People power in Tunisia

WikiLeaks documents, which detailed the corruption and kleptocracy of the Tunisian president’s regime, might have been a trigger for the upheaval.

Tunisia Riots 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Tunisia Riots 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The sheer speed with which Tunisians have toppled their authoritarian regime took many by surprise. As Tariq Alhomayed, editor-in-chief of the Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat, noted, “We were waiting for a war to break out in Lebanon, or a crisis to take place in Iraq, or a huge inferno to erupt in Iran, or chaos to occur anywhere else... Nobody talked about or paid much attention to what was happening there [in Tunisia].”
Just a few days ago US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that she would discuss the political turmoil sweeping Tunisia with the country's dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, “after the crisis subsided.”
In a July, 2007 piece on Tunisia for Vanity Fair, journalist Christopher Hitchens, noting the country’s relatively moderate character compared to neighboring regimes such as Libya, Algeria or Sudan, mused somewhat admiringly: “Who wouldn’t want the alternative of an African Titoism, or perhaps an African Gaullism, where presidential rule keeps a guiding but not tyrannical hand?”
Now, with Ben Ali in exile and no alternative leadership having replaced him, the uncertainty of the new political reality is beginning to sink in.
WHAT CAUSED Ben Ali’s speedy fall after 23 years of rule? WikiLeaks documents, which publicized on the blogosphere in embarrassing detail the corruption and kleptocracy of the Tunisian president’s regime, might have been a trigger for the upheaval.
More likely, however, it was Mohamed Bouaziz – the unemployed vegetable-seller who set himself on fire outside a Tunisian government office last month, in protest against the devastating dearth of economic opportunities – who has become the martyr symbol around which the grassroots revolt has rallied. An embittered people, though relatively well-educated and less impoverished than many in this region, confronted a regime that was failing to create genuine political and economic opportunity.
And as was the case in Iran’s failed Green Revolution of June 2009, the Internet has played a central role, with Nawaat – a group blog using Posterous, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to spread news and graphic footage of the protests – fanning the flames of discontent.
Numerous commentators, including leading Arab newspaper editors, have noted that the economic woes that brought about Ben-Ali’s downfall have parallels elsewhere, particularly in Algeria, another country with a large young unemployed population with bleak prospects, and Jordan, where King Abdullah has in recent weeks responded to anti-government protests by announcing that he will temporarily reinstate subsidies on some basic commodities. We might be witness to a spillover effect in coming months as disgruntled masses across the Middle East clamor for an end to corrupt authoritarian regimes.
However, it might also be the uniquely secular character of Tunisia’s uprising that has contributed so critically to its success and that sets it apart from opposition movements in Algeria or Egypt.
As Michael Koplow pointed out in Foreign Policy, “There is an appreciation within the corridors of power in Tunis that the Islamists are not at the top of the pile of the latest unrest. The protesters, though they represent a threat to the political elite’s vested interests, have not directly challenged the reigning creed of state secularism.”
This might explain why military officers – who had been marginalized by the regime as it lavished money on family members and corrupt business elites – demonstrated a willingness to stand down and protect protesters from the police and internal security services.
THE PRESSING issue at hand is to try to ensure that Tunisia undergoes a smooth transition to a stable democracy founded on the country’s relatively large middle class, high level of education and secular culture. The EU, and in particular France, are in a strategically advantageous position to facilitate such a transition.
If Tunisians’ will for change is channeled into the formation of the Arab world’s first truly democratic state, it could serve as a catalyst for additional constructive upheavals elsewhere. If, however, the political situation in Tunisia deteriorates into chaos, this could open the way for extremist elements to capitalize on the disorder and ruin hopes for positive change.
The surprising speed with which Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime was brought down serves as a sobering warning of the unpredictability of Middle East politics. But this unstoppable display of the people’s will also constitutes a potential beacon of hope for Arabs aspiring to live free lives throughout the region.