences. More­over, this sup­port for “dis­crim­i­nate democ­racy” — democ­racy for all but the Is­lamists — would pro­tect U.S. se­cu­rity in­ter­ests.

Sec­ond, we should back up this en­dorse­ment with funds for Amer­ica’s democ­racy-sup­port­ing in­sti­tu­tions, such as the Na­tional Demo­cratic In­sti­tute and the In­ter­na­tional Repub­li­can In­sti­tute, to launch a full-scale ef­fort to help Tu­nisia cre­ate an in­de­pen­dent elec­tion com­mis­sion and hold free and fair na­tional elec­tions, a first in an Arab coun­try. When that com­mis­sion is up and run­ning, Pres­i­dent Obama should dispatch re­spected pub­lic fig­ures, such as re­tired Supreme Court jus­tice San­dra Day O’Con­nor or for­mer sec­re­tary of state Madeleine Al­bright, to lead Amer­ica’s mis­sion to ob­serve the cam­paign and elec­tion.

Third, we should pro­pose now to open ne­go­ti­a­tions with the in­terim govern­ment over a pack­age of eco­nomic ini­tia­tives, from a new trade agree­ment to a Mil­len­nium Chal­lenge Corp. grant, which Tu­nisia nar­rowly missed get­ting last year be­cause of low marks on po­lit­i­cal rights and civil lib­er­ties. The United States will never sup­plant Europe as the dom­i­nant player in Tu­nisia’s econ­omy, but we should make clear that Tu­nisians’ leap into democ­racy earns eco­nomic div­i­dends.

Fourth, we should in­crease fund­ing for U.S. cul­tural out­reach, me­dia train­ing, ed­u­ca­tional ex­change and tech­no­log­i­cal up­grades to make In­ter­net ac­cess as broad as pos­si­ble through­out the coun­try. Af­ter Tu­nisia’s decades of po­lit­i­cal iso­la­tion, our great­est gift may be our abil­ity to mul­ti­ply Tu­nisians’ con­nec­tions to the rest of the world.

Seven years ago, over tea at his apart­ment, the revered grand rabbi of Tu­nis, the late Haim Madar, ex­plained to me that mod­ern Tu­nis was the bib­li­cal Tarshish, fa­mous as the place to which Jonah tried to flee to avoid the heav­enly mis­sion of warn­ing the peo­ple of Nin­eveh about their evil ways. He never ar­rived.

To­day, the U.S. task is to do what we can to help the Tu­nisian story end well and thereby help Arab lead­ers make de­ci­sions for re­form now so that a po­lit­i­cal le­viathan does not swal­low them— and us — in the fu­ture.

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