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Why couldn't the United States change 'Syria with a smile'?

As protesters overwhelmed former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's security forces in Tunis, the regional office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), the George W. Bush administration's signature democracy promotion organization, watched as its mandate was fulfilled in the most unlikely of places.

It is, to say the least, an awkward bit of symbolism. MEPI defines its mission as "develop[ing] more pluralistic, participatory, and prosperous societies." And in the country where it is based, the Tunisian people proved themselves to be uniquely and spectacularly unhappy with their regime.

But according to current and former democracy promotion advocates in the U.S. government, the decision to base MEPI's offices in Tunisia was made because the embassy had enough free space to accommodate its staff, and the country was thought to be stable enough to not interfere with the organization's sometimes controversial work.

Scott Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration who oversaw the creation of MEPI, said that the Ben Ali regime was "constantly paranoid" about the organization's presence in the country, and never allowed it to undertake significant democracy promotion programs. As a result, "we were doing a lot of stuff very, very quietly - not to say covert, but very quietly," Carpenter said.

The Ben Ali regime's hostility to any efforts to open up the political system was attested to by other Western diplomats who served in Tunis. Alan Goulty, who served as the British ambassador in the country from 2004 to 2008, said that the government would constantly raise the specter of terrorism to discourage any contact with Tunisian opposition figures.

"There was one explosion in 1987 of a bomb, where a British lady was wounded and lost her leg," Goulty said. "I lost count of the times that Tunisian officials, 15 years later, reminded me of that incident to justify their claims that the Tunisian opposition, whatever form it took, was terrorist."

In theory, the European Union should have had considerable economic and political leverage to convince the Ben Ali regime to liberalize. Trade between EU member states and Tunisia in 2009 was in excess of $20 billion - by comparison, total U.S. imports and exports to the country were valued at around $800 million. The EU association agreement with Tunisia also provided a ready-made avenue for discussion human rights and political liberalization. In practice, however, EU efforts in the country were anemic at best.

"Frankly, the EU always pulled its punches [on democracy promotion], because of the need to operate unanimously," said Goulty. "And a different approach was taken by [our] Mediterranean partners, principally France and Italy, who believed that the best way forward was to get close to the regime and further one's economic interests."

In fact, the primary contribution that the United States made to Tunisia's recent unrest was neglect. As U.S. relations with the other North African states improved over the past two decades, the relative importance of Tunisia as a U.S. ally in the region declined. U.S. diplomats may not have had much success promoting liberalization in the country, but the national security implications of the fall of Ben Ali's regime raised steadily fewer concerns in Washington.

David Mack, currently a scholar at the Middle East Institute, served as the deputy chief of mission of the U.S. embassy in Tunisia from 1979 to 1982. "If you go back to the time when I was there, our relations were disappearing with Libya, we had poor relations with Algeria, and strained relationships in many parts of the Muslim world," he noted. "But the reality is that today Tunisia plays a smaller role overall in U.S. strategic political calculation."

However, diplomats insisted that Tunisia's apparent stability under Ben Ali did not cause them to underestimate the population's grievances with his regime. A prescient June 2009 cable released by WikiLeaks criticizes the "sclerotic" regime, which it says has "lost touch with the Tunisian people." The same memo complains that "make it exceptionally difficult for the US Mission to conduct business" and meet with regime opponents.

Those who spent time in the country seconded that assessment. "The place was so sterile -- you just feel people's fear, and the complete lack of dynamism in the society," said Carpenter. "Within the State Department we used to refer to it as ‘Syria with a smile.'"  

PHILIPPE MERLE/AFP/Getty Images

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For Tunisia, many questions linger

Events are still moving quickly in Tunisia, where word has just come out that 87-year-old Fouad Mebaza, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, is now the new interim president after someone (we don't know who) determined that yesterday's takeover by the prime minister wasn't strictly legal. Also today, Saudi Arabia announced that it had welcomed Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the ousted president, and his family.

Under Article 57 of the Tunisian Constitution -- invoked today by the Constitutional Council because Ben Ali has fled the country and is therefore incapable of performing his duties -- Mebaza can only be in charge for a maximum of 60 days, after which he must hold a new presidential election (in which he is not allowed to run). Whoever wins may at that point dissolve the parliament and hold new legislative elections. 

We'll have some informed anlysis of the particulars in a few hours, but here are a few questions to think about.

Who is actually running the country right now? The military? The security services? Top civilian officials? Where are these decisions coming from?

Is it a good sign that the Tunisian regime, or rather what's left of it, is trying to following constitutional procedure?

Can one of the most repressive governments in the world, where the last presidential contest saw Ben Ali re-elected with 90 percent of the vote, organize and hold a credible election in only 60 days? Does it want to, or will it try to cheat? And are there any opposition figures who have the national stature to win?

How will the protesters, who seem to have largely stayed home again today, react to this new development? Was getting rid of Ben Ali enough to satisfy them? Or will they now fracture, as the regime probably intends?

More later.