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Tunisia – Credit where credit is due

January 19, 2011

I don’t have anywhere near the expertise on recent events in Tunisia to add much primary analysis. If you’re looking for analysis on Tunisia and North Africa more generally in blogging form, and don’t already read The Moor Next Door, you really ought to click over and add that excellent blog to your regular reads.

Nevertheless, precisely because of the historical surprise of the Arab street successfully – so far – removing a strongman, latecomers in the Western commentariat have been scrambling to explain the remarkable sequence of events that unfolded in Tunis in recent weeks. Unfortunately, Westerners seem far more interested in finding ways to give themselves credit than understanding the local political circumstances at play.

In extreme form, and from the right, this is where Jennifer Rubin’s ideological self-congratulation comes in:

The Obama administration needs to think long and hard about how it can convert its occasional rhetorical flourishes into concrete polices that can assist democracy advocates not only in Tunisia, but in Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere. If Obama wants to do some more productive “Muslim Outreach,” he should stop trying to ingratiate himself with despotic leaders and show that America is, and will continue to be, on the side of those yearning for freedom.

Don’t ask what exactly President Bush had to do with weakening secular or anti-radical conservative authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.

Recall when President George W. Bush talked about democracy taking hold in Iraq and then the region? Now Bush’s vision seems very prescient. Shouldn’t we all be in favor the freedom agenda?

There you have it – the rehabilitation of a strategic, humanitarian, and ideological disaster with a blithe post hoc ergo propter hoc and a loaded rhetorical question. Rubin’s evidence for the link between a democratic Iraq and the rebellion in Tunisia is an excerpt from Bush’s second inaugural, rather than anything from any Tunisian activist or politician. If one wishes to go around claiming that an invasion almost universally reviled in the Arab and Muslim world which has produced civil war and an uncertain democracy that few political opposition movements actually admire contributed, eight years later, to an indigenous political uprising, the burden of proof does not lie with the skeptics.

Of course, there are other forms of self-congratulation. From the center and left come the idea of a “Twitter” or “Wikileaks” revolution. Social media technologies and internet-enabled transparency are particularly interesting ideas to Western audiences because it gives web-savvy, politically aware people the idea that they participated or contributed to the overthrow of a dictatorship. Certainly we would like to think the technology we use every day made the difference in Tunisia. Yes, social media and Wikileaks played a part in the Tunisian crisis, but my guess is that they mattered a lot more to disseminating information to the rest of the world than in playing a causal role for the political events in Tunisia itself. The ways in which social media can be a tool for political agents is an interesting one, but remember it can function both ways. However, Western media tend to present social media and technology as forces with their own agenda, one conveniently aligned with the values we favor.

In both cases, Western observes choose to find parallels in Tunisia to some obscure, teleological Force of History – whether it is democracy or technology – whose agenda drives local conditions but needed, in some form, Western action to initiate. Fretting about these issues threatens to degrade the Tunisia debate into an argument about who in the West gets to pat themselves in the back, at the expense of recognizing those Tunisians who risked life and limb to oust a leader whose abuses they could understand without Western technology, and whose illegitimacy they could recognize without a Western war.

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