Popular unrest has forced Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to leave the country. The uprising marks the first time that an Arab leader has been forced from office by the people. Other regional leaders — and their long-suffering publics — are now asking whether a Jasmine Revolution is in their future. Decades of experience with repression means a tidal wave is unlikely, but tinder is present throughout the region.
Mr. Ben Ali ruled Tunisia for 23 years, after taking power in a bloodless coup. His government was a benevolent police state that invested in education while having no compunction about torturing the opposition. The country rejected Islamic extremism and was Western in orientation — both secular in outlook and a staunch U.S. ally in the world against terrorism — all of which made it a popular destination for tourists.
But an authoritarian government, a large and growing middle class and an increasingly educated public are a volatile mix. The economy grew an average of 5 percent a year during Mr. Ben Ali’s time in office. That is a respectable showing, but it is considerably less than the 8 percent growth needed to absorb the 100,000 college graduates who enter the job market each year. Unemployment is officially 13 percent, but most experts believe the real figure is considerably higher.
The literal match to this kindling was lit last month, when a college-educated street vendor immolated himself after police seized his goods because he did not have a permit. That triggered antigovernment protests that quickly shifted from demanding jobs to political reform. Protesters were especially aggrieved by government corruption, particularly in the president’s family, and by widespread nepotism. That anger was fueled by U.S. diplomatic cables revealed on WikiLeaks that reported in detail on the kleptocracy that dominated the upper reaches of society.
The protests escalated. Some credit social media such as Facebook and Twitter for spreading the word and circulating images and information about encounters and clashes. Rather than crush the demonstrations, Mr. Ben Ali last week promised more freedoms, a move that fanned the flames by emboldening the protesters. The president then dismissed his Cabinet and promised early elections — in which he would not run for re-election — but by then it was too late. By Friday, it was reported that Mr. Ben Ali had left the country.
Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi first claimed to have taken power, but then the speaker of Parliament was sworn in as interim president. At the interim president’s request, Mr. Ghannouchi formed a national coalition government, which includes three opposition leaders. A key question is when elections will be held. Reportedly, Mr. Ghannouchi wants them within two months, while opposition members want more time to prepare. Reports of police and army units battling the former president’s security detail suggest that no outcome is certain.
The events in Tunisia are rippling throughout the region, even though the country is in many ways on the periphery of the Arab world. It has a population of just 10 million, has no energy exports and is prosperous and liberal, at least compared to other countries in the region. But publics throughout the region could be emboldened by Mr. Ben Ali’s defeat.
Calling the events “The Jasmine Revolution” links Tunisia to Lebanon, whose Cedar Revolution ended (at least for a time) Syrian domination of that country’s politics. The use of social media in Lebanon looks a lot like the dynamics in Iran in 2009; Iranians have been watching Tunisia closely as events unfolded and may take renewed inspiration from them.
Perhaps most important is the sense of possibility that has been unleashed. Mr. Ben Ali is the first Arab leader to have been removed by popular protest. This could be a seminal event in the public consciousness in the Arab world, prompting hope and efforts toward a similar outcome in their countries.
Of course, other Arab leaders may well conclude that the lesson from Tunisia is that there should be no cracks in the iron wall of repression that they have relied on to remain in power. They could intensify efforts to ensure that no seed of hope is planted in the soil of discontent in their countries. For its part, the government in Tehran has demonstrated that technology can be used against protesters, or at least neutralized.
There is, finally, another important element of what has happened in Tunisia — or, more precisely, what did not happen. The protests there were middle class and secular in nature. This was no Islamist uprising. Anger and discontent were not expressed in the language of religion or Islam. That should help put to rest the misconception that all popular movements in the region are manipulated by religious extremists and that Arab mass movements are likely to be the handmaiden of anti-Western interests.
Expect to hear regional governments insist that their particular brand of authoritarianism is needed to defend against such movements. In some cases, they will be partially right. Religious extremism does have deep roots in some countries and does (or tries to) manipulate public movements. But not in all cases. The lessons of Tunisia are that economic opportunity, equality before the law and political openness are the best defenses against popular discontent: A thriving middle class is the best buffer against religious extremism — but it threatens despots as well.
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