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Tunisia Leads the Way, For the Moment

Tunisia Leads the Way, For the MomentAnniversaries are dangerous days and dangerous moments. There is often a lot of celebrating, a flash of attention and then the sun goes down and life goes on as before. We properly celebrate an accomplishment from the past without real thought or determination on how to preserve and build on the celebrated triumph.

So now we are in the run of anniversaries of the Arab Spring, where elections have been held in Tunisia and Egypt, disarray and uncertainty pervades Libya and the bloody battle continues in Syria. In places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Yemen there are different murmurs of dissent and muddle of just what direction the movements and the reforms will go forth.

Are the elections of Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt the teaching moments that shine on this first anniversary? Or is the true result that woman with the blue bra, being beaten in Cairo coupled with a ramp up on as sexual assaults on journalists? Is the complete confusion and uncertainty of Yemen the harbinger, or the frustrating stagnation of political movement in Lebanon? Or is another wave of self-immolations in Tunisia the true elements of the story?

Perhaps it is perfect symbolism that again people are lighting themselves on fire in Tunisia. That says the circle has now been completed. Back to the beginning, the first tipping points that Tunisia — whose previous impact in the modern Arab world was designed by its dictator to be quiet at best — found itself launching a political dynamic unlike any in the area’s history, since perhaps the first great wave of Islam swept over the region.

Yet there is a difference.

In Tunisia, we saw a rapid fruition of the power to speak and demonstrate – for the moment.

In late October, nearly 90 percent of Tunisians cast their votes in historic democratic elections. The Islamist Ennahdha party received 42 percent of the vote, displayed the discipline of a political party with sophisticated machinery while demonstrating sensitivity to the concerns of the public, as half of its elected officials were women. That was counter to is perceived image of being an anti-women party by virtue of its religious affiliation.

Going further it formed a coalition with the leftist-leaning and nationalist-liberal parties. The three blocs divied up the top three positions in government. The biggest losers of the elections were the secularist, anti-religion parties as well as the remnants of the Ben Ali regime – seemingly a public shout out in favor of an alliance between parties that preserved the Arab and Muslim identity of society, and respected the principles of democratic governance, political pluralism and civil and human rights.

Now Tunisia grapples with the impact of free speech, inexperience in running a nation and other challenges that are faced by an infant representative government. The likely scenario next for the Tunisian revolution is that a new constitution will be written and offered as a referendum in the fall, followed by new parliamentary elections at the end of the year. If the current government is able to reduce the economic hardships on the poor and the middle class, reform the security agencies and the judiciary as promised, then they may repeat its victory – and show that the nation that went first continues to lead.

That all looks good.

One year out it is worth recalling the longtime saying that revolutionaries are not the ones who reap the fruits of the revolution. After the revolutionaries comes the time of the opportunists and the time of failed hopes.

Egypt shows just that. Those who viewed the events from afar, and thus did not drink in the elixir of street joy after the rapid revolutionary results, suspected it would be a long, difficult and puzzling challenge to wrest control from the military and other longtime power brokers. Those chess players may not be seen but they know how to move the pieces.

The past year in Egypt has been marked by brutal suppression of peaceful protests by army officials. Instead of protecting Egyptians, the Supreme Council on Armed Forces used extremely violent tactics such as tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition to disperse protesters. They are responsible for the deaths of at least 41 civilians over the past year.

The SCAF also renewed emergency law, a 30-year-old mainstay of the Mubarak regime that allows for abuse and detention of any citizen who is critical of the government. There are prison terms writing under the law for any person whose speech it deems to be ‘insulting’ or ‘defaming’. According to Human Rights Watch, SCAF has tried more than 12,000 civilians under military tribunals since January 2011, including children under the age of 15. Emergency law hinders all types of freedoms of expression in Egypt, and suppresses the freedom of all citizens to voice their opinion without fear of prosecution.

The power to speak has many repercussion. While each nation is different, the seeds of humanness are the same. Preventing them always lends itself to cruel creativity.

These are teaching moments in the countries of the Arab restiveness. Spring turned to summer and fall and winter, a full year of seasons. Unleashed, untethered, unscripted at the beginning, it is no surprise it has propelled those to success: those who has the organization, the plan, and the ability to drive that plan.

As some nations now wiser than they were a year ago? On the surface, it seems not in a region where freefall and fluid change now seems to be the script for the near future. Even in Tunisia, journalists are facing increasing assaults, Human Rights Watch reports, noting that the trial of a television director on morality charges for airing a controversial animated film is a disturbing turn for the infant democracy.

Free speech was the cry a year ago, but perhaps today only free to a certain degree. The cries are in the shattering of dreams. In the Arab world, it may be the second anniversary that tells a much more true story.



Tom Squitieri

Tom Squitieri has spent more than three decades as a journalist, reporting overseas for the Lowell (Mass.) Sun, the Boston Herald and USA TODAY. He won three Overseas Press Club awards and three White House Correspondents' Association awards for his reporting from Haiti, Bosnia, and Burundi. He is a newly-elected board member of the Overseas Press Club.

In academics, Squitieri was invited to create and then teach a unique college course that combines journalism, public affairs, ethics, philosophy, current affairs and war zone survival skills into a practical application to broaden thinking and day-to-day success. The class "Your 15 Minutes: Navigating the Checkpoints in Life" has a waiting list each year.

Born in Pittsburgh and raised in western Pennsylvania, Squitieri has been on all seven continents and in dozens of places he intends to keep secret.