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Events in Tunisia bear out Hillary Clinton's warning to Arab world

The president of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, flees the country amid unrest one day after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a warning to Arab states that refuse democratic reforms.

By Staff writer / January 14, 2011

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talks during the Forum for the Future conference in Doha, Qatar, Thursday. Clinton warned Arab leaders that the foundations of progress in the Middle East are 'sinking into the sand,' and that the region faces disaster without real reforms. A day later, rioting forced the president of Tunisia to flee.

Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP

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Washington

A day after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Arab states that they risked “sinking into the sand” if they did not clean up corruption and quicken their glacial pace of political and economic reform, those sands took one of the Arab world’s long-reigning leaders.

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Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on Friday fled the North African country he ruled in autocratic fashion for 23 years, chased away by a month of street protests that started in provincial cities but engulfed the capital, Tunis, this week. The country’s prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, assumed temporary power.

In a statement Friday afternoon, President Obama hailed the “courage and dignity of the Tunisian people,” and said the United States joined the rest of the world in “bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle." He called on the Tunisian government to “hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people.”

The protesters were largely middle-class young men and educated young people in blue jeans rebelling against a system that reserved opportunity for an elite related in one way or another to Mr. Ben Ali’s ruling family. The autocrat’s flight to Malta was what Secretary Clinton’s words were meant to be: a wake-up call to leaders across the region who maintain similarly tight grasps on their countries’ political and economic systems.

Clinton's rebuke

Clinton’s comments – delivered Thursday at a conference of Middle East diplomats and business leaders in Doha, Qatar, on the Persian Gulf – were direct and vehement, reflecting frustration at the slow pace of change in the region since Mr. Obama delivered his much-heralded Cairo speech to the Arab and Muslim worlds in June 2009.

That speech focused on “a new beginning” for America’s relations with the world’s Muslim communities. But in it the president also emphasized the important role that democratic reform and expanding economic opportunity would have to play in building a stable and prosperous region.

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