Overthrow of Tunisian president jolts Arab region

By Liz Sly and Leila Fadel
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.

"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.

"We could go through the list of Arab leaders looking in the mirror right now and very few would not be on the list," said Robert Malley, who heads the Middle East and North Africa program at the International Crisis Group.

Rumblings in Egypt

Perhaps nowhere do the lessons of Tunisia resonate more loudly than in nearby Egypt, where Mubarak has been president since 1981, six years longer than his toppled Tunisian counterpart. Egypt, like Tunisia, is grappling with the challenges of a rapidly growing population, limited job opportunities and deep resentment of the entrenched privileges of a ruling clique.

In a possible foreshadowing of what may lie ahead, police broke up an attempted demonstration outside the Tunisian Embassy in Cairo on Saturday night and blocked all but a few dozen protesters from reaching the site of another planned protest.

"It is our turn," chanted a small crowd of about 70 activists who managed to break through the police cordon. "Revolution is coming, by any means."

But it is far from certain that what happened in Tunisia will be replicated in other parts of a region whose governments have a practiced record of suppressing dissent. Tunisia was at once better and worse off than other Arab nations, in that its government had both allowed the development of a free economy in which many citizens prospered and ruthlessly repressed the emergence of any form of Islamist opposition.

"What is happening in Tunisia is Tunisia-specific," said Christopher Alexander, a Tunisia specialist and director of the Dean Rusk International Studies Program at Davidson College in North Carolina. "Each country is struggling with its own political, social and economic challenges. But just because some of the challenges are similar doesn't mean that trouble erupting in one place will spread to another."

If it did, the trouble might take a very different form.

In Egypt, the most potent opposition movement is the Muslim Brotherhood, whose supporters are dedicated to imposing Islamist rule on a country with a long secular tradition. Islamists are also the most vocal opponents of the regimes in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which, like Egypt, are key U.S. allies, as well as in Syria, which is not.

"Change could come not for the better but for the worse, if fundamentalist forces succeed in taking over," said Kamhawi, the Jordanian analyst. "Tunisia was not that important at the end of the day. But what if a more important ally, such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia, was at stake? Would the Americans risk serious change in a more important country?"

The experience of 2005, when the region witnessed a somewhat similar moment, suggests that they would not. Powerful calls for democracy by the Bush administration had seemed to herald a new mood, encouraged by Iraq's first democratic election and the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, in which hundreds of thousands of protesters forced the departure of occupying Syrian troops.

But the moment quickly faded. The United States backed off after strong showings by Islamists in regional elections, and Lebanon's revolution foundered in the face of the country's fierce sectarian rivalries and waning U.S. interest.

In a speech in the Qatari capital of Doha last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a measured critique of Arab regimes, emphasizing the need for leaders to reform their economies and stamp out corruption rather than outright political change.

Unknown change ahead

Yet the upheaval in Tunisia may herald the stirrings of another new moment for the Middle East, one in which the United States perhaps becomes irrelevant, analysts say. U.S. officials noted that at no point did the protests in Tunis turn anti-American, despite U.S. support for the dictator they were seeking to dislodge.

Claire Spencer, who heads the Middle East department at the London-based Chatham House think tank, detects the beginnings of a new form of opposition among what she called the "post 9/11 generation," one that is as alienated from Islamic extremism as it is from its own governments.

"Tunisia has kick-started the region's imagination," she said. "There's a lot of frustration out there that could unleash change of some sort, though what it will look like, we still don't know."

Fadel reported from Beirut. Staff writer Joby Warrick in Washington, correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan in Dubai, and special correspondents Sherine Bayoumi in Cairo, Ranya Kadri in Amman and Ali Qeis in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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