The Arab world is jubilant over the popular uprising in Tunisia that forced President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee last week after 23 years in power.
Everyone is wondering whether the example set by Tunisians will spread to topple other dictatorships in the Middle East. In recent weeks, small protests erupted in Algeria, Jordan and Egypt — where people are fed up over rising food prices, unemployment and government corruption. But if protests take hold in those countries, the security forces will likely use far more violence to suppress dissent than was used in Tunisia.
It's also unclear what kind of political system will emerge from the revolt in Tunisia. If a military strongman takes control as a “savior” who will restore security, or if Ben Ali's cronies manage to hold on to power after the chaos subsides, then the prospect of revolutionary change could become less appealing to others Arabs.
But one thing is clear from the “Tunisian example”: People in the Middle East have given up any hope that the United States can be a force for democratic change. As the uprising spread in Tunisia, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama stayed largely silent until the day Ben Ali fled. That was when Obama issued a statement condemning the use of violence against peaceful protesters and applauding “the courage and dignity” of Tunisians. By then, it was too late: The U.S.-backed dictator was gone, and the Arab world chalked up another example of how Washington favors stability over democracy.
The Obama administration inherited a decades-old U.S. policy of supporting autocratic regimes — such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan — in exchange for political acquiescence. Most governments in the Middle East rely on vast secret police agencies to keep them in power, using the “war on terror” as a cover to silence any opposition. Like Tunisia's Ben Ali, these regimes put on a veneer of stability for the West, but in reality their political systems are weak, corrupt and calcified.
On Jan. 13, a day before Ben Ali's fall, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton lectured a group of Arab leaders assembled in Qatar on the danger of their countries “sinking into the sand” unless they reform their political systems and economies. “Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries' problems for a little while, but not forever,” she said. “If leaders don't offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum.”