Stability is the least understood and most derided of the trio of strategic interests pursued by the United States in the Middle East since it became the region’s sole superpower. Vexing, because it is patently obvious code for coziness with kings, presidents-for-life and other unsavory autocrats. Perplexing, because it seems to involve only cost, lacking the material benefit of protecting oil deposits or the domestic political profit of backing Israel, the two other members of the troika.
The January 14 departure of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali amidst popular protests was a long overdue demonstration of the possibility for genuine democratization in the Arab world. Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor whose self-immolation set off the protests, tapped a deep vein of anger in Tunisian society at police harassment and the general arbitrariness of the state, but also at severe, endemic economic inequality sharpened now by rising global food prices. It remains to be determined, however, to what degree the toppling of Ben Ali will transform Tunisia into a representative democracy whose citizens enjoy greater economic opportunities. Ben Ali was the head of a system of one-party rule, and that system did not board a private plane along with him and his immediate entourage as they headed into exile.
For the first time in decades, Tunisia is free of one-man rule. The extraordinary events of December 2010 and January 2011 have been nothing less than a political revolution: The consistent pressure of popular fury forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali first to make an unprecedented promise to relinquish power; then pushed him to step down; and finally halted an attempt at unconstitutional transfer of power, setting the stage for elections to be held at an undetermined date in the near to mid-term future.
Is it happenstance or harmonic convergence that the first reports on the Wikileaks cache of State Department cables hit the newsstands alongside stories about the fresh political salience of “American exceptionalism”? Something about the content of the diplomatic missives and, more to the point, the furor over their release in November 2010 seems peculiar to the United States.
What species of envoy but an American, at the early millennial stage of evolution, could wire the following from Madrid?
World Bank and IMF sponsored neoliberal reforms can have different effects on the political and social structure of receiving nations. Reforms may fortify a status quo unfavorable to the poor, or may even make a bad situation considerably worse, or they may undermine the existing economic system, empowering the poor to participate more actively in new market arrangements.
Just as European missionaries were the spiritual handmaidens of nineteenth-century colonialism, so has the International Monetary Fund (IMF) assumed a modern-day mission in support of world trade, finance and investment. The mission aims to convert the benighted heathen in developing countries to the enlightened religion of the free market, whose invisible hand guides self-interest toward the best possible outcome. Once expected to join world Christendom after their conversion, penitent countries today have structural adjustment programs (SAPs) to guide them to their place in the global economy.
A disturbing rumor made the rounds this summer at the Cafe de Paris, the Hotel Africa and the other haunts of Tunisia’s classe politique. Word had it that a constitutional commission was considering legislation allowing the government to revoke the citizenship rights of some political opponents. True or not, the rumor’s existence — and the widespread belief that the government started it — says much about political life on the tenth anniversary of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s “tranquil revolution.”
Nouri Bouzid, Bezness (1992).
What happens when a poor Arab country with a high birth rate, an enormous youth population and endemic unemployment bases a significant part of its development strategy on attracting European tourism? In Nouri Bouzid’s film, Bezness, the Tunisian coastal town of Sousse is the site for just such an experiment, with disastrous consequences for the local population.
“You chase colonialism out the door, it comes back through the sky,” observed the Algerian Press Service several years ago, alluding to the phenomenon of satellite broadcasting that has literally brought European television into the living rooms of North Africa.  More than 95 percent of urban households in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco have televisions, and more than 30 percent have video decks. Parabolic antennas are sprouting like inverted mushrooms on rooftops around the southern Mediterranean (estimates for Algeria alone range between 1.3 and 2.2 million households, or 8 to 17 million viewers). 
The first months after Habib Bourguiba’s overthrow in November 1987 witnessed an ambiguous honeymoon between the new regime and the Islamists. Bourguiba himself was under a form of house arrest in Monastir, his native town. Squares named after his birthday, August 3, 1903, were renamed November 7, the day of the coup. Some of his statues were pulled down, but many streets were still named after him and his grand mausoleum and mosque were well tended in Monastir. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the coupmaker who had worked as minister of interior and prime minister under Bourguiba, presented himself as a man of “renewal” and called for political pluralism and respect for human rights. He opened a dialogue with the opposition forces, socialist and Islamist.
Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco constitute a geocultural entity. They all went through a period of French colonization and they became independent during roughly the same period in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Despite the similarities, though, the three countries engaged in markedly different policies in regard to family law and women’s rights from the time of national independence to the mid-1980s. Tunisia adopted the most far-reaching changes whereas Morocco remained most faithful to the prevailing Islamic legislation and Algeria followed an ambivalent course.
The startling changes that have transformed the political landscape of Eastern Europe in 1989 may have no equivalent in the Middle East exactly, but that region has seen some remarkable developments nonetheless. The Arab versions of perestroika, or restructuring, while less profound in comparison with those of Czechoslovakia or Poland, reflect certain realignments of political forces. No regimes have toppled — yet. But from Palestine and Jordan in the Arab east (the Mashriq) to Algeria in the west (the Maghrib), a phenomenon of intifada, or uprising, is challenging the static politics of repression that have prevailed for many years.
Rachid al-Ghannouchi: "Deficiencies in the Islamic movement"
Although the Islamist movement has realized great accomplishments in its attempts to liberate the Islamic community from the legacy of decay and the remnants of destructive Western invasions, it is still far from realizing its ultimate goal — the establishment of the shar‘a of God on Earth…
Shaikh Hamid al-Nayfar is a leading figure in Tunisia’s Islamist movement. Francois Burgat, who interviewed him in Tunis in 1985, works at the Centre de Recherches et d'Etudes sur les Societes Mediterraneennes (CRESM) in Aix-en-Provence, France.
What is the meaning of the name of your magazine, 15/21?
The basis of our project is to ask how one can be simultaneously a Muslim and live in this era — how to be a Muslim today. Fifteen stands for the fifteenth century of the hegira, the beginning of the Islamic community. Twenty-one signifies the fact that we are living now on the edge of the twenty-first century, with all the problems that poses for the world community.
Late last September, in the sweltering, heavily guarded State Security Court in Tunis, all eyes were fixed on Shaikh Rachid al-Ghannouchi as he concluded his impassioned defense:
If God wishes me to become the martyr of the mosques, then let it be so. But I tell you that my death will not be in vain, and that from my blood, Islamic flowers will grow.
For a few hours on Saturday morning last June 27, a small antechamber in Tunis’s main court building was filled to capacity with a veritable who’s who of Tunisia’s opposition. At any other time and venue, those present would have risked arrest for unlawful assembly. But there — beneath a large discolored print of President Habib Bourguiba in lawyer’s garb — they milled around without restrictions. Also in the room were a representative of Amnesty International, four or five journalists from the BBC and international news agencies, an observer from the International Commission of Jurists and a junior official from the American embassy.
Nineteen eighty-four began in a bloody fashion in the Maghreb. Violent demonstrations erupted in the impoverished southwest and south of Tunisia at the very end of December and spread throughout the country during the first week of January. These followed the Tunisian government’s introduction of measures to remove food subsidies. Bread prices suddenly doubled.
A crisis had been building in Tunisia for many months. By the end of 1983, the economy was in serious trouble, support-for the regime had been eroding and the International Monetary Fund had proposed austerity measures. Within the government, corruption and personal luxury were rampant. President-for-life Habib Bourghiba was intent on preparations for a lavish celebration of the 50th anniversary of the ruling Destourian Socialist Party, while ministers vied with each other over the succession to the 81-year-old leader.