January 26, 2011

This week it's Tunisia, but remember Zimbabwe?

Tunisia is in the middle of a stunning, popular revolution, and democracy advocates are pushing for Egypt to be next. The leader of Cote d'Ivoire refuses to cede power following his electoral defeat. South Sudan is on the verge of independence and possibly further violence.

One man has special reason to be pleased with this turn of events: Robert Mugabe, the onetime revolutionary turned corrupt despot, who has overstayed his tenure as President of Zimbabwe. Remember him? I had almost forgotten about him. Last autumn, all eyes were on Zimbabwe, where Mugabe was violating the terms of his power-sharing arrangement with the winners of the last election. He is no longer the Most Despised African Leader, and Zimbabwe is not even in the news.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy admitted this week that he was caught off guard by the democratic fervor in Tunisia, a former French colony. So were we all. Every now and then, there are mass demonstrations throughout Africa and the Middle East, and Western leaders cannot afford to risk security and economic stability on the chance that one freedom movement might succeed. But we do love to celebrate their success, after the fact.

Will nations commit more funds to developing civil society internationally, as a result of Tunisia's early success, the challenges of Cote d'Ivoire and Zimbabwe, or the near-totalitarian stasis in Egypt? Will they make democracy and human freedom true priorities of their foreign policy? What put Tunisia over the top was its own population and its own civil society, not some organized strategy of the international community.

Whether because of the 20-minute online news cycle, our reality-show-induced zombie popular culture or the absence of simplistic Cold War contrasts, our attention span lasts 3-6 months if there's no genocide and no celebrity superstars forcing us to take action.

A year from now, whoever ends up taking over in Tunisia will have a free pass from the international community, as long as it's an improvement over the predecessors and Tunisia stays out of the way of France and Algeria. Egypt could always flip over into Islamic extremism, because that's the bogeyman President Mubarak has empowered as the alternative to his enlightened tyranny. Cote d'Ivoire may follow the model of Zimbabwe, or ideally Kenya.

The world will move on, as will Africa and the Middle East. In each case we need a success, or we change the channel. Along the way, Tunisia and Sudan may become better places. But Africa and the Middle East are too big and each country suffers from related but unique problems. This is not Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall fell -- there is no single force restraining popular will. So there will be no shortage of successes and failures to keep us mildly interested.

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