Editor's note: Daniel Brumberg is senior adviser to the Center for Conflict Management Analysis at the United States Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan organization funded by Congress, where he focuses on issues of democratization and political reform in the Middle East and wider Islamic world. He is also an associate professor at Georgetown University.
(CNN) -- After 23 years of one-man rule, it took only 23 days to topple Tunisia's Zine El Abedine Ben Ali. A dictator who ruled with an iron fist and a surplus of crony-based corruption that even his fellow autocrats in the region found excessive, on January 14, 2011, Ben Ali fled his country like a thief in the night.
To appreciate what has happened in Tunisia, consider one elemental fact: in 60 years, there has never been one case of a successful, popular revolt toppling an Arab regime. On the contrary, despite periodic legitimacy crises, Arab autocracies have demonstrated a remarkable capacity for self-preservation.
Whether by rewriting constitutional rules to serve yet another term, or handing the mantle of rule to a new generation of autocrats, Arab leaders from Morocco to Yemen have defied predictions of their imminent demise.
It took the administration of George W. Bush to partly repudiate a half-century of US support for Arab autocrats. I say "partly" because Bush's "Freedom Agenda" was always very selective.
High-flying rhetoric aside, the fact of the matter is that from 2004, Washington continued to give political and military support to pro-US Arab autocracies. Of the latter, Tunisia was the worst. A police state that tolerated no dissent and boasted a bogus parliament, Tunisian-style autocracy rivaled and in some ways exceeded that of "regional troublemakers" such as Syria and even Iran.
The rationale for US support for Ben Ali was never a mystery. From Washington's perspective, Tunisia played a key role in the struggle against Islamist extremism. As affiliates of Al-Qaeda reasserted themselves in the early 2000s, Washington viewed Tunisia as an island of stability in a regional sea of potential storms.
What is more, Tunisian autocracy seemed to provide a stable framework for a relatively successful process of economic modernization -- one that was educating both men and women, enlarging the middle class, and creating an export-oriented business sector that had secured markets in the European Union. What was not to like?
Every strong state appears weak on the morrow of its collapse. In a process all too familiar to scholars, Tunisia's economic progress spawned a myriad of socio-economic problems. While economic growth averaged 5%, that rate could not match the expanding urban population. Indeed, when you consider that university enrollment climbed from 42,000 in 1986 to more than 357,000 in 2009, you can get a sense of the enormity of the challenge.
Steeped in corruption, the ruling class neither had the motivation nor the vision to respond to a growing middle class of unemployed (or under-employed) professionals, students and small entrepreneurs. Even in a country with a relatively small population (some 10 million), this was a demographic time bomb waiting to explode.
It is perhaps no small but happy accident of historical timing that one day before Ben Ali and his clan fled, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned an audience of Arab leaders in Qatar that the "region's foundations were sinking into the sand."
Indeed, President Obama's forthright call on "the Tunisian government....to hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people" may do more than any Cairo speech to demonstrate to skeptics that his administration is ready to make democratic change in the Arab world a high-level, US foreign policy priority.
Yet if events in Tunisia give advocates of democracy cause for celebration, we must keep two basic points in mind. First, the road ahead will be fraught with uncertainty and even danger. The capacity of Tunisia's fractious opposition to unite and mobilize popular support for a common agenda is unknown.
With presidential and parliamentary elections due to be held within two months, a caretaker government facing a suspicious public, and a largely apolitical military that must enforce public order, the situation remain volatile. Indeed, if Ben Ali's domestic supporters are given cause to fear that a transition to democracy will provoke chaos, they may try to manipulate elections in their favor. The fact that it is the current parliament that has the constitutionally mandated task of nominating presidential candidates for the next elections -- and that parliamentary elections will then follow -- provides just such an opening for political sabotage.
The second point is the uniqueness of the Tunisian case. Most US-backed Arab regimes have not replicated the far-reaching autocracy typical of Ben Ali's Tunisia. Instead, the leaders of Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Yemen and Kuwait have long tolerated a measure of state-controlled political competition in a bid to secure some popular acceptance at home and international support abroad. Even if this semi-authoritarian arrangement no longer works very well, it will probably continue to provide the institutional basis for heading off popular rebellions similar to the one that toppled Ben Ali.
Thus talk of a "democratic tsunami" is unrealistic. But that is no reason for dismissing the importance of what has happened in Tunisia. If the country's leaders can forge a real pluralist democracy that provides space for Islamist, secular and ethnic groups to peacefully share power, this would not only be a huge achievement for the Tunisian people; it would also lend credibility to US democracy programs.
After all, the regional headquarters for our "Middle East Partnership Initiative" (MEPI), a U.S. State Department effort to foster social and political change in the region, is located in, of all places, Tunis, a city that until last Friday was home to one of the Arab world's most notorious autocrats.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Daniel Brumberg.