This analysis was published in The New York Times on 14/01/2011
The reported departure of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, after popular protests in his North African country, electrified an Arab world whose residents have increasingly complained of governments that seem incapable of meeting their citizens’ demands and bereft of ideology save a motivation to perpetuate themselves in power.
“We hope that what happened in Tunisia could happen in other Arab countries where leaders and kings have rusted on their thrones,” said Abeer Madi al-Halabi, a newscaster on New TV, a Lebanese station that supports leftist causes.
Since their beginning, the protests have been closely followed by Arabic-language networks, as well as social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter. Hours after Mr. Ben Ali’s departure, messages were posted to Facebook celebrating the fall of one of the Arab world’s heaviest handed dictatorships.
“The most important thing is that we got rid of the dictator, Ben Ali, and his family. Thank God!” said one comment posted on a Facebook group called Tunisia.
The fall of Mr. Ben Ali marks the first time that widespread street demonstrations have overthrown an Arab leader. That it came by way of what was portrayed in the Middle East as a popular uprising, crossing lines of religion and ideology, seemed only to make it more potent as an example.
Smaller protests, many of them over rising prices and economic conditions, have already taken place in countries like Egypt, Algeria and Jordan. Egypt, in particular, seems to bear at least a passing resemblance to Tunisia — a heavy-handed security state with diminishing popular support and growing demands from an educated, frustrated population.
“It’s the creeping realization that more and more people are being marginalized and pauperized and, increasingly, life is more difficult,” said Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. “You need little events that capture the spirit of the time. Tunisia best captures that in the Arab world.”