Sticking a fork in Tunisia's Ben Ali

8:35 am

A lot of people whose judgment I respect are doing just that on their twitter feeds (I'm finally coming to understand how powerful the medium is as an aggregator of opinion and information about breaking news). The Twitter hash tag being used most often is #sidibouzid, which is the name of the central Tunisian city where rioting broke out in mid-December, after a university graduate reduced to selling fruit on the street set himself on fire to protest the seizure of his cart by the police. (Officially, it was because he didn't have a permit, though most likely it was because he didn't have enough cash to pay a requisite bribe.) A lot in that feed is rumor and should be treated with care, but there's lots of wheat among the chaff.

The usually measured Arabist says the scope of the street protests there are giving him "goosebumps." Blake Hounshell, the managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, another man who hasn't struck me as the excitable type, thinks "Ben Ali is finished." Shadi Hamid, research director at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center and whose work focuses on democracy promotion in the Arab world, is amazed by the scope of Tunisia's protests though he does offer a note of caution that I agree with: "Algeria was on the brink of the first successful democratic transition in Arab world. Iran seemed on the brink as well."

His point, of course, is that the past excitement about Twitter revolutions and street protests in those two countries wasn't borne out. Security states are generally very durable things.

Still, it's hard to see Tunisia's President Ben Ali wriggling out of his current pickle, where frustration at a weak economy and joblessness has coupled with disgust for the corruption of his own circle to bring out overwhelming numbers of protesters to the streets. While in the case of Iran, the nascent muscle flexing of "people power" was beaten back by a united security establishment, the arrest and torture of key leaders, and an elite that stayed united in the face of demands for sweeping change, there are signs that Tunisia's leaders won't be able to pull off that trick.

Bloggers and activists have been released from prison over the past couple of days and reporters and activists inside the country say there are signs that members of the security forces are siding with the protesters – demonstrating an unwillingness to turn their guns on the crowds or otherwise slow them down. Ben Ali's promise to step down in 2014, hoping that would cool protesters ire, appears to have failed.

This screen capture of Al Jazeera footage shows a vast crowd of protesters in Tunis (I hope to learn how to embed this kind of image soon so you don't have to click through, but bear with me) that's unlike anything I ever saw/experienced in the Middle East (though countries like Lebanon have had protests as impressive).

What comes next? The options range from the protests fizzling out, to Ben Ali resigning and a national unity government being formed to lead the country, to what will, hopefully, be fair elections (the Tunisian foreign minister said this morning that a national unity government would be "feasible" according to Agence France-Presse), to an extended stand off on the streets.

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