WASHINGTON -- When the "Arab Spring" came noisily to life two years ago, political analysts were nearly uniformly stunned that it came first not in the big, overpopulated, troubled countries like Egypt or Syria, but in smaller, prosperous Tunisia on the northern coast of Africa.

The French government and press, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank: All verified that Tunisia, with only 10 million people, half Arab/Berber and half Italian/French, was "the" example for the Middle East. Its people were almost entirely middle class; 90 percent of Tunisians owned their own homes, schools were free and open, and the economy was doing well enough between enthusiastic European tourism and offshore French factories.

Besides, the country is simply beautiful, with a long coastline of charming seaside eyries dappled with red and pink flowers and exquisite sandy beaches, with Roman ruins almost as good as those in Libya, with the ancient walled caravan city of Kairouan, and with progressive modern laws about women's and family rights that made Europeans feel right at home.

But when that now-much-abused Arab Spring arrived as a babe on Tunisia's doorstep, the world largely got it wrong. Tunisia, virtually all of the press and international analysts say now, had been a terrible dictatorship. Overthrown was President Zine el-Abidine ben Ali, a stolid man who took over in 1987 when the legendary founder of the original Tunisian revolution, Habib Bourguiba, was replaced.

No question about it, Bourguiba had been one of the "greats" in the Arab world. He was the equal of George Washington in America, or of Simon Bolivar to the Latins. They called him Tunisia's "Supreme Combatant [WARRIOR?]" or the "Presidential Monarch" because he had so brilliantly led the fight against the French.

Tunisia was a French protectorate, not a part of France, like Algeria, so he was able to march, and protest, and go to jail 11 times, to expel the French completely by 1957, without all-out revolt. Modesty never being one of his strong suits, he once said, "I invented Tunisia."

But his most important saying was, "We are strong because we are moderate." He believed in evolution, not revolution, and it paid off.

When asked in Paris whether he wasn't afraid that, once educated, his people would turn against him, the clever man answered in his best French-educated sardonic style, "I would rather be thrown out by educated men than rule over jackals."

Bourguiba's legacy to the Tunisian people was a modern state, but a one-party state. Political competition occurred within the party, and outside parties never really had a chance.

Yet after President Ben Ali took over in 1987, as Bourguiba's health and mind withered, his was not really a worse "dictatorship" than Bourguiba's.

Ben Ali did two things that led to his overthrow: (1) He did not step down when he still could have and still been acclaimed, in elections over the last 10 years. The ruling party had some excellent men and women, one of whom, Foreign Minister Habib Ben Yahia, once said to me wisely, "Democracy is not instant coffee ..." Ben Ali could have named his successor for years, but he was too egotistical. (2) His family, and especially his wife's family, were extraordinarily greedy, taking over major companies and publicly displaying their elegant lifestyle as unemployment grew.

Thus, so unexpectedly, the now-famous Arab Spring sprang out of the one state in the Middle East that everybody was so sure had "made it."

After the first revolt two years ago in Tunis, when the ben Alis and their group fled to Saudi Arabian exile, not surprisingly the Ennahda party, the Islamist party led by Rached Ghannouchi, won the presidential election. This was the party long banned by both Bourguiba and ben Ali, Ghannouchi in his youth having been a perfervid admirer of the Communist Party of Albania, the most savage Marxist party in the world.

Today, Ennahda is branded as a "moderate Islamic" party, but this week's desperate news -- the in-your-face assassination of the secular leftist leader, the popular 47-year-old Chokri Belaid, just outside his home in Tunis -- threatens to turn the Arab Spring into winter.

As the cities exploded in protests again, with the mobs now chanting against the Islamists, a new paradigm emerged in the best country in the Arab world.

What was being discussed this week in Tunisia and its thereabouts was the possibility that the Ennahda government, pretending to be moderate, was really behind the assassination.

Its secret arm is a group called The Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution, who are the Salafists, or radical Islamists, in the shadows. Indeed, Belaid said before he died that he had been threatened many times by the radicals.

If true, this would be the new story of the Arab Spring -- that all the Islamists in Tunisia are moving, as they can, toward Islamic dictatorship.