What Tunisia Means for the Arab World

The historic uprising could change the rigid political scene--or not

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The popular uprising in Tunisia that forced dictator President Ben Ali to flee the country last week has left the North African country in a state of limbo. Ministers loyal to Ben Ali, who ruled for 23 years, are rapidly resigning their posts, an interim government is pledging to hold free elections, and the military is attempting to restore order as protests continue, looting becomes a problem, and rogue police officers continue to crack down. It's not clear where Tunisia goes next. Many commentators, however, find it increasingly apparent that Tunisia's historic uprising will have a profound effect on the rest of the Arab world, which spans across North Africa and the Middle East. What exactly that means, and how it plays out, is near-impossible to predict. Here's what analysts and reporters are saying about the impact of Tunisia so far and what it could mean going forward.

  • Turning Point for Arab Democracy  "If Tunisia's interim leaders respond to the demands of their people and usher in new elections," Michael Wahid Hanna writes in The Atlantic, "an Arab country will have toppled a tyrant through the power of its people and not the point of an American gun." This will establish an important precedent of democratic reform led internally by Arab peoples, rather than imposed from outside. "While the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the protests of the 'green movement' in Iran have had far-ranging regional ramifications, when it comes to promoting Arab democracy, Tunisia's 2011 uprising may eclipse them both."
  • Self-Immolation Protests Spread Across Region  Tunisia's protests began after a young man frustrated by police exploitation and arbitrary rule set himself on fire by touching a high-voltage current. The New York Times' Mona El-Naggar reports on the disturbing trend this has begun. "In Algeria, four men have set themselves on fire in the last week, and one man in Egypt and another in Mauritania tried to do so on Monday. They appear to be evidence of how deeply the ouster of Tunisia's autocratic president has captivated nearby countries, where citizens have limited opportunities for free expression or political participation."
  • Is Egypt Next?  Eric Trager writes in The Atlantic that "Egypt's liberal activists overwhelmingly come from the wired generation of Twitter and Facebook, and this makes them optimistic that pro-democratic movements can go viral, even in a political environment as traditionally illiberal as the Middle East." In fact, "pointing to recent demonstrations in Jordan and Algeria, they insist that Tunisia's 'Jasmine Revolution' will be contagious--if only people build off its momentum." But, Trager warns, protesters daunting obstacles,  "In particular, an entrenched dictatorship that is determined to discredit the very idea of domino-effect democratization." He concludes, "The safe bet in Egypt is always on regime stability. But as Tunisia has demonstrated, anything is possible."
  • Reforms Likely, Revolutions Are Not  "Analysts say," The Christian Science Monitor's Scott Peterson writes, " that while Tunisia's so-called 'Jasmine Revolution' has shocked the Arab world ... it is unlikely to result in a chain of similar revolutions, but rather wider political reforms." Tunisia's strong middle class made it unusually likely to launch a successful popular uprising, and other Arab autocrats are well-practiced at squashing dissent. Still, the protests may encourage those leaders to institute some promising reforms, is only out of self-defense.
  • Look to the Gulf Model  UAE-based columnist Sultan al-Qassemi argues in Foreign Policy that "it is the Gulf city-states of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Doha--all of which are ruled by an assortment of emirs and monarchs--that offer the most compelling path forward for the Arab world. Despite a lack of Western-style democracy, talented young Arabs have flocked to these states in search of a better life." While al-Qassemi would of course prefer full democratization, the compromises of wealthy Gulf states, he says, could provide a middle path. "In the meantime, most Arabs would settle for a dignified and secure life. And that is precisely what the Gulf states are providing."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.