Feature

Tunisia: The Arab world’s first revolution

Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who looted his country for two decades, was toppled last week in a popular uprising.

“The tyrant has fled,” said Abd-al-Bari Atwan in the London-based Al Quds al-Arabi. Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who looted his country for two decades, was toppled last week in a popular uprising. Ben Ali will find no comfort in his “luxury exile” in Saudi Arabia, “because the souls of the martyrs who died in the uprising will haunt him.” More than 60 people died in Tunisia’s revolution, most of them killed by police. But thankfully the army “took the side of the people” and “refused to be the guardian of corruption, oppression, and usurpation of freedom.” Let this be a lesson to other Arab armies, which are all too often “used by the dictatorial rulers to oppress their peoples.” The Tunisian people deserve thanks from all Arabs, for “they have proved that the Arab street is not dead.”

It’s hard to overstate the significance of this revolution, both for the Arab world and for Africa, said South Africa’s Cape Times in an editorial. The Tunisian popular uprising “is the first in an Arab country and only the second, after Iran, in a Muslim country.” But it is very different from Iran’s Islamic Revolution, which was about religion and anti-Western nationalism; Tunisians are revolting against autocracy and demanding democracy. Some are already calling the event the “Jasmine Revolution,” after Tunisia’s national flower, in an echo of the color revolutions that swept former Soviet states in the last decade. Just as Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution inspired Ukraine’s Orange Revolution the following year, the Jasmine Revolution could spark uprisings in other authoritarian Arab countries, “notably Algeria and Egypt.”

That’s why Arab leaders “are on their knees right now praying for chaos and collapse for Tunisia,” said Egyptian-born journalist Mona Eltahawy in the London Guardian. Most are simply keeping silent, but not Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, the world’s longest-serving dictator, at 41 years and counting. He came out and denounced the uprising as a Western plot, claiming Tunisians had been misled by WikiLeaks’ revelations of U.S. diplomatic cables portraying Ben Ali as grasping and corrupt. Indeed, one cable widely cited in Tunisia said, “Whether it’s cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali’s family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants.” But to credit WikiLeaks with sparking the revolt is to rob the Tunisian people of their achievement. It wasn’t a Western plot that brought down Ben Ali but instead “ordinary and very fed-up people.”

Let’s hope they are able to “savor their historic victory,” said Abdelkrim Ghezali in Algeria’s La Tribune. Ominously, Islamists are already murmuring about taking a political role. That “raises the specter of a scenario” all too familiar to Algerians. We were also “intoxicated with freedom” when mass protests in the late 1980s shook single-party rule. Then in 1991, an Islamist electoral victory triggered a crackdown and a decade-long civil war that claimed more than 150,000 lives. Good luck, Tunisia. You’ll need it.

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