Implications of the Revolution in Tunisia

January 17th, 2011

By Tom Carter

We should be paying closer attention to the revolution going on right now in Tunisia.  Assuming, of course, that U.S. media can tear themselves away from the most important story of they day — the responsibility of Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh for the Arizona shooting.

In what appears to be a spontaneous uprising, the people of Tunisia have thrown out their president of 22 years, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and his corrupt family.  At the head of the corruption list, in the popular mind, is the president’s wife Leila, who has been characterized as the “Imelda Marcos of the Arab world.”

As is often the case these days, the best reports on world events — and often U.S. news — is found in the British press.  The Daily Mail has a comprehensive report on the situation in Tunisia, including details on the corruption of the former president’s family.  In the U.S., the Washington Post has a good analytical report on the implications of the Tunisian revolution for other regimes in the Middle East.

Why should we care about the overthrow of a corrupt, repressive regime in a small country of only 10 million people in North Africa?  Because virtually every country in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, is ruled by non-democratic, corrupt, repressive regimes.  Some are worse than others, of course, but none are models of democracy and civil society, and the pernicious influence of Islam is present in all.  When the dominoes start falling, no one can know what will happen.

The corrupt regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, for example, has been in power for 29 years and could be ripe for overthrow.  That would undoubtedly include, if not be instigated by, the Muslim Brotherhood.  This Islamist group is also found in other Arab countries, and if it gains power in Egypt that could be the first stepping stone to even greater fundamentalist Islamist influence throughout the region.

From the Washington Post report:

Almost no government in the region is immune from the combustible combination of grievances that sparked the uprising in Tunisia. Inflation, joblessness and the hopelessness of living in a country where opportunity is the preserve of a tiny ruling elite are steadily fueling frustrations from Algiers to Amman, from Tripoli to Sanaa and Damascus.

With the exception of Lebanon, whose democratically elected government also collapsed last week, for reasons related to Lebanon’s own complicated sectarian politics, and Iraq, still battling the scourge of a lingering insurgency, every country in the region is ruled by some form of undemocratic autocrat. …

Perhaps nowhere do the lessons of Tunisia resonate more loudly than in nearby Egypt, where Mubarak has been president since 1981, six years longer than his toppled Tunisian counterpart. Egypt, like Tunisia, is grappling with the challenges of a rapidly growing population, limited job opportunities and deep resentment of the entrenched privileges of a ruling clique. …

In Egypt, the most potent opposition movement is the Muslim Brotherhood, whose supporters are dedicated to imposing Islamist rule on a country with a long secular tradition. Islamists are also the most vocal opponents of the regimes in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which, like Egypt, are key U.S. allies, as well as in Syria, which is not.

The little country of Tunisia, not oil-rich, has based it’s positive economic growth mainly on tourism, agriculture, mining, and manufacturing.  The Ben Ali government was widely praised for liberalizing important aspects of society, particularly the roles and rights of women.  But beneath this veneer was a repressive police state with a poor human rights record.  The people had finally had enough.  Will they serve as an inspiration for people suffering under similar or worse regimes in the region?  Only time will tell.

There is some question as to whether State Department cables released by WikiLeaks, including this one from the American ambassador in Tunis, played a significant role in kicking off the popular revolt.  That doesn’t appear likely because, as with most of the State Department cables released by WikiLeaks, the facts reported were already widely known by Tunisians.

The Middle East has long been an unstable, explosive region.  The threat is not only to the existence of Israel; it’s a powder keg that threatens to blow up not only itself but many other parts of the world.  Now that it serves as a base for the Muslim extremism that threatens most other people in the world, we can’t afford to ignore minor events like a revolution in a small, relatively unimportant country.  After all, it only takes one penny match to set off a powder keg.


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