Could 'Tunisia effect' topple more Mideast regimes?

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 15, 2011 

BAGHDAD — In a historic winter of discontent in the Arab world, the uprising that forced the president of Tunisia from power has instantly reverberated across a region with no shortage of equally unpopular despots.

"To the Tunisian people: Thank you!" exclaimed an editorial Saturday in Al Quds Al Arabi, an independent pan-Arab newspaper.

While Arabs took to the streets — and many more to Facebook and Twitter — to celebrate the region's first true popular revolution in decades, political activists expressed hope for a domino effect in the Middle East. The ouster of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali is the clearest indication that change is coming to a regional status quo marked by authoritarian rulers, systematic corruption, bulging youth populations and an endemic shortage of decent jobs.

Already this winter, demonstrations and riots have erupted in Egypt, Algeria and Jordan, all countries where long-serving rulers for years have used a combination of heavy force and well-timed subsidies to tamp down popular frustration.

But public anger now manifests itself much more openly, and the Internet and satellite TV carry it across the region. Two weeks ago in Egypt, protests denouncing a terrorist attack on a church immediately turned anti-government, with many demonstrators voicing solidarity with the Tunisian rebellion.

"What is clear is that the genie is out of the bottle in one country," said Rami Khouri, a Lebanese political analyst at the American University of Beirut. "There are similar genies in other countries, and how they come out of the bottle remains to be seen."

State-owned media across the Middle East have reported the fast-moving events in Tunisia — which began in December when a 26-year-old fruit seller set himself on fire to protest mistreatment by police — simply and without comment, as if unsure what's coming next.

For now, however, Tunisia's revolution has hardly broken up the old political order. The prime minister who assumed power Friday upon Ben Ali's abrupt departure — and the septuagenarian parliamentary speaker who just as abruptly replaced the prime minister on Saturday, per constitutional rules — are both members of Ben Ali's party.

And therein lies perhaps the greatest challenges for the region's would-be revolutions, experts say. Ben Ali's regime so thoroughly beat down and chased away opponents during his 23-year rule that no one has yet stepped forward as a credible new leader.

"The interim government has a legitimacy problem because it’s formed of official party members," said Issandr El Amrani, the Moroccan-born writer of the widely read Arabist blog.

Other leaders, such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, in power for more than 30 years, have followed a similar playbook. Last year, facing rising public anger over food prices and stagnant wages, as well as criticism from Washington over its human rights record, Mubarak responded by renewing an emergency law that grants his security forces broad powers and effectively outlaws opposition parties.

His ruling party then so blatantly rigged parliamentary elections in November that his opponents left the government in protest. Mubarak, 82 and in failing heath, is expected to coast to a sixth term in elections later this year, or to appoint his son, Gamal, as his successor.

Egypt, like Tunisia, is a pro-Western regime that's been a reliable U.S. ally against terrorism. But the Obama administration has shown signs that those alliances aren't immutable as the war on terrorism evolves and the realities in the region change — first by criticizing the Egyptian elections and then, much more forcefully, issuing a passionate statement Friday saluting "the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people."

"The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold," Obama said.

On Saturday afternoon, dozens demonstrated outside the Tunisian embassy in Cairo, chanting slogans such as, "We are all Sidi Bouzid," referring to the town where the fruit vendor killed himself, and, "Your turn is next, Egyptians."

However, the situation in Tunisia — whose population is more educated, affluent and secular than most Middle Eastern nations — could prove to be unique. And powerful regimes have many ways of soothing public anger when they want to. The Egyptian trade minister went so far as to say that there would be no "Tunisia effect" in his country because the government was more adept at subsidizing food staples, such as sugar and oil.

"These are regimes that are very good at staying in power," Khouri said. "Most will find the combination of preemptive and reactive moves that will keep them in power."

(Special correspondent El Naggar reported from Cairo.)

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