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.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
Riot policemen detain demonstrators after they broke up a demonstration in downtown Tunis on Jan. 18. Several new ministers resigned on Tuesday in protest at the presence of members of the party of ousted leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

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.

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 result is "on a psychological level,” he adds. “All it takes now is a spark, one single soccer game in Egypt, or Jordan, or Algeria, to have a potential social uprising.”

'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.

And Arab leaders from Tripoli and Cairo and beyond have sought to portray how their countries are different. But Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, said on Saturday that the revolution was a warning: “Tunisia’s events are serious events and a development that has historical dimensions, and shapes the beginning of one era and the end of another,” he said.

'No more fear'

The appeal of the Tunisian revolt has echoed across a region plagued by high unemployment and poor living conditions, and bursting with a large population of young people with high expectations.

From the sands of the western Sahara to the desert outcrops of Yemen and Saudi Arabia, Arabs have increasingly tapped into the Internet and globalized social networks like Facebook and Twitter. They have watched as panregional 24-hour news channels like Al Jazeera have broken the monopoly on information once held by governments.

“It’s power to the people, by the people,” says Gerges of LSE. “Arabs have learned an extremely important lesson that, ‘Yes, you can.’ This was a slogan that was uttered by many people in Tunisia [by] what I call the Obama Generation.”

The result is likely to be broader political change by Arab leaders anxious to prevent the Tunisian example inspiring a repeat in their countries.

“Arab rulers are terrified because now the fear is no longer there. People are beginning to ask – when you read Arabic newspapers and hear people on the street – [they are] taking a second look at their conditions,” says Gerges. “That’s why now, whether in Jordan or Algeria or Egypt or Yemen, the political ruling class is saying, ‘We are going to take steps to alleviate social conditions.’”

Tunisians protest against 'leftovers' of old regime

While Arab rulers may be recalibrating their relations with their subjects, the revolution in Tunisia is far from complete, with protests continuing against a “unity government” announced late Monday, just before the curfew took effect.

The interim cabinet left several key portfolios in the hands of loyalists of the former regime, though it also included several opposition figures and came with promises of robust political freedoms. But on Tuesday several new ministers resigned. Protesters on the streets of Tunis shouted against keeping any “leftovers” of the previous regime in power.

“Tunisia deserved much more,” the opposition figure Moncef Marzouki told French television, about the interim cabinet that he called a “masquerade” made by Ben Ali loyalists.

“Ninety dead, four weeks of real revolution, only for it to come to this?” asked Mr. Marzouki, as quoted by Al Jazeera English. “A unity government in name only because, in reality, it is made up of members of the party of dictatorship.”

“That’s why the situation remains so volatile,” says Gerges, about the struggle that continues between the protesters and the former president’s party. “The ruling party is really trying to hijack the social uprising; the ‘national unity government’ is the old guard trying to put a good face on the old regime, to put make-up on it.”

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