I often miss living in the Middle East, but rarely as much as right now. Tunisia's President Ben Ali, a dictator whose continued reign had become untenable for the rest of the Tunisian elite in the face of massive public protests, has just resigned. Al Jazeera is reporting that Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi has taken power as interim president.
Our Egypt correspondent Kristen Chick is currently stuck at the Cairo airport: The Tunis airport has been closed due to the coup d'état/people power revolution/peaceful transfer of power/whatever it is that just happened. I'm guessing that if all this is well-received by the crowds on the streets in Tunis (which seems a safe bet) that the airport will soon reopen, at least in a limited way. The new government will be eager to show it's addressing popular demands, that a military dictatorship to replace the Ben Ali dictatorship is not on the cards. So at least for a little while it may get easier for reporters to get in and do their jobs.
What then? There are lots of reasons to temper optimism that a true Arab democracy is being born – not least of which is that there are plenty of people in the power structure beyond Ben Ali who benefit from the current system. It was those people, in the end, who pulled the rug from under Ben Ali. They were pushed to do it by a wave of protests they couldn't stop, but how they manage the next few months will reveal their intentions and the chances of structural change.
But for now, it looks like the first phase is going about as well as could have been hoped for and the massacre of hundreds in the streets has been averted. Marc Lynch, a George Washington University political science professor who blogs over at Foreign Policy, is following events closely. He was spot-on with this snap judgment about what was likely to come next a little over two hours ago:
"The only path forward I can see which doesn't involve significant bloodshed and chaos is a "soft coup," with a caretaker government and promise of rapid move to elections. I hope that somebody -- the Obama administration, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, President Sarkozy -- is ready to make that quiet phone call and tell Ben Ali that his service to his nation has come to an end."
Keep an eye out for more of Marc's posts. He's been spot-on about a lot of things in the Arab world – particularly on the outlook for democracy, the way the US wields its influence, and the rule of the regional media – for a while now.