Over­throw delivers a jolt to Arab re­gion

Pop­u­lar up­ris­ing in Tu­nisia in­spires hope as well as fear

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY LIZ SLY AND LEILA FADEL slyl@wash­post.com fadell@wash­post.com

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 Hos-ni 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.

AMR NA­BIL/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Egyp­tian op­po­si­tion ac­tivists hold up a Tu­nisian flag in Cairo, where po­lice broke up an at­tempted demon­stra­tion out­side the Tu­nisian Em­bassy. But an­a­lysts say it is far from cer­tain what the events in Tu­nis will un­leash in other Arab coun­tries.

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