It's not surprising that the world paid so little attention to the protests in Tunisia at first. This small country in North Africa has largely been removed from the major conflicts of the Middle East that have so disproportionately occupied the United States. But now that longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has fled the country and ceded power, international attention has finally focused on the historic events unfolding in Tunis. But Ben Ali's ouster could have serious implications outside this corner of the greater Middle East. The amazing scenes in Tunisia may in the end prove to be decisive for the long-term future of the Arab world, with the potential to revitalize the dispirited discourse of political change and reenergize opposition movements across the region. After decades of incremental, and mostly failed, challenges to authoritarianism, Arab activists and opposition figures now have an unexpected example of successful protest. Tunisia could become a powerful addition to the mixed legacies of two of the most important political events of recent Middle Eastern history: the formation of a struggling democracy in post-invasion Iraq and the 2009 post-election protests in Iran. If Tunisians succeed, their uprising could become more important for the Arab world than the examples of either Iran or Iraq.
The Arab world's political malaise, the repressive practices of Arab governments, and the lack of legally sanctioned channels for political expression and change have been a key factor in the rise of Islamism and its more radical and violent offshoots. While the Bush administration decried the corrosive effects of Arab authoritarianism and hailed the salutary effects of regime change, its prescriptions for achieving these ends - by outside force or threat of force - have been decidedly counterproductive.