9 February 2011
Nadim Shehadi

Nadim Shehadi

Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme


International and media attention has shifted away from Tunisia at a time when the country needs it most. Cheering for the revolution while it's happening is not enough. The aftermath - the transition process from authoritarianism to democracy - is a crucial moment when the country needs help.

Europe and the United States have significant experience in managing transition: the Marshall Plan for Europe, the Spanish and Portuguese transitions from dictatorships, and the EU enlargement process in Eastern Europe. There were clear objectives and a consensus that the countries should move towards becoming liberal democracies with common values. There is no such consensus in the Arab world.

There are those now calling for western style democracies and governance and they seem to predominate amongst the 'tweeting classes'. There is support for Islamists of various kinds, both moderate and fundamentalist, and their visions. There will also be remnants of the ancient regime who will learn new tricks and try to make a come back.

Tunisia Needs Support

There will also be international and regional competition for supporting various visions and movements during the transition. While the European Commission was alone in planning and implementing the transformations and reforms associated with enlargement, in the Arab world the vacuum created by the fall of the regimes will witness support from a variety of directions. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Iran will probably step in to support different brands of Islam. The West has competition and has to get its act together quickly in support of the transition. It is not true that it is best not to interfere.

Tunisia needs a mechanism to manage the diversity and the vacuum created by regime collapse.

The next phase in Tunis will be watched and will influence developments elsewhere. Political society has been suppressed for decades and needs to be rehabilitated. Civil society, political parties, the non-governmental sector also needs help to fastrack the creation of a healthy pluralist environment. There are important issues of transitional justice, what to do with the old regime, how to promote reconciliation and help heal the wounds and allow society to move on.

Re-emergence of Realism?

If this is the genuine, long awaited democratic revolution, the Arab street seems to have its timing wrong. The mood in both Europe and the United States is out of sync and has been shifting towards more realism in foreign policy. This comes at a time of disengagement from Iraq and the debate over disengagement from Afghanistan. The idealism of the Bush administration and its enthusiasm for regime change has left a bitter aftertaste; there is a tendency to reduce budgets for democratisation programmes and reluctance to push it as part of foreign policy objectives. The 'New Realism' is described as the will to engage and make deals with unpalatable regimes for the sake of stability and interest.

Time to Step Up

The demands from the street have been for freedom and for accountability. This is in tune with values that are supported by Europe and the US who should step in and support the transition. They should be seen as friends of the process and not enemies of it.