The Arab Spring began in Sidi Bouzid, a small Tunisian town, at the end of 2010. In a desperate protest against the corrupt and oppressive government that had made it impossible for him to earn a living, food-cart vendor Mohamed Bouazizi stood before City Hall, doused himself with gasoline, and lit a match. His suicide seeded a revolutionary storm that swept the countryside and eventually arrived at the capital, Tunis, where it toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. Just weeks later, Hosni Mubarak was thrown from his palace in Egypt. Muammar el-Qaddafi was lynched later that year in Libya. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad may be the next to fall.
For the most part, the Arab Spring isn’t going well. In the post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, Egyptians voted for radical Islamists by a two-to-one margin. The Libyan state, totalitarian under Qaddafi, is now so weak that it barely exists, as the September terrorist attack that killed the American ambassador demonstrated. In Syria, the revolt against the tyrannical house of Assad may be only the opening chapter in a long civil war. But things look different in Tunisia. True, a mob of radical Salafists rioted at the U.S. embassy in the capital, but the police did their job and protected our diplomatic staff and property. President Moncef Marzouki even dispatched hundreds of his own presidential guards to the scene. The Islamist party Ennahda won more votes in the election last year than any rival, but it still won fewer than half and was forced into a coalition government with secular liberal parties. In Tunisia, no one person or party has its hands on all the levers of power. Citizens are free, and so is the press.
Why is the Arab Spring looking sunnier in the country in which it began? The answer has much to do with Tunisia’s remarkable 3,000-year history.
The northernmost point on the African continent is just outside the Tunisian city of Bizerte. The Mediterranean bottlenecks there, with the Italian islands of Sardinia and Sicily about 100 miles to the north and east of Tunisia, respectively. The tiny Italian island of Pantelleria is even nearer: 37 miles away. Palermo, Sicily’s largest city, is closer to Tunis than it is to Rome.
It should come as no surprise, then, that this area became the overseas core of the Roman Empire. But an advanced civilization existed there long before Rome arrived. Legend has it that in roughly 900 BC, a princess named Elissa was exiled from the Phoenician city of Tyre, in what today is southern Lebanon. (Most Westerners are more familiar with her Greek name, thanks to Virgil, who immortalized her as Dido in The Aeneid.) She founded a new city on the southern shores of the Mediterranean and became its queen.
That city was Carthage, and it became a megacity by antiquity’s standards, with 300,000 residents. Indeed, the city was so dense that the Carthaginians built six-story apartment buildings to house everyone, a feat that had never before been accomplished. The buildings even had indoor plumbing. “To some extent, you could compare it to Manhattan,” Stefan Chrissanthos, author of Warfare in the Ancient World, told the History Channel. “It was a huge population living in a relatively small area.” The residents built baths, a complex sewer system, and enormous cisterns that survive to this day. The most backward and impoverished parts of the Arab world still don’t have all the luxuries that the Carthaginians had.
Carthage was a sea power, with one of the most formidable navies in the ancient world. At the height of its glory, it controlled most of the southern Mediterranean, from Morocco to Libya. For hundreds of years, it rivaled Rome in power and wealth. No other force at the time could challenge and threaten Rome as it did. When the two finally clashed, Carthage produced one of the greatest generals in history, Hannibal, whose army swung through Spain and France and invaded Italy from the north on the backs of elephants. Europe was very nearly conquered from Africa. And while Hannibal failed, he put fear into the hearts of Rome’s citizens. The Roman statesman Cato the Elder is famously supposed to have uttered the words Carthago delenda est—“Carthage must be destroyed”—after every one of his speeches.
At the end of the Third Punic War (Punic is the Latin word for “Phoenician”), Rome did destroy Carthage—utterly. Barely one stone remained atop another, and the Carthaginians were killed or enslaved. Little remains, therefore, of Hannibal’s Carthage today. But in the northern, more Westernized parts of modern-day Tunisia, people still admire and identify with Hannibal. Stores and hotels are named after him; the last light-rail stop before the lovely seaside suburb of Sidi Bou Said is called Carthage-Hannibal; the international airport is named Tunis-Carthage. Fragments of Phoenician culture may persist as well. During the spring and summer, Tunisian men walking the streets place jasmine flowers behind their ears, a fashion that they insist was popular in Hannibal’s time.
The three wars with Carthage convinced the Romans that they needed a serious empire, lest they be conquered by somebody else. “It was in Tunisia where Rome began to build its empire in earnest,” Robert Kaplan writes in his book Mediterranean Winter. “Tunisia became to Rome what India would be to Great Britain, its ‘jewel in the imperial crown.’ ” Julius Caesar rebuilt the city in the Roman style, settled it with Roman citizens, and made the new Carthage the principal European city in Africa. (The name “Africa” was originally what the Romans called Tunisia, and it eventually came to refer to the entire continent.)
The Romans later conquered the whole of North Africa, but they developed none of it as much as the area that now surrounds Tunis. You can see that influence today if you visit: Roman ruins are scattered everywhere. The largest coliseum outside Italy still stands in El Djem, just a few hours south of Tunis by car. Here again, modern-day Tunisians feel personally connected to their history. Ahmed Medien, a local journalist with whom I toured the ruins in Tunis, doesn’t think of them as something left behind by somebody else, the way many Americans might view Native American sites in Arizona and Colorado. He sees a straight historical line between himself and ancient Carthage and describes both the Roman and the (few) Phoenician ruins as parts of his own cultural heritage.
Tunisia belonged to Western civilization for nearly 1,000 years, more than four times longer than the United States has so far existed. And the Romans who brought Carthage into the West left an even more lasting imprint than buildings: a legacy of legitimate government and advanced urban development, two things that remain extremely weak in some modern-day Arab countries. It was as part of the Roman Empire, too, that Carthage made its great contributions to early Christianity. The biblical canon was confirmed there, the theologians Tertullian and Cyprian hailed from the area, and so did Saint Augustine—whose hometown, Hippo, is in present-day Algeria but was part of greater Carthage at the time.
Carthage was later ruled by the Vandals from Germany and then by the Byzantine Empire. Not until the seventh century did Arab armies finally take it. And when they did, they couldn’t impose the culture of the Arabian Peninsula wholesale on the inhabitants. Instead, the conquerors adjusted themselves to the advanced civilization that was already there. Conquering Arabs did this everywhere, but usually to a smaller degree: in few places was the indigenous culture as resilient as in Tunisia. And in few places—the most notable exception being Andalusia in Spain—was the preexisting culture Western.
Tunisia didn’t rejoin the West until 1881, when France took it from the Turkish Ottomans. The French architecture of the greater Tunis area is startling when you see it for the first time. It’s much more extensive than in Beirut, supposedly the Paris of the Middle East. Parts of northern Tunisia almost look and feel as though they’re in Europe. But the country’s European flavor results from far more than a period of French dominion. For one thing, despite its 1,000 years under Muslim rule, Tunisia has retained certain Western characteristics. It doesn’t have tribes, as most Arab countries do. Its culture is cosmopolitan and tolerant, its enthusiasm for religion relatively mild.
Another reason for Tunisia’s modern feel is that the instant it achieved independence from France in 1956, it set itself on a course different from that of other Arab states. The country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, was a dictator in the mold of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish republic. Like Atatürk, Bourguiba wanted his country to orient itself toward Europe. He decreed that education would be in French, though Arabic was (and remains) the country’s day-to-day language. He admitted, at least privately, that his brief experiment with socialist economics had failed, and he shifted to a market economy. As a result, 60 percent of citizens are middle-class today, more than in any other Arab state without oil.
Bourguiba also implemented a code granting equal rights to women and men—a first for the Arab world. He referred to the veil as “that odious rag” and banished it from schools and government offices. Even on the street, where women are free to wear what they want, many fewer opt for headscarves and veils than in most Arab countries. “No other Arab country has tried the same policy we tried—to free ourselves from the religious legacy and make religion merely a cultural reference rather than a way of ruling the country,” says Tunisian diplomat Ahmed Ounais, who was briefly the foreign minister last year.
The recently overthrown Ben Ali replaced Bourguiba in a bloodless coup in 1987. He didn’t alter the state’s ideology, but neither did he govern with vision, as Bourguiba had. He just crookedly ran the place as if it were his private property and smashed anyone who got in his way. Whatever enlightened ideals the state had promoted under Bourguiba were lost to torpor and time. Ben Ali’s Tunisia was an authoritarian police state, but a relatively mild one by regional standards, much like the regimes that Portugal and Spain suffered under in the 1970s before they joined the Western European democratic mainstream. Ben Ali was certainly no mass murderer like Syria’s Assad or Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
When I visited for the first time eight years ago, I sensed that Tunisia was predemocratic—that if the autocracy could be cleared out of the way, the country might have a shot at advancing. Most citizens seemed to share at least some of Bourguiba’s opinions about modern, progressive society. They were relatively liberal and tolerant on their own initiative, not because the president had ordered them to be. Christopher Hitchens visited in 2007 and came away with the same impression. “Its system of government is fractionally less intelligent and risktaking than the majority of its citizens,” he wrote in Vanity Fair. His local friend Hamid compared Tunisians with their neighbors in Libya: “We are the same people as them . . . but they are so much en retard.”
So neither Hitchens nor I was surprised to see a mostly nonviolent democratic revolution break out. That could never have happened in Libya or Syria. It makes perfect sense that the Arab Spring began here, that it did not lead to civil war, that an orderly election was held on time, that the majority of Tunisians voted against the Islamist party, and that even the Islamists are now saying that they don’t want an Islamic state.
One of the most controversial issues in Tunisia today is a division between city and countryside. The coastal elites feel, as Medien does, that they have a hybrid identity, both Arab and European. People in the conservative rural areas, by contrast, define themselves simply as Arabs. The division has a political dimension. For example, as the new Tunisian Constituent Assembly crafts a constitution for the country, it must decide whether the document will call Tunisia an Arab country or simply a country whose official language is Arabic.
“There is the elite who have this double European-Arab identity and who are proud to be the descendants of Hannibal,” says Karim Dassy, a history professor at Manouba University. “For the more poor factions of the society, there is no connection with Hannibal whatsoever.” Hedi Ben Abbes, secretary of state to the minister of foreign affairs, puts it differently: “They are aware of the fact that they’re made of tidbits. But some of them cannot cope with the contradictions, though these contradictions are absolutely important.” That is, even the least educated citizens do understand that their country has been a cultural crossroads for millennia, but the notion of a complex hybrid identity makes them uncomfortable.
Moreover, Tunisia’s heritage has more than just the Arab and European components. “The Muslims expelled during the reconquest of Spain and the Jews who came to Tunisia to develop commerce and trade are two additional factors in how Tunisia became more cosmopolitan,” says Abdel-Hamid Largueche, a history professor at the University of Tunis. And then there’s Tunisia’s indigenous population of Berbers, or Imazighen. They’re a tiny minority because most assimilated over the centuries to the culture imposed by Phoenicians, Europeans, and Arabs, but fragments of their language and culture are part of the Tunisian mosaic even today.
My optimism about Tunisia doesn’t come naturally, not in this part of the world. I witnessed firsthand how the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon in 2005 was crushed by the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis. I never thought that Egypt had much of a chance: it’s too poor, too Islamist, and too authoritarian for political liberalism to take hold any time soon.
And even in Tunisia, there are grounds for pessimism. The biggest is the Islamist party Ennahda, which the Western press far too often describes as moderate. Sure, it’s moderate compared with the country’s fringe movement of totalitarian Salafists or with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, but it’s extreme by the standards of Tunis. For instance, party leader Rached Ghannouchi has praised suicide bombers who murder Israeli civilians. “Gaza, like Hanoi in the sixties and Cuba and Algeria, is the model of freedom today,” he has said of the Palestinian territory ruled by totalitarian Hamas. A self-appointed spokesman for the whole Muslim world, he declared war on the United States during the run-up to the first Persian Gulf War, when American soldiers were stationed in Saudi Arabia. “There must be no doubt that we will strike anywhere against whoever strikes Iraq,” he said. “We must wage unceasing war against the Americans until they leave the land of Islam, or we will burn and destroy all their interests across the entire Islamic world.”
Secular Tunisians across the political spectrum find Ennahda alarming. “It is a fascist party,” says Rami Sghayier, an activist with Amnesty International. “They tried to convince people they’re just defending religion, and they won the election that way, but they have a fascist program. They’re protecting the Salafists and other extremists.”
But an encouraging sign is that Ennahda had to campaign on a moderate platform. Ghannouchi didn’t publicize his ideology during the election season, nor does he serve in the government, though he remains an influential party head. Democracy is pushing the party in the direction, at least, of moderation: hardly anyone in Tunisia wants to vote for someone who thinks that suicide bombers are healthy role models for children. “There is a potential for extremism in Ennahda’s philosophy,” says Ounais. “But they will try to adapt and become pragmatic so they can stay in power and be admitted by the Tunisians and by the world.” Largueche agrees: “Tunisia has always favored the center and rejected extremism, and Ennahda has started to grasp that.” The single most important development since the revolution was Ennahda’s formal announcement that it supported a secular state, not an Islamic one. “That was the one big impediment in the way of a secular constitutional framework,” says Dassy. “Fifty percent of the problem is now resolved. But even though Ennahda dropped the sharia provision, there is no guarantee it will protect individual liberties, political freedoms, or women’s rights—that’s the other half.”
Another shoe that could drop is the reactionary Salafist movement, which wants to transform Tunisia into something like Saudi Arabia. Its shock troops have been running riot in the country for a year now, threatening liberals, artists, Jews, blasphemers, American diplomats, and everyone else they don’t like. If they step things up and wage a terrorist war—and that could happen—Tunisia will be in serious trouble. The saving grace is that the overwhelming majority of Tunisians find the Salafists repulsive, even terrifying. They can riot and even kill, but they’ll never be popular.
As long as things settle down, Tunisia’s politics may have much in common with Turkey’s. In both places, Islamists and secularists are more or less evenly matched, and for the most part, they scrap with each other with rhetoric rather than with bullets or car bombs. Tunisia also has the advantage of being less culturally self-referential, more open to the world beyond, than Turkey is. “Turkey is closed,” says Zouheir Touiti, a professor of international relations at the University of Tunis. “They don’t have a second language. They only speak Turkish. Atatürk taught them that Turkey is the only civilization they should believe in. Habib Bourguiba kept the French language and forged international relations with the European Union. Turkey is more nationalist. We are more open.”
The fact remains that Tunisia, while politically liberal in some ways, has no actual experience with working democracy. “My feeling is that Tunisia will cross five years of uncertainty,” says Ounais. “But the trend is toward a strong Arab democratic society. Within five years, I think we will stabilize with a new legislative assembly and create a new tradition of democratic rule in the country. We are the ones who are creating this pattern of Arab politics. We are the first.”
Will Ounais be proved right? Will the Arab Spring succeed in its extraordinary birthplace? Years are likely to pass before we’ll know for sure, but if Tunisia becomes a stable democracy—and if it becomes a model for others—we should, at least in part, thank Carthage and Rome.
Michael J. Totten is a contributing editor of City Journal. His new book, Where the West Ends: Stories from the Middle East, the Balkans, the Black Sea, and the Caucasus was published this summer.