I have long been on the record as a skeptic of the of the proposition that democratization in the Arab world will usher in liberalism. To a great extent I think that my skepticism has been vindicated, though these are early times yet. But looking at the events as they are playing out in Egypt and Tunisia reminds me of the rock-paper-scissors games.
Tunisia is arguably the best case for liberal democracy in the Arab world. It has a low fertility, a strong connection to the West via a Francophone elite, and has long banned practices such as polygyny. And unlike Egypt or Syria ethnic or religious conflict does not loom on the horizon. Tunisia is overwhelmingly Arab and overwhelming Sunni. Its Islamist party is genuinely more moderate than the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt, and Salafists are not present in massive numbers in Tunisia. Nevertheless, it looks like Salafists have taken to beating up those whom they believe offend their sensibilities. In The New York Times article linked above there is the quote: “You lost your daddy, Ben Ali!” Ben Ali refers to the late authoritarian ruler of Tunisia. Islamists have been trying to dislodge these authoritarian rulers for decades; but it took the rising up of secular and affluent children of the middle and upper middle class to overthrow the regimes (with the collusion the military).
And yet once the authoritarian rulers are gone the Islamists seem to have the liberals by the throat. In Egypt they wiped the floor with them in democratic elections. In Tunisia the Salafists are not quite so powerful, and the more moderate Islamists have to take into the account the opinions of the large secular liberal urban population, but the latter are now subjected to violence by religious fundamentalists. Naturally the Islamists wish to legalize polygyny in Tunisia.
People will focus on Syria because of the violence. Egypt because of the size. But Tunisia is the really informative case. If Tunisia can’t make liberal democracy work, there’s little hope for other Arab nations. On the other hand, if hopes don’t unravel, then at least it’s a start.