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Overthrow of Tunisian president jolts Arab region

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The former president of the North African nation of Tunisia is in exile in Saudi Arabia following a popular uprising against government corruption, political repression, rising food prices and unemployment.

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 15, 2011; 7:57 PM

BAGHDAD - Moments after Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was ejected from his palace, tweets began flying across a region that was at once enthralled and appalled by the specter of an Arab leader being overthrown by his own people.

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"Today Ben Ali, tomorrow Hosni Mubarak," gloated one tweeter, referring to Egypt's long-serving president. "Come on Mubarak, take a hint and follow the lead," urged another.

And prominent Egyptian blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy observed: "Revolutions are like dominos."

On Saturday, a day after Tunisia's president was forced into exile by massive street demonstrations, the Middle East was still reeling, with calls for copycat protests reverberating across the Internet, in cafes and on street corners as far afield as Jordan and Yemen. For the first time in the history of a part of the world long calcified by autocratic rule, a dictator had been forced from office by a popular revolt, and it was all broadcast live on television

Leaders braced for the fallout. Elites analyzed the potential for the revolution to spread. Ordinary people celebrated, marveled, gossiped and wondered: Will it happen here? What can we do? And, perhaps most important, who will be next?

Only one certainty stood out: The turmoil in tiny Tunisia, long ignored as a sleepy outpost of relative stability on the fringe of a volatile region, will have profound ramifications for the rest of the Arab world.

"Things will not be the same any longer," predicted Labib Kamhawi, a political analyst in the Jordanian capital of Amman. "2011 will witness drastic change, and it is long overdue."

The rumblings are already there. Jordan, Algeria and Libya have all seen violent protests in recent weeks, spurred by rising prices, unemployment and anger at official corruption - much the same issues that precipitated the snowballing street protests in Tunisia a month ago.

As the ousted Ben Ali flew into exile in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, the Saudi government issued a statement that seemed designed to forestall unwelcome comparisons between the new guest and the ruling Saudi monarchy.

"The government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announces that it stands fully behind the Tunisian people," it said.

Almost no government in the region is immune from the combustible combination of grievances that sparked the uprising in Tunisia. Inflation, joblessness and the hopelessness of living in a country where opportunity is the preserve of a tiny ruling elite are steadily fueling frustrations from Algiers to Amman, from Tripoli to Sanaa and Damascus.

With the exception of Lebanon, whose democratically elected government also collapsed last week, for reasons related to Lebanon's own complicated sectarian politics, and Iraq, still battling the scourge of a lingering insurgency, every country in the region is ruled by some form of undemocratic autocrat.


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