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Can Tunisia Spark a Revolutionary Wave?

Author: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor
January 18, 2011

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The overthrow of Tunisia's government last week in what has been dubbed a Jasmine Revolution has reverberated throughout the region and has left Tunisia itself in a state of political turbulence. In the wake of the ouster of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali are two questions: Is Tunisia's example likely to spark comparable uprisings across the Arab world? And will democracy take root in Tunisia?

At least six North Africans--in Egypt, Mauritania, Algeria, and elsewhere--set themselves on fire in a series wave of copycat self-immolations (NYT) inspired by the unemployed Tunisian college graduate who set himself on fire in mid-December. In Tunisia, demonstrations have continued in the capital of Tunis and in other cities, largely against the inclusion of Ben Ali supporters in the new unity government. There are reports of clashes with riot police (BBC) using tear gas. In response, four ministers have already left that government (AP), formed yesterday by Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi; the four were all opponents of the autocratic Ben Ali, who ruled for twenty-three years.

Arab columnists and television shows are buzzing with speculation (ForeignPolicy) about whether Tunisia's events can spread across the region. "Arab regimes have had a free hand at imposing their will on reluctant populations through the use of a single instrument: Fear," writes political analyst Mohammed Khan on al-Jazeera's website. "In the space of just a few weeks, masses of Tunisians have demonstrated to the Arab region the limits of dictatorial rule." Others point out that sclerotic regimes (WashPost) out of touch with their youthful populations are ripe for being overthrown, including those of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, who has held power since 1969; Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled since 1978; and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981. And the Financial Times reports that the recent secession plebiscite in Sudan that ended on January 16 is also likely to impact the Arab world, causing leaders to question "the wisdom of authoritarianism."

However, as CFR's Steven Cook points out, and Lebanon-based columnist Rami Khouri notes in the Financial Times, Arab leaders are likely to respond by taking preemptive economic measures to quiet the restive streets. Khouri and others suggest comparisons between the events in Tunisia and the 1980 demonstrations in Gdansk, Poland, that culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade later. But such demonstrations can also bring darker results. "Street demonstrations can unexpectedly bring extremists into power (WashPost), as they did in Iran in 1979," writes Anne Applebaum. "They can create unrealistic expectations and then unravel, as did the Orange Revolution that began in Ukraine in 2004. And they can end badly, with reactionary violence, like the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square." And CFR's Elliot Abrams suggests that the discussion of whether Tunisia's revolt can spread ignores what is unique to Tunisia--the combination of high literacy and relative prosperity with a repressive dictatorship--and the issue of Arab monarchies.

Around the world, governments responded with cautious encouragement to authorities in Tunis. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the new government (AFP) to restore order and offered U.S. assistance to "help meet these challenges." French reaction has been muted, with some experts saying that French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his administration were caught off guard (Guardian) by the ouster of a regime that France has generally supported in its former colony. And UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (Reuters) called for a return to the "rule of law" and said Tunisia "highlights the need for governments to address the needs of people."

Additional Analysis

The Carnegie Endowment's Thomas Carothers looks at the lessons of other authoritarian collapses and how democracy can be nurtured in Tunisia.

Protests in Tunisia and Algeria are part of a rising tide of popular dissatisfaction with illiberal, unreformed Arab rule, writes Simon Tisdall in the Guardian.

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