When I went to Canada on Thursday night, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was still president of Tunisia.When I checked my e-mail upon returning to the United States on Monday, he was not, and in fact, had not been for a few days. As a result of massive protests and public demonstrations, Ben Ali’s 23-year old rule had come to an end. This is the first revolution in the Middle East since Iran, and some, such as Juan Cole, even see it as potentially more consequential for the future of the region. I will leave it to the news outlets to update you on the events, as new developments are occurring by the minute. I will also hold off from any firm statements about what this means for the region, or even for Tunisia. For all we know, Ben Ali could return and regain power. Or, in a more likely scenario, the “new” government could simply be the disguise of the ancien regime. Protesters are wary of this possibility, as demonstrated by their demand for a disassociation of the new leaders from the “former” ruling party. This demand was met, but it remains unclear whether such a move was sincere gesture of quitting with the past, or a superficial measure to quell the mob. However, there are a few things that I do know, and I will list them in no particular order:
* In the words of Joe Biden, this is a big f****** deal. The sheer power of public demand has forced one of the most authoritarian leaders in the Middle East to flee his country.
* This proves that the United States is wrong about how it chooses to pursue “stability” in the region. Known as “Syria with a smile,” Tunisia has baffled human rights activists for its ability to get away with murder, or at least oppression. The government’s cooperation with the United States on counter terrorism measures explains why the United States and European powers have looked the other way when it came to human rights abuse and stifling of political dissent. The collapse of the house of cards proves what the United States already knew (see Eastern Europe circa 1989): democratic societies are ultimately more stable than even the oldest dictatorship.
* This could be huge for Egypt. There have already been two incidences of copy cat self-immolation (one resulting in the death of the protester) and lord knows that one could draw a million comparisons between Ben Ali and Mubarak. It was reported that protesters in Cairo, who have already been riled up by the country’s recent elections which were marred by gross violations, shouted ”Ben Ali, tell Mubarak a plane is waiting for him too,”… ”We are next. Listen to the Tunisians; it’s your turn, Egyptians.”
For a succinct read on Tunisia’s implosion, check out this article by Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.