Events in Tunisia are unfolding by the minute. From President Ben Ali's pledge to retire in a few years, to the army's reported demand that he step down now, and all the demonstrations and violence in between, Tunisia still has an opportunity to move forward.
Twenty years ago, Tunisia seemed like the next best hope for Arab democracy. Morocco has produced slow progress without sacrificing stability, while Algeria has failed. Tunisia was still moving in the right direction, opening up slowly enough to develop strong institutions of civil society without leaving a vacuum to be filled by religious or ideological extremists. Unlike Algeria, it was spared the worst traumas of decolonization and retains a sophisticated global outlook.
Tunisian society and culture are predisposed to the continuation of civilian rule, and to an upgrading of inclusive, participatory government. Tunisia is not a failed state, and it need not become one. Its fate has not yet been sealed. The next several hours and few days will largely determine its future: Will the President either regain control of the situation or leave office? Will the military commit itself to safeguarding a democratic outcome? Will the Arab, Islamic, African and European powers act responsibly and in coordination?
The results in Tunisia will have ramifications for the Maghreb, as well as the rest of the Arab world. In the long run, a more vibrant Tunisia can be a major player in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, fighting terrorism and extremism, and transforming the Middle East into a democratic region. The stakes are high, because the possibilities are so great.