Events in Tunisia have sent a tingle down the spine of democracy activists and average folks across the Arab world. Here, at last, an Arab public has gotten fed up with systemic abuse and humiliation and won (whatever else happens, the mere fact that President Ben Ali, Tunisia's strong man, was driven from the country is a victory).
No matter who you read or talk to, there's a consensus that "everything has changed." But what that "change" means for Tunisia's neighbors is something else again. So far there have been copycat self-immolations (a desperate young Tunisian man's suicide by fire was the spark that started the Tunisian revolt) in Egypt, Algeria and even Mauritania. Small groups of protesters have gathered in Jordan, Egypt and Oman. And you can bet that the region's autocrats are huddling now to create plans to head off any outbreaks like Tunisia's (or too deal very harshly them,)
The Monitor's Scott Peterson has a nice analysis piece this morning arguing that Tunisia's experience "is unlikely to result in a chain of similar revolutions, but rather wider political reforms." Why?
"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."
And while I agree that reforms (perhaps a better word is "adjustments") will be made by neighbors in response to what's happened, it's worth remembering that they will be made in service of maintaining control. Autocrats rarely go quietly.
Writing at Foreign Policy, Harvard international affairs Professor Stephen Walt argues strongly against the "wave" theory. "The history of world revolution suggests that this sort of revolutionary cascade is quite rare, and even when some sort of revolutionary contagion does take place, it happens pretty slowly and is often accompanied by overt foreign invasion," he writes.
"Although most Arab governments are authoritarian, they are also all independent and depend on a slightly different mix of political institutions and measures to keep the rulers in power. The fact that Ben Ali ultimately mismanaged a challenge and was driven from power does not mean that other Arab leaders won't be able to deflect, deter, or suppress challenges to their rule."
Walt also says that if the current confusion in Tunis -- with the "unity" interim government still controlled by Ben Ali's recent political allies, enraging protesters -- evolves into a period of prolonged chaos, it also might take the edge off the desire for swift change in neighboring states.