Tunisian events likely to spark wider Arab reforms, but not revolutions
A number of copycat self-immolations across the Middle East are raising questions about whether the protests that drove Tunisia's Ben Ali could soon threaten other Arab autocrats.
Few narratives of political change are as powerful as that of Tunisia, where the decision of a 26-year-old college graduate to set himself on fire – to protest the police seizure of his produce cart, for lack of permits – set off a revolution that toppled an authoritarian president.Skip to next paragraph
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Even before the escape of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to Saudi Arabia on Friday, other men began to immolate themselves in nations across North Africa afflicted by poverty, unemployment, and corruption, in apparent copycat attempts to spark similar upheavals in their countries.
But analysts say that while Tunisia’s so-called “Jasmine Revolution” has shocked the Arab world – rulers and ruled alike – it is unlikely to result in a chain of similar revolutions, but rather wider political reforms.
“I don’t think we are going to witness a domino effect [or] a revolution that sweeps all Arab leaders away,” says Fawaz Gerges, the director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics (LSE).
“But we might witness now a qualitatively different type of Arab politics [because] the social uprising in Tunisia has sent shockwaves through the veins of Arab rulers … this is a very unique moment in modern Arab history,” says Mr. Gerges. “What has distinguished contemporary Arab politics in the last 50 years is political apathy and fear. [Tunisia] has shattered the myth, the claim that Arabs will not dare to rise up against tormentors, against their dictators.”
'The end of an era'
Among apparent signs of that new dynamic are increasing reports of copycat suicide attempts in the past week. Four men are known to have burnt themselves in Algeria – one a father of six who did not receive housing benefits. One set himself alight in Mauritania. And in Egypt on Tuesday an unemployed man set fire to himself, becoming the third in the country to do so after a baker made a similar protest in front of the parliament building.
Street protests calling for political change and better lives have also erupted in Algeria and Jordan.
But while Tunisia was one of the most effective police states in a region of authoritarian and undemocratic rulers, it also boasts many characteristics that do not apply elsewhere. Tunisia has a strong, educated, and modern middle class – those young men and women who were on the streets and the front lines in Tunis – which nations like Algeria, Egypt, and Yemen don’t have.