When Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was toppled from power and fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday, The Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin hailed this “Jasmine Revolution” as a “remarkable event: a popular, secular revolt in a Muslim country” that “poses an opportunity and a risk for the U.S.” Mona Eltahawy, also writing in the Post, explained that “a 29-day popular uprising against unemployment, police brutality and the regime’s corruption” brought down Ben Ali. But there are numerous indications that there were other sources of dissatisfaction in Tunisia with Ben Ali — including the relatively secular character of the government. Pro-Sharia Islamic supremacist forces are poised to take advantage.
The popular perception is that Ben Ali was brought down by the will of the people. The French government declared that Tunisians, by toppling Ben Ali, had “expressed their democratic will.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her support for “real democracy” in the North African nation, adding in a message to officials of the new Tunisian government: “I appeal to you to use this deep break in Tunisia’s history as a new departure.”
A factory worker in Carthage had similar high hopes: “This is like the French Revolution,” he said enthusiastically. “It’s the end of an era. I’m hoping there is real change. We can’t continue like this.” Political analyst Ahmed Lashin declared: “The Arabs have been repressed for too long. They are eager for change and are on the verge of explosion.”
But what kind of change? What kind of Reign of Terror might come in the wake of this new French Revolution? Rached Ghannouchi, the London-based leader of the banned Tunisian pro-Sharia party, the Tunisian Renaissance Party (Hizb al-Nahdah), was quick to dub the Tunisian uprising an “intifada” and to claim it as a victory for Islam. “The Tunisian intifada,” he exulted, “has succeeded in collapsing the dictatorship.”
Pro-Sharia MPs in Kuwait applauded “the courage of the Tunisian people,” and Abdelmalek Deroukdal, a leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, hailed the revolution as a jihad and expressed solidarity with the Tunisians. In Gaza, the jihadist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad were both thrilled at events in Tunisia. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri hailed the victory for democracy, and Gaza Foreign Minister Fathi Hammad emphasized that “we are with the Tunisians in choosing their leaders, no matter what sacrifices it takes.”
Islamic Jihad praised the Tunisian people for liberating themselves “through blood, sacrifices and the expression of free will,” adding ominously that the toppling of Ben Ali was “a message to Arab and Islamic countries to pay attention to the aspirations of their people that are rejecting hegemony and tyranny before it is too late.”
Islamic Jihad held a rally in Gaza City, featuring hundreds of jihadists waving Tunisian flags festooned with the words “Revenge against tyranny.” Islamic Jihad spokesman Dawud Shehab sounded a drearily familiar note in accusing the Ben Ali regime of maintaining “suspicious ties” with Israel.
Meanwhile, a PLO faction warned Tunisians about “waves of political Islam” that could follow Ben Ali’s toppling, and urged them to “cut the road to political Islam and its misleading slogans to avoid a repeat of the Gaza Strip experience in Tunisia” — referring to the seizure of power in Gaza by the Islamic supremacists of Hamas.
The great unacknowledged truth about Tunisia and the rest of the Islamic world is that Islamic jihadists and pro-Sharia forces, far from being the “tiny minority of extremists” of media myth, actually enjoy broad popular support. Any genuine democratic uprising is likely to install them in power. That’s why jihadists are hailing events in Tunisia, and why all lovers of freedom should view those events with extreme reserve — for a Sharia government in Tunisia is unlikely to be any kind of friend to the United States, and if the “Jasmine Revolution” does indeed spread and other Arab and Muslim dictators are toppled, an already hostile anti-American environment could become much, much worse.
The events in Tunisia also show yet again the crying need for realistic analysis in Washington of the jihad threat, rather than the fantasy-based analysis that prevails there now. But that is even less likely than the flowering of a pluralistic, secular democracy in Tunisia.