Could other Arab countries follow Tunisia's example?

By Roger Hardy
Middle East analyst, Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington DC

  • Published
A Tunisian woman waves the national flag in front of the interior ministry during clashes between demonstrators and security forces in Tunis on January 14, 2011
Image caption,
Weeks of unrest culminated in the resignation of Tunisia's long-time president

Arabs everywhere identified with Mohamed Bouazizi.

When the 26-year-old Tunisian graduate - despairing of getting a decent job and abused by the police - set fire to himself in a public square, his story resonated far beyond his provincial town.

When he later died of his injuries, he became both a symbol and a martyr.

Now the unrest sparked by his self-immolation has led to the downfall of one of the region's longest-serving autocrats.

Unable to quell the unrest, despite making a string of televised concessions to the protesters, the 74-year-old President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali simply vanished from the scene.

While the impact of the unrest on Tunisia is uncertain, its impact on the region is already apparent.

Arabs identified with the young Tunisian because his problems - unemployment, corruption, autocracy, the absence of human rights - are their problems.

Throughout the region there is a dignity deficit.

What is more, in an age of globalisation, regimes can no longer cut their citizens off from news.

The Arab media - even in countries where they are constrained - could sense their audiences' thirst for news about Bouazizi's death and the extraordinary drama it triggered.

They could not keep silent, as they might have done in the past.

'Message to the West'

But if the Tunisian protesters have sent a message of defiance to Arab rulers, they have sent a rather different message to the West.

For decades, Western governments depicted Tunisia as an oasis of calm and economic success - a place they could do business with.

They turned a blind eye to President Ben Ali's harsh suppression of dissent - and ignored the fact that, while the elite prospered, ordinary Tunisians suffered.

In Washington, President Barack Obama has been quick to denounce the excesses of the Tunisian police, and voice the hope that the country will move towards a more democratic future.

As the riots continued in Tunis, his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - at the end of a visit to the Gulf - delivered a blistering critique of corruption and political stagnation in the region.

The Obama administration - stung perhaps by criticism that it has been too timid on these issues - seems to have sensed that it has to speak out or lose credibility.

Several dangers lie ahead.

One is that Tunisia falls into chaos - a scenario that would convince Arab rulers to cling more tightly to power rather than sharing or relinquishing it.

Another is that the unrest may spread. It is already apparent - and for broadly similar reasons - in neighbouring Algeria.

In a string of Arab countries, succession issues loom as ageing autocrats confront the unmet aspirations of their youthful and rapidly growing populations.

Mohamed Bouazizi's life and death sum up the condition of the Arab world today.