Tunisia's revolution should be a wake-up call to Mideast autocrats

Saturday, January 15, 2011; 6:22 PM

THE POPULAR uprising that drove Tunisia's aging, autocratic president from power Friday was an earthquake not just for that North African nation of 10 million people but for the Arab world as a whole. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, 74, ruled his country in much the same way as the strongmen who govern neighboring Algeria and Libya, as well as key U.S. allies such as Egypt and Jordan - by jailing or exiling opponents, censoring the media and stifling civil society. Corruption flourished in his 23-year-old administration even as a burgeoning under-30 population despaired over the lack of economic opportunity and political freedom.

The street protests that overturned the regime also demolished one of the Arab world's certitudes: that its kings, emirs and presidents-for-life are invulnerable to the people power that has ended dictatorships in Asia, Eastern Europe and elsewhere for three decades. The "Jasmine Revolution," as Tunisians are calling it, should serve as a stark warning to Arab leaders - beginning with Egypt's 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak - that their refusal to allow more economic and political opportunity is dangerous and untenable.

Tunisia also offers urgent lessons for the Obama administration, which has downplayed reform in the Arab world and muted U.S. support for democracy and human rights. As late as last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told an Arab satellite television audience that the United States was "not taking sides" in the Tunisian crisis. Later, however, there were encouraging signs of change. Ms. Clinton delivered a strong speech denouncing "corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order" in the Middle East and calling for reform, though she did not use the word "democracy." Both Ms. Clinton and President Obama issued statements Friday praising the Tunisian uprising and calling for free and fair elections.

A historic opportunity beckons in Tunisia, both for its political class and for the United States. Though the revolution has no clear leaders and organized opposition parties are weak, the country is in other respects ready for a democratic transition. Its population is relatively well educated and its middle class substantial, and its women are emancipated by regional standards; Islamic fundamentalist forces are not as strong as they are in Algeria or Egypt. The constitution calls for fresh presidential elections in 60 days, and the country's interim president indicated that calendar would be respected. The United States can join with France and the European Union in supporting and even helping to organize truly fair elections and in pushing back against those in Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Arab world, who will seek a quick restoration of autocracy.

This is also a chance for the Obama administration to begin talking in earnest to its principal ally in the region, Egypt, about the necessity for change. Mr. Mubarak, in power since 1981, has been preparing to extend his term through another rigged election this year; his son waits in the wings as a potential successor. It is not too late for Egypt to open its political system and offer more freedom to its own frustrated youth. If it does not do so, the Middle East could experience an upheaval far more shattering than that of Tunisia.

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