News / Middle East

Tunisia Offers Lessons to Repressive Arab Leaders and Citizens

A woman holds a picture of Tunisia's deposed leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, reading 'Wanted', during a demonstration showing solidarity with Tunisians, in Marseilles, France , Jan. 15, 2011
A woman holds a picture of Tunisia's deposed leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, reading 'Wanted', during a demonstration showing solidarity with Tunisians, in Marseilles, France , Jan. 15, 2011

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The Arab world, in particular North Africa, has been riveted by the events in Tunisia, and many in the region see parallels to the stifling conditions they endure.  But conditions vary greatly among the countries and could play a major role in how disgruntled citizens react. 

Among those closely following events in Tunisia is Nadia, who works in tourism in Cairo and is well aware of the riches the region has to offer.  But she adds Arab countries also have many other, unfortunate things in common.

"For instance, political tension," Nadia said. "There is a high rate of unemployment, absence of freedom of expression as people live under dictatorship for long years.  We have in Egypt, for example, a large number of people [who] live below [the] poverty guideline, and for the first time we hear about this young man burning himself in front of the parliament."  

That act of self-immolation in Cairo, an echo of  Mohamed Bouazizi’s protest-suicide that began the revolution in Tunisia, has also been repeated in Mauretania and Algeria.  

The translation of despair to action and the resulting fall of the Tunisian president, has provoked other public protests, so far relatively small, across the region.  

American University in Cairo Professor Said Sadek says the events can only embolden the opposition in all Arab countries.

"The importance of giving hope, that they can lead the change and cause the change, is very important," Sadek said. "But it would not have to be in the same scenario, in the same details.  History does not repeat itself with the same details."  

Tunisia is in many ways an exception in the Arab world, with a solid middle class fueled by an economy not tied to oil-production, a high level of education, and more equal rights between men and women.  
Amr Hamzawi, of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, says even the corruption of Tunisia’s former president differed in scale and in nature from other leaders in the region, with it mainly confined to the president’s family.

"In Egypt, of course there is corruption, but this corruption benefits a wide segment of the population, it is not only six or seven people, it is maybe six, seven or maybe 10 percent of the population.  And the same goes for Morocco and Algeria," Hamawi said.

Among those who enjoy the spoils of the regimes are often the security forces.  Hamzawi says that was not the case in Tunisia, where the army was largely outside the political sphere and balked at putting down the popular uprising.  

Even so, the  military-backed regimes appear to be taking notice.  
AUC’s Sadek points out Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who he calls the “doyen of the Arab tyrants” was the first to reject what happened there. 

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak took a different tack Wednesday at an economic summit of Arab leaders, calling for investment in the region’s youth, who he pointedly called the “most precious of all our resources.”

He said that employment is a major priority, as is education, economic growth and social and human development.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa addressed the issue head on, warning those gathered in Sharm el Sheikh that “the Arab soul is broken” adding, “the Tunisian revolution is not far from us.”
Said Sadek.

"The regimes in the Middle East are trying to learn the mistakes and trying to cool the tense situation by avoiding any more provocations like human-rights violations, like rising prices, you know things like that. And so that might be a way to postpone the upcoming or the inevitable social, economic or political revolution, but cannot abort it," Sadek said.

Sadek says the only way to truly avoid upheaval is to start political reform, something lacking in virtually every country in the region where rulers have stayed in power long after any vision they might once have had for their countries died out.

The Carnegie Center’s Amr Hamzawi says, in the broadest sense, the events in Tunisia unfolded much as they did in other parts of the world, from Eastern Europe, to Latin America and several Asian nations.   The Arab world, he says, is not immune to democracy.   

"It is a confirmation that we are not an exception to humanity," Hamzawi said. "Arabs wish to see accountable governments, wish to see better power distribution, wish to see checks and balances.  They do not like authoritarianism, and they acted in that spirit in Tunisia."

Hamzawi says each country has a tipping point, but when it would be, and how it would play out, is anyone’s guess.

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