Tunisia, beware Lebanon's fate; Nation must safeguard precious gains and build a capable democracy

This article was written by Marwan Maalouf and originally published by New York Daily News.


Tunisians have achieved something unique in the Arab world: a sustained popular uprising that ousted a dictator. Despite the appearance of stability and economic reform, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's 23-year police state collapsed in almost as many days. And all this was done while the world's major democracies stood by silently. But celebration is premature - the challenge for Tunisians now is to safeguard their precious gains and build a capable democracy.

To do so, they will have to avoid succumbing to calls for unity and consensus. Governments of national unity - in which all parties are brought to the table - are an awkward stew of interests intended to prevent the tyranny of the majority. These have become the standard formula for dealing with sudden transitions to democracy, but they are diplomatic snake oil.

Instead of creating unity, democracy that is overly inclusive foments instability by giving succor to intolerant elements that threaten progress. Tunisians need look no further than Lebanon for a lesson.

Before Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution, there was Lebanon's 2005 Cedar Revolution. Following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in the spring of 2005, a quarter of the population took to the streets, forcing the end of years of Syrian control and military occupation.

But the Lebanese opposition soon squandered its success by joining a consensus government aimed at national unity. This compromise enabled entrenched political operators to regain power.

The past six years have seen armed conflict on the streets, interference from international players and endless delays in government formation. The government collapsed again last week, amid accusations of manipulation. The fruit of the vaunted Cedar Revolution has been paralysis.

Yet Lebanon, even more than Tunisia, appeared to be fertile ground for Arab democracy. Lebanese elections are considered free and fair and the country has the most open media in the Arab world.

In Tunisia, hope is high. "We have been destroyed by corruption and by an authoritarian system that neglected our basic freedoms. We want real justice and democracy," the Tunisian activist Sofiene Chourabi told me.

And yet Lebanon's nightmare could be Tunisia's future. The presence of former Ben Ali allies in influential posts could prevent the opposition from exerting power. Following Ben Ali's flight, Tunisia's political elite moved swiftly to form a government of national unity. This left six key ministerial posts, including those of interior and defense minister, in the hands of Ben Ali's cronies, while members of the opposition got lesser offices.

Nor did the resignation of five ministers in protest lead to the collapse of the national unity government, which had its first meeting on Wednesday.

Unsurprisingly, the Tunisian public has responded with hostility to the persistence of the old regime. Tunisians had turned out on the streets to remove an entire corrupt system that oppressed them, not just to expel a single figurehead. The political apparatus has to be replaced entirely. To avoid Lebanon's fate, Tunisians must turn their backs on false consensus in favor of true reform.

For a start, Tunisians would to well to ignore international advice for an inclusive government. Secretary of State Clinton said earlier this week that "the United States is encouraged by recent remarks by Prime Minister Ghannouchi and Interim President Mebazaa indicating a willingness to work with Tunisians across the political spectrum and within civil society to build a truly representative government." But that will only lead to more of the same, as has happened in Lebanon.

What Tunisians should do is demand a new constitution that enshrines pluralism and the unfettered right of any citizen to stand for election. And they should demand strict legislation on campaign finance: In Lebanon, funding from Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran has proven toxic to democracy. Tunisia's challenge may prove even greater, since it has many repressive neighbors who'd love to see its democratic experiment fail. It is only a matter of time before the pockets of Ben Ali loyalists are lined with foreign money.

Above all, Tunisians should demand that their elections deliver a meaningful result - a majority government with a mandate to actually govern.

In the memory of Mohamed Bouazizi - whose self-immolation sparked nationwide protests - and the more than 70 protesters who lost their lives during the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisia deserves better.


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