By now, any American with at
least some access to news sources must have heard that once again, the Arab
world is in major turmoil.
The events that took place
on September 14, where mobs of protesters attacked the US Embassies of Tunis,
Cairo, Khartoum and Sana’a, have undoubtedly undermined the democratic
transformative wind blowing in the region. Two factors make the recent events particularly
compelling in the United States. First, their timing in the midst of a heated
presidential campaign has already impacted the nature and substance of domestic
political discourse. Secondly, the tragic loss of a distinguished American
diplomat and three members of his staff in Benghazi – a city that came to
symbolize a new approach in American foreign policy in the Arab world – has
tarnished the image of the fledgling Arab Spring.
As a group of Tunisian
Americans hailing from diverse professional backgrounds, we share two main
objectives: to ensure a successful democratic transition in our home country,
and to see democratic values and principles, such as those enshrined in U.S.
society, flourish in Tunisia. We were shocked and disgusted to see a group of
extremists attack the U.S. Embassy and the American school in Tunis. This mob
greatly damaged the image and economic prospects of a country that has been
enjoying a great deal of sympathy and support, here in the United States and
throughout the world.
It was also particularly
disheartening to watch a number of U.S. politicians and policy experts rushing
to write the obituary of the Arab Spring. Their arguments insinuate that all it
took was a mere 20 months for the dream to go from cradle to grave, ironically
in the same city: Tunis. The reality is obviously much more complex. The Arab
Spring countries are undergoing a much-delayed and much-needed political and
societal transformation. All the while, the eyes of a hopeful but apprehensive
world are keeping watch.
However, the chaotic scenes
broadcasted all over U.S. cable networks the past two weeks could not be more
misleading. Partly thanks to the strong moral leadership and material support
of President Obama and Secretary Clinton, the MENA region is undergoing an
irreversible transformation into a vibrant democracy. We remain convinced that
Tunisia, in particular, has all the ingredients necessary to succeed: strong
institutions, a large middle-class, an active intellectual elite, advanced
women’s status, and geographic and cultural proximity to Europe. These
ingredients nurture the thirst for democracy. Today, there is no going back to
a domineering institution, be it a dictatorship or a theocracy.
Systems theory teaches us
that the initial phase of a transformation is usually the most painful,
fragile, and critical, as many forces (often at odds) come into play and jostle
for domination. Tunisia’s experience is no exception. We should not expect a
country where freedom of speech was nonexistent, civil society shackled and
corruption widespread to suddenly become the perfect democracy.
In the midst of this
exciting and promising transformation, a noisy minority of fundamentalists has
emerged. They hold anti-democratic beliefs that are often coupled with an
anti-American discourse. This group is beginning to threaten the very essence
of this experiment. By siding with the Tunisian youth against the despotic
regime of the long-time U.S. ally Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, the image of the
U.S. experienced a historic upgrade. Arabs, including Tunisians, followed this
shift in policy, which also contributed to the ouster of Egypt’s Mubarek and
led to the overthrow of Libya’s Gaddafi, with a mix of incredulity,
gratefulness and naturally, suspicion. The biggest loser throughout these
historic events was Al Qaeda and its various affiliates, as this new U.S.
policy greatly undermined their recruiting efforts.
However, despite all the
challenges, this new experiment is well worth it for the Tunisian people and the
Arab world, as well as for the stability of Western economies. Tunisian
democracy is starting to function. Fair and free elections were held for the
first time ever in October 2011. Topics that as recently as two years ago would
have warranted arrests and torture are now openly debated on television.
For the sake of millions of
people who deserve and need democracy, and for the sake of American ideals and
geo-strategic interests, let us be steadfast in supporting Tunisia. Let’s not
allow the senseless violence of a few put a historical process at risk. History
will tell us that our efforts today will translate into one of the best
investments we ever made.