Ever since the series of seismic events called the Arab Spring began in 2011, participants and observers have repeatedly cited 1789 or 1848 as historical comparisons. But Delacroix's tableau suggests that the overlooked revolution of 1830 perhaps most sharply anticipates Tunisia's current situation. The larger-than-life figures in Liberty Leading the People resemble the larger-than-life young men and women on the streets of Tunis who, following Belaid's assassination, are resisting the efforts to derail what their earlier revolution began. The Salafists have replaced the ultras, and militant Islam has taken over from fanatical Catholicism; at the same time, the red-and-white flag of republican Tunisia flies over the crowds rather than the tricolor of republican France, and it is not just young men, but also young women who in claiming the streets have claimed their liberty. They are not wearing the Phrygian cap, that potent symbol of the revolution atop Marianne's flowing hair. But they are also not wearing headscarves -- no less a potent symbol, if only by its absence, in a country where the forces of religious extremism are attempting to impose not just the veil, but also the niqab.
Of course, the "three glorious days" of July 1830 did not lead to a republic, but to another monarchy, one that nevertheless distanced itself from Catholicism -- it was no longer the country's official religion -- and shaped a nation ruled by enlightened law, not religious dogma. And Tunisia? There isn't a king waiting in the wings to assume power. But many Tunisians fear that Rached Ghannouchi, the charismatic leader of Ennahda, dreams of establishing a theocratic autocracy. Just this week, the magazine Jeune Afrique warned, in an editorial titled "Ghannouchi Unmasked," that the leader aspires to create an "Islamic dictatorship." The failure of Prime Minister Hamad Debali, a member of Ennahda, to persuade his own part to retire from the government and be replaced by technocrats sealed his resignation on Tuesday, Feb. 19 -- and will only deepen popular suspicions over Ghannouchi's aims.
Given these doubts, Ghannouchi might recall the strange life of Liberty Leading the People. In the crackdown that followed a wave of popular unrest in 1832, King Louis-Philippe's regime removed the painting from the Luxembourg Palace: It was, clearly, too explosive to be kept in a public place. It remained hidden until 1848, when King Louis-Philippe was in turn overthrown and the Second Republic was born. Delacroix's painting should remind us that while regimes can run from liberty, they cannot hide from it. Or, for that matter, keep it hidden.