Washington -- Two years ago this fall, when the uprising in the relatively middle-class country of Tunisia started the "Arab Spring" that shook the entire region to its foundations, the common wisdom was that there was no turning back from these changes.
What's more, the revolution spread from country to country, seemingly without surcease -- Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria -- until it appeared to be the same conflict breaking out in every country.
Pharaonic pretenders saw Egypt's new leaders -- its president and the majority of its parliament coming from the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood -- as simply a repetition of Tunisia's experience a year ago, when the Islamist party Ennadha won the presidency and the parliament. The Middle East had found its new paradigm, and this was it -- probably for years to see.
But even while the pro-Western secularists in Tunisia and Egypt were wringing their hands and fearing that radical Islam was the face of the future in the Middle East, the Muslim party was all but through.
Just this week, the Ennadha government actually agreed to resign after negotiations started with secular opponents to form a nonpartisan, caretaker administration and prepare for new, more acceptable elections. In return, Ennadha would get most of what it had wanted in the new constitution created last year.
Coming at roughly the same time, a series of polls and surveys were stunning in their rejection of Islam in Tunisian politics generally and especially of any aspects of radical Islam, such as groups like Ansar al-Sharia that sympathize with al-Qaida.
A survey in September taken by the U.S. International Republican Institute in Washington showed that 73 percent of Tunisians do not believe political parties are interested in addressing the needs of common people, while 70 percent do not believe "Tunis politicians care very much about citizens outside of the capital."
A Pew Global Attitudes Project recently showed that, while 54 percent of Tunisians believe democracy "is preferable to any other kind of government," no less than 72 percent say they are "dissatisfied with the way democracy is working."
Tunisia has long been the Arab and Muslim country foreigners have pointed to as an example of a country that can "make it." Since its independence in 1957, and because of the leadership of its great leader Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia has been largely middle class. More than 80 percent of Tunisians owned their own homes; there was nearly 100 percent literacy and all the children were in school.
There was really no reason for the Tunisian upheaval two years ago except for the fact that President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, who overthrew Bourguiba in 1987, and his family and cronies had so robbed the country. Had they continued Bourguiba's policy of education for all and cleaned up the corruption of the ruling classes, the upheaval may have been avoided.
Today, the middle class, more than any other social class, prefers "stability" and a "strong economy" over "good democracy." According to the Pew survey, 88 percent of Tunisians say that their country's economy is doing "poorly," and 57 percent say that their own finances are in "bad shape."
The bad vibes coming from the Tunisian experience after its positive initial experience with Ennadha, which had been exiled for all the years of both the Bourguiba and ben Ali presidencies, have now passed beyond the borders of Tunisia to involve neighboring Algeria, which fought a bitter war against brutal Islamists during the 1980s and '90s.
Many of these radical Islamists, called Salafists and whose origins are in Egypt, have caused chaos across the Arab-speaking region. During the war in Algeria, they were responsible for 150,000 to 200,000 deaths. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika met in Paris last month with Tunisian representatives to help Tunisia establish the kind of reconciliation Algeria had successfully formed following that bloodshed.
In Tunisia, the two sides will be meeting for discussions this week mediated by the Tunisian General Labor Union, the country's largest. It is organizations such as this, formed when Tunisia was a protectorate of France and profoundly influenced by French structures and systems, that now give Tunisia the chance to build far more sophisticated institutions than, say, Egypt, or particularly Libya.
In sum, the first supposition that the Islamists would simply take over and keep power is not happening. In a mere two years, the Islamists are losing power in Tunisia -- and in Egypt, too. There are too many centers of power in these complicated sectors of the Middle East for one extremist group to win for long.
These are good indicators, and the reforming impulses need all the encouragement we can give them.
- Politics & Government