There’s still time for other Arab au­to­crats to change their ways.

A wake-up call for the Mid­dle East’s au­toc­ra­cies — and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

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 whogov­ern 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 theObama 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 StateHil­lary 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 Euro­peanUnion 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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