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Have the people of Tunisia changed the face of the Middle East?

Xavier Zapata | 09:55 UK time, Thursday, 3 February 2011

 

UPDATE FROM BEN J, 3rd Feb 1000GMT: Things have changed in Egypt since Xavier posted this entry on Wednesday, with violence in Cairo. Has that changed your view on this question?

Original post from Wednesday: Last month an unemployed young man set himself on fire in Tunisia, and the flames appear to have engulfed a region. Officials wouldn’t let Mohamed Bouazizi sell vegetables without a licence, and his desperate act triggered an uprising that toppled the government of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Since then we’ve seen a dramatic chain reaction, as people across the Arab World have protested against what they see as authoritarian and oppressive rule. Events have been moving at breathtaking speed.

Just in the last twenty four hours King Abdullah of Jordan sacked his government, the president of Egypt Hosni Mubarak announced he will not stand again for the presidency, and the president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, says he will not seek to extend his presidential term or pass power to his son.

All this has happened as a wave of protests sweeps through the region. We’ve seen demonstrations in AlgeriaJordanYemenSudanLebanon and Egypt. Will this mark the end of authoritarian rule in the Middle East? Can democracy blossom in the wake of these popular revolts?

 

Last night the world was listening in to President Hosni Mubarak’s statement to the Egyptian people. He said he’s not going to be a candidate in September’s presidential election, and promised a series of reforms to meet “the legitimate demands of the people.” He spoke about “political, economic and social reforms, providing job opportunities, fighting poverty and achieving social justice.”

The BBC went out onto Tahrir square in Cairo after the speech. One demonstrator said it was good that he wouldn’t be a candidate in the next election:

He’s saying we need this six, seven months for a new parliament, new constitution, everything, then we can change. But I say we cool it off now. We can’t just leave everything for chaos to happen — if this happens we have a lot of people that could take over and a lot of chaos that could happen.

But this protester said they won’t quit unless Mubarak goes:

I want to say one word to our president: we don’t leave the square, we leave the square after he’s leaving our country.

Writer Anthony L Hall finds this is a dangerous attitude. He says Mubarak has come up with a reasonable compromise:

What’s another nine months after 30 years after all… Frankly, I fear these wannabe revolutionaries have become so intoxicated with their own “people power” that they seem every bit as dictatorial now as they’ve accused Mubarak of being.

But blogger As’ad calls for all out resistance:

As soon as I saw the defiant tone and substance of Mubarak’s speech, I realized that he is not speaking for himself but for the US/Israeli sponsors. The Egyptian protesters now need the equivalent of the storming of the Bastille.

Is invoking the French Revolution over the top? Or are we really seeing the end of an era in the Arab World? It’s certainly catching on. Now the Sudanese are wondering if their nation will be next, as students protest against the government they blame for rising prices and years of repression.

The forecast is looking stormy, with a “Day of Rage” planned on Thursday in Yemen and Friday in Syria It’s all been organised on social networks, and although facebook is banned in Syria, people are using proxy servers to get around this.

Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of Brookings Doha Center, says that people across the region have drawn inspiration from the successes in Tunisia:

This power is stimulating the emergence of a “can do” attitude in the Arab world, which is breaking the barrier of fear that has long suppressed popular expression. Arab autocrats should learn the lesson: Preemptive and serious political reform is the only real means for survival.

Are Arab leaders learning to listen to the demands of the people? Will we see the end of autocratic rule in the Arab World? Can a transition to democracy tackle the myriad problems in the region?

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