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Lighting the touch-paper in Tunisia

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Robin Lustig | 12:58 UK time, Saturday, 15 January 2011

Do not underestimate the importance of what has just happened in Tunisia. The toppling of President Zine al-Abidene Ben Ali means that for the first time since the Iranian revolution in 1979, an unpopular Middle Eastern dictator has been overthrown by people power.

It's early days, to be sure, but the consequences could be profound. Throughout the Arab world, people are glued to their TVs, their computers and their social network feeds and asking: "Could we do the same?"

Their leaders are asking a different question: "How can we stop them doing the same?"

Thanks to the work of the website Global Voices, which collates social network comments from around the world, we can read the thoughts of, for example, Bader Al Aujan, from Saudi Arabia: "Thank you, thank you, thank you, to our relatives in Tunisia. I never thought that I would ever have this feeling of pride and achievement."

Or Ahmad Fahad, in Oman, who says he cannot take his mind off Twitter: "How am I supposed to work while governments are being overthrown live on Twitter?"

Or Ahmad Badawy in Egypt: "Ben Ali, tell your brother (Mubarak) that the people of Egypt hate him."

Be honest: until a few days ago, how much did you know about Tunisia? Small country, North Africa, nice tourist beaches? Oh yes, and Carthage, of course, three millennia old and definitely worth a visit if you're in the area.

Or, alternatively, "a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems ... Corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising ... Anger is growing at Tunisia's high unemployment and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime's long-term stability are increasing."

Take a bow, former US ambassador Robert Godec, who got it pretty much dead right in a cable to Washington 18 months ago, now released by WikiLeaks.

Arab leaders have a habit of sticking around for a very long time. Ben Ali lasted 23 years, and as Blake Hounshell pointed out in Foreign Policy this week, Muammar Gaddafi has been in charge in Libya for 41 years; President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen for 33 years; Hosni Mubarak in Egypt for 30 years. You could add the Assads, father and son, in Syria, 40 years.

Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, east Asia - all of them, over the past 30-40 years, have seen a flowering of democracy. But not the Arab world, where, with the partial exceptions of Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon, democracy is conspicuous only by its absence.

Last Thursday, as Tunisia was erupting in opposition protests, the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was in Qatar, delivering some home truths to Arab leaders: "Across the region, one in five young people is unemployed. And in some places, the percentage is far more. While some countries have made great strides in governance, in many others people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order. They are demanding reform to make their governments more effective, more responsive, and more open."

She didn't mention anyone by name - she didn't need to: "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. If leaders don't offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum. Extremist elements, terrorist groups, and others who would prey on desperation and poverty are already out there, appealing for allegiance and competing for influence."

To which Washington's critics will reply: Huh! Who's been propping up these sclerotic regimes all these years? Who's been backing Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the al-Sauds in Saudi Arabia - and yes, Zine al-Abidene Ben Ali in Tunisia? As ambassador Robert Godec reported in his WikiLeaks cable, there's been substantially increased US military assistance to Tunisia in recent years, as well as joint counter-terrorism programmes and strengthened commercial ties.

So Arab leaders will be watching events in Tunisia very nervously. Watch out for protests in Algeria, Jordan, and Egypt, where there have already been demonstrations against corruption, food prices and unemployment.

It's far too soon to say that a wind of democracy is blowing through the Arab world. But someone just lit a touch-paper in Tunisia, and we don't yet know what detonations might follow.


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