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Ben Ali’s 1979 playbook

Ben Ali’s 1979 playbook

It’s hard to envy the position Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was in these last few weeks: There just aren’t many good answers available to despots who are faced with popular uprisings. Still, he should have known better than to settle on Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s 1978-1979 playbook for quelling incipient revolutions.

Indeed, Ben Ali seemed intent on compressing the shah’s yearlong series vacillations into a tidy one-week time frame. First, a show of denial: The shah started 1978 by denouncing street protests as conspiracies directed from abroad, while Ben Ali started this week by declaring mass demonstrations to be “terrorist acts.” Next a halfhearted show of force to restore law and order: In the autumn of 1978, the shah declared martial law and organized a military government; Ben Ali, for his part, imposed a nationwide curfew this week and presumably instructed security forces to use deadly force against continued protests. Then a hasty series of concessions that are inevitably interpreted as too little, too late: Late in the game, each leader tried to shuffle his cabinet into a more liberal arrangement. That’s followed by a transparently cynical, and frankly depressing, declaration of sympathy for the protests: The shah went on television in November to announce, “I have heard the voice of your revolution”; Ben Ali went on television on Thursday to tell his restive populace, “I have understood you.” Finally, there’s the retreat into exile — the shah fled to Egypt in January 1979, while Ben Ali is now reported to be in Malta, France, or Saudi Arabia. (The aftermath is unlikely to get any rosier for Ben Ali, judging from the shah’s experience: He shuttled around the world — from Morocco, to Mexico, to the Bahamas, to the United States to Switzerland — in search of an offer of residence that was more than temporary, until he finally died in 1980.)

The shah’s unsteady strategy was already discredited in the eyes of the current regime in Iran, which came into power after his departure — hence, the Iranian leadership’s unremitting hard-line crackdown when it was faced with mass protests in the wake of the country’s 2009 presidential election. Tunisia’s current revolution may well be seen in Tehran, and perhaps in other regional capitals, less as a reminder of the power of popular action than as confirmation of Ben Ali’s personal weakness in refusing to pick a position and stick with it. If any other governments threaten to collapse in the wake of Tunisia’s successful revolution, you can expect that the protests will be met with either an outstretched hand or a clenched fist, but certainly not both.