The Tunisia Effect
The Arab world wonders if other dominoes will fall in the face of popular discontent
EYES INSIDE - THE MIDDLE EAST
As news of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's toppling rippled all the way to Yemen, those Arab regimes choosing to comment were quick to offer their congratulations to the Tunisian people.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Saturday that it "respects the choices made by the Tunisian people," adding that "Egypt trusts they are wise enough to control the situation and avoid plunging Tunisia into chaos." On the same day, Yemen's official Saba news agency reported that the Yemeni cabinet had "expressed respect for the will of the Tunisian people to choose its leaders."
Even Saudi Arabia, which took in the fleeing Ben Ali family, carefully announced in a statement from King Abdullah's palace that it had done so "out of concern for the exceptional circumstances facing the brotherly Tunisian people and in support of the security and stability of their country." The statement added that, "The government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announces that it stands fully by the Tunisian people."
Alongside these laudatory statements, Arab and international media alike are asking whether revolution fever could be contagious in a region where autocratic leaders and their family members count their time in office in decades.
Following the example of impoverished Tunisian vegetable vendor Mohammed Bouazizi whose self-immolation sparked the riots in Tunisia, a man in Egypt set fire to himself this week in front of the parliamentary building in Cairo. Another man did the same in front of Mauritania's presidential palace. In Algeria, Mohsen Bouterfif doused himself with gasoline and set fire to himself after a meeting with his local mayor failed to produce either a home or a job. These incidents, however, have failed to rally the masses.
In the aftermath of Ben Ali's flight to Saudi Arabia, protestors took to the streets in Cairo and the Yemeni capital of Sanaa as well as across Jordan over the weekend, shouting their support for Tunisia as well as encouraging fellow citizens to also demand change. After decades of political repression, suppressed free speech and unresponsive governments, activists of all political sensibilities see a small window of opportunity.
On Friday, 3,000 demonstrators held a sit-in outside the Jordanian parliament to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai and to protest what they called unfair economic policies.
"We have been suffering in Jordan the same way the Tunisians have been suffering," Hammam Said, head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan's largest opposition group, told the demonstrators.
Last week, Jordan's King Abdullah ordered Rifai to implement a package of subsidies on basic food commodities and cut taxes on fuels. Despite these measures, the protest organizers refused on Friday to meet with Parliamentary Speaker Faisal Fayez to defuse the tension, a possible sign that compromise is not yet an option.
Tunisia: what next?
It is not clear why the protests in Tunisia grew while those in other Arab countries fizzle out. The question is not what brought Tunisians out to those early protests following Bouazizi's death, but what kept them returning to the streets, despite the crackdowns, despite the risks of arrest and worse. Most Arab countries face the same large-scale problems: youthful populations, high unemployment rates and heavily censored public expression. And most Arab countries deal with them in the same way – strong intelligence services operating outside the law and a ready military presence quickly dispatched when protests get out of hand. In Egypt, security personnel outnumbered protesters outside the Tunisian embassy by 5-1.
The euphoria over Ben Ali's ouster may already be wearing off. Acting Tunisian Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi unveiled his new on Monday – except it was anything but new. The former defense, foreign, finance ministers and all-powerful interior minister all kept their old positions, making the supposedly new government a near replica of the old one. Opposition parties were given the marginal portfolios of health and regional development.
Nearly 1,000 protesters gathered in Tunis following the announcement. It looks as though Ghannouchi's government will seek to give as few concessions as possible while striving to maintain the old guard.
Perhaps Arab leaders have little to worry about, after all. Because despite the congratulatory messages extended to Tunisia, Arab leaders have yet to acknowledge the right of their own people to choose their leaders.