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Global Viewpoint

Could Tunisia be a tipping point for the Arab world?

We may be witnessing the start of a historic process in which developments in Tunisia ignite copycat protests or milder political challenges in other Arab countries.

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4. The most remarkable thing about what has just happened in Tunisia is how thin and narrow was the support structure that held Ben Ali’ s security-based regime in power. We learn once again that dictators maintained in place largely by soldiers and intelligence services crumble swiftly once their citizens show that they are not afraid to confront the soldiers and, indeed, risk death, beatings, and imprisonment when they do so. Once Ben Ali last week ordered his troops not to use live ammunition in confronting the demonstrators and pledged not to run for office again in 2014, his days in power were over. It only took another 24 hours for him to flee the country.

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Ben Ali was one of the most glaring examples of the modern Arab autocrat who was also heavily supported by Western powers, and who ruthlessly put down protests and challenges by domestic forces, whether Islamists, secular democrats, leftists, or union members, jurists, journalists, and other specialized groups. Because his system of rule and the grievances that finally sparked his people to throw him out are both so common around the Arab world, we may be witnessing the start of a historic process in which developments in Tunisia ignite copycat protests or milder political challenges in other Arab countries. The Al Jazeera television effect will play a huge role here.

A major unknown is what the overthrow of Ben Ali will mean for the interests and postures of major Western powers, such as France and the United States. This will depend largely on what kind of governance system replaces his security state, whether a democratic and pluralistic system takes root, and how much the Tunisian people will hold Western powers responsible for their decades of suffering in their dehumanized condition as politically castrated semi-citizens. We shall soon find out, because for the first time in half a century we may have an opportunity to learn what the citizens of Tunisia actually feel and want.

Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.

© 2011 Rami G. Khouri; Distributed by Global Viewpoint Network/Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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