WASHINGTON -- The demonstrations and then riots in Tunisia these last few months were bad enough -- indeed, nearly inexplicable -- when seen only through the lens of the Tunisians inside this until-now model Arab country. No one could believe that the economic and social successes of this North African country could be so trampled under the feet of thousands of angry young Tunisians.
But the changes in Tunisia that will inevitably follow such unleashed fury are bound to influence the rest of the Middle East. Tunisia was the moderate Arabs' model; this was the way the rest of the Middle East could be, if only ... In fact, more and more were saying, this was the way the rest of the Middle East would HAVE to be if it wanted to progress.
But the model is shattered. It won't be easy to forget the young people, the students and the unemployed raging down the streets of Kasserine south of the capital, setting themselves on fire, or attacking the streets of Tunis this week, shouting of their president, "Ben Ali, go away," with dozens killed and hundreds wounded. And the rest of the Middle East, many countries in the hands of geriatric leaders who have no ideological movement such as Tunisia's to carry them through, will be left to their empty horizons.
What happened? The story is a political one -- and an old one: The president stayed too long.
One hears those words again and again ---from Ivory Coast last week, from Zimbabwe, from all those poor countries of the Third World where leaders insist they are the "only solution."
But the sad thing about Tunisia was that it never had to happen there.
In the process of my work covering the Middle East, I had several interviews with President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and I did not find him to be the authoritarian dictator that young Tunisians now claim. He is a husky, handsome man with a strong, square face who cares deeply about his country. He talked brilliantly about the need of culture to bind people to their half-formed countries in the developing world, and spoke movingly about putting in place the preconditions crucial for lasting democratic development.
What's more, Tunisia had schools everywhere (in every village you see boys AND girls with backpacks walking to school and passing the local family-planning office); a huge middle class (80 percent), with poverty almost nonexistent; total equality for women; a solid, diversified economy tied closely to the former motherland, France; and large foreign investment made possible by Tunisia's special relationship with the European Union.
Tunisia was on its way, yet in a column I wrote in 2005 I had cause to worry: "Why, given its vast accomplishments, doesn't Tunisia match its economic and social advances with political openness? Is it really in the midst of changing from a one-party state to a true multiparty state -- or will it follow its mixed model too long and lose its chance to become the example for Arab, North African and Islamic societies?"
Every time I visited Tunis on my reporting trips to the Middle East, I would ask these questions, because in fact, Tunisia was a one-party state under Ben Ali's ruling party (though there was considerable competition within that party), the newspapers were abysmal, and there was no outlet for people to express their political feelings.
The answers from government officials and sympathizers were always that changes were coming, that newspapers were being reformed, and that most of the political unhappiness was from the old Islamists who had so threatened the state in the 1970s and '80s.
But when the riots broke out in Kasserine about a month ago, new complaints were registered: (1) about Tunisia's high unemployment rate, officially at 14 percent but probably double that; (2) about oppression by the police and military; and (3) about the lack of political "space" to express objections.
That led to students burning themselves to death, to police mowing down demonstrators on the beautiful streets of Tunis, and to President Ben Ali saying that all the demonstrators were "terrorists."
Finally, another part of the standard story comes out here, too. Although Tunisia had $1.3 billion of direct foreign investment in the first 10 months of 2010 -- a huge amount -- foreign investors are looking a second time because of the demonstrators' other cause: corruption, with its necessary payoffs. It is widely rumored that Ben Ali's wife and her family demand and get the payoffs, thus putting her husband and her country's future at stake.
Tunisia has done everything so differently all along -- from putting in birth control as a government policy, to allowing France to keep a military base there so the government didn't have to spend so much money on defense -- that we can only hope it will do things differently now.
If President Ben Ali would play upon his strong points, but open up the country politically; if he would make it clear that newspapers are truly free to publish as they will; and if he began quietly to choose and prepare someone from the ruling party to succeed him instead of looking like a "president for life," Tunisia could yet become even a greater model for the Arab world than it has been.