As the sun sets in Tunis, it already looks likely that January 14, 2011, could be recorded as an historic day not just for Tunisia but for the Arab world. Hours after dissolving his government and the country's Parliament in a failed bid to calm the protests that had stormed the capital, President Ben Ali has fled the country. Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi announced on television that he was taking over "temporarily." Whatever happens next, Tunisia's protests have become a watershed moment in Arab history as only the second popular uprising to topple a government since the end of colonialism. Even the first -- Lebanon's 2005 "Cedar Revolution" -- was in many ways about expelling Syrian overlords rather than ousting the domestic leadership. Though today's events have elated Arab citizens and activists of all stripes who tired of their oppressive governments, January 15 and beyond could be very dark days.
Tunisia appears to have avoided a military coup for now. But as protests continue to destabilize the capital and Ghannouchi struggles to assert authority as the temporary caretaker, a military take-over remains a real possibility. With Ali gone, the Parliament dissolved, and no government-in-waiting ready to step in, a power vacuum could open quickly in Tunis. Someone has to rule the country tomorrow. If protesters challenge Ghannouchi, he may be unable to hold on, and it's not clear that the protest movement would be able to take over.
In many of history's best-known revolutions, a well-organized, hierarchical opposition has been able to not just topple the government but to quickly replace it, restoring order over the country's institutions. But Tunisia's protesters have lasted for so long precisely because, aided by social media, they have organized with no discernible hierarchy or leadership. Tunisian security has had no way to disrupt the movement, no leaders to cut off. But, without a revolutionary shadow government ready to step in, only Tunisia'a military is organized enough to replace the central government and strong enough to challenge the protesters. This doesn't mean they will, or even that they want to, but until Tunisia stabilizes the temptation will be there.
Even if Tunisia's would-be revolution succeeds, what next? The history of popular revolutions, we often forget, is littered with civil wars, political purges, and mass killings. The French Reign of Terror, in which tens of thousands of civilians were killed, many by the guillotine, appears tame next to the millions killed in Russia's post-revolutionary civil war or in China's cultural revolution. Iran's 1979 revolution, though not as deadly, was hijacked by a relatively small contingent of conservative clerics, which has had severe consequences for the people of Iran and for the Middle East.
Americans often associate the word "revolution" with our own far less violent war for independence and with the rapid fall of communism in Eastern Europe. But the distinction between throwing off the chains of foreign occupiers and a popular, internal revolution is an important one. If January 14 becomes the first day of the 2011 Tunisian revolution, it will be historic, but it may not be peaceful. Tunisia's turmoil could be winding down--or it could be just getting started.
Photo by Fethi Belaid/Getty Images