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.

Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP
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.

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.

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.

Clinton’s words on Thursday echoed the often even-tougher views of US officials behind the scenes who say that, while some progress is being made in some Arab countries – for example in expanding civil society – democratic reforms and anticorruption steps are lagging and fomenting what could be a wave of instability.

“Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries’ problems for a little while, but not forever,” Clinton said. Those words turned out to be prophetic for Tunisia’s Ben Ali, but they were interpreted by a number of regional specialists as particularly applicable to Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak – a staunch friend of the US but an octogenarian who has ruled for almost 30 years.

Mr. Mubarak has not yet announced whether or not he will run for reelection later this year. But if he does not run, it is widely assumed that he would be stepping aside to make way for his son, Gamal Mubarak.

Opening the door to extremism

Clinton also reiterated the viewpoint – in case Arab and Muslim leaders had not heard it enough from American officials – that a failure to expand opportunities for their growing youth populations risks opening the door to extremists and terrorists offering alternative world visions. “If leaders don’t … give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum,” she said.

In the meantime, it was Ben Ali’s flight from Tunisia that was inspiring Arab democracy and reform advocates. Dozens of Egyptian activists danced outside the Tunisian Embassy in Cairo chanting, “Ben Ali, tell Mubarak a plane is waiting for him, too!” the Associated Press reported. On Friday the Tunisian flag suddenly blossomed across Arab facebook pages and in blog posts.

In his statement on events in Tunisia, Obama said that “each nation gives life to the principle of democracy in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people, and those countries that respect the universal rights of their people are stronger and more successful than those that do not. I have no doubt that Tunisia's future will be brighter,” he added, “if it is guided by the voices of the Tunisian people.”

Indeed, the inter-Arab solidarity and inspiration on display in the region harkened back to one of the key points that Obama had made in his Cairo speech – that the necessary reform in the region could not be imposed from outside, but would have to come from within.

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