Ouster of Tunisia president: An opportunity for Arab autocrats to respond to the people

The Arab world nervously watches Tunisia as protests force a longstanding repressive ruler to flee. Is revolution in the air?

Arab spring? Or Arab winter?

That choice is now before the autocratic rulers in the Middle East and North Africa as they nervously watch a popular uprising oust a repressive leader in one of the smallest – but most stable – countries of the region, Tunisia.

After ruling this seaside tourist destination on the African edge of the Mediterranean for 23 years, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali resigned today as Tunisia’s president. He was pushed out by protests and riots that began last month but rolled into the capital, Tunis, this week.

The demonstrations were sparked in December when an educated but typically jobless young man killed himself after authorities confiscated fruits and vegetables he was selling without a permit. As one witness told Reuters, however, “It is not just about unemployment any more. It’s about freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, all the freedoms.”

Freedoms have not fared well in the Arab world in recent years, despite America’s relative success in setting up a workable democracy in post-Saddam Iraq.

This week, the nonprofit group Freedom House reported that the Middle East and North Africa continued their “multiyear decline from an already low democratic baseline.” Exhibit A: Egypt, the most populous Arab country, carried out sham parliamentary elections last fall.

Tunisians, though, are not alone in their protests. People have taken to the streets in Arab countries such as Algeria, Jordan, and, yes, Egypt. Circumstances of the protests differ, but common conditions in these countries include rising food and fuel prices and joblessness. The region has a burgeoning youth population with limited prospects for jobs, and people are chafing against corruption-blocked avenues for political participation.

The conundrum for the autocrats – and their Western backers – is how to respond. At first, Tunisian President Ben Ali reacted predictably, firing on protesters (reportedly dozens have been killed) and blaming outside terrorists.

Then, contrition apparently set in, as he told a national television audience Thursday that “I understand you.” Ben Ali announced the lifting of restrictions on the media and Internet and said he would not run again for president. He promised jobs and lower food prices.

On Friday, he resigned and an interim government led by the prime minister took over. A state of emergency has been declared, forbidding assembly of more than three people and imposing a night-time curfew.

Members of the aging Arab Autocrat Club hold on to their jobs in part because membership has its perks: wealth, influence, and, of course, power. But they also fear an Islamist uprising should they step down, or open the doors to democracy – such as with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

In recent years, Europe and the United States have accommodated this fear, pushing much harder for economic and social change than for a political opening up in the region. But as illustrated by the case of Tunisia – a target of Western economic engagement – that is not enough.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke bluntly about the need for more extensive change on a trip to the Middle East this week, saying that “people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order.” It was an unusually loud and firm statement from a US official.

Perhaps it is dawning on Middle East rulers that if the lid of repression is kept on, the pot will eventually boil over. A people will not forever be kept bottled up with no prospects – especially as they see, through the Internet and TV, what’s possible elsewhere in the world.

This is just as true in an Islamist theocracy such as Iran, as it was under Mr. Ben Ali.

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