Hours after a group of stone-throwing youth braved frantic police beatings and confronted grey fumes of teargas outside the Interior Ministry building in Tunis, the unthinkable happened. As darkness thickened on January 14 and agonising uncertainty gripped the Tunisian capital, word was out that Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, well entrenched dictator for 23 years, had fled. For hours, Mr. Ben Ali's plane flew in the Mediterranean night sky, desperately seeking a place to land. France, the former colonial master, saw no benefit in obliging an ageing overused ex-dictator that it had once so assiduously feted. It refused landing permission. Finally, the harried former first family of Tunisia, known for its ostentatious ways, was rescued by the Saudis, who opened one of their numerous palaces in Jeddah to accommodate their uninvited and loveless guests.
But back in Tunisia, despite curfew and an Emergency, there was unbelievable relief and much joy on the streets. Mr. Ben Ali's seemingly unassailable tyranny, reinforced by thousands of personally loyal troops, had suddenly collapsed. Many felt that a political revolution of great significance had been accomplished. Overnight, large sections of the media pronounced that not only an era of authoritarianism in Tunisia had ended but also a new powerful contagion of democracy was fast spreading to annihilate dictators, big and small, across West Asia. That still might be the case but not necessarily so — at least not immediately.
Built on solid organisational foundations and helped by the old and new media alike, the Tunisian rebellion has indeed aroused the masses across the region. As Abdul Bari Atwan, editor of the Palestinian daily, Al Quds Al Arabi, put it: “The Arab nation is patient, but its patience is similar to that of a camel. When it is furious, a camel does not stop until it wreaks revenge on its persecutors. It seems that such a camel has now broken free from its ties.”
But before the anticipation that the long-fossilised dominos in the Arab world will, at some stage, begin to fall is realised, Tunisia needs to consolidate its own fledgling political revolution. The Tunisians are already facing their first major challenge. Within hours of Mr. Ben Ali's fall, the former Speaker Fuad Mebazza, elevated to the presidency, announced the formation of a stopgap national unity government, which was also meant to accommodate important Opposition figures. However, on the night of January 17, the new government, when it was unveiled, was found stuffed with the hated members of the old guard. The key Ministries of Defence, Foreign Affairs, Interior and Finance were once again bestowed on Mr. Ben Ali's cronies.
The regime opponents have therefore their first task cut out — ensuring that the remnants of the old guard no longer occupy high places of influence and are firmly marginalised. Some success in isolating them has already been achieved. Four Opposition figures, co-opted by members of the old guard to occupy Cabinet berths, resigned in the space of 24 hours. However new and serious challenges, which any nascent revolution is bound to encounter, remain. Having accomplished the exit of a hated dictator, how does the Tunisian revolution gather steam and fill the vacuum left by the fast fading old guard? Unlike the Iranian revolution, which had Ayatollah Khomeini as its leader as well as a blaring emblem, how does the Tunisian revolution advance in the absence of a charismatic and popular leader?
The huge challenge notwithstanding, the chances are that the Tunisian people may yet succeed. Unlike many other countries experiencing political turmoil, Tunisia consists of mostly educated people and is institutionally well organised. This is a factor that goes hugely in the favour of Tunisians. Thus the anti-regime campaign that was triggered by the December 17 self-immolation of a university graduate, who was driven to sell vegetables and then denied permission to do so, had labour unions, professional syndicates, including well-entrenched unions of students, teachers, lawyers and journalists as its pillars.
These organisations, partly helped by new communication tools of Facebook and Twitter, could take advantage of the socio-economic deprivations that the Tunisians have experienced for years. As a result, a critical social mass of protesters grew, eventually bringing down the regime.
Despite Tunisia's zooming growth rates, the growing army of the jobless fed significantly into the successful uprising. Many analysts are of the view that the official 14 per cent unemployment rate hardly reflects the true picture of desperation the youth have been experiencing. According to some estimates, nearly half the youth in the 15-24 age bracket are unemployed in some parts of the interior, the core of the Tunisian revolt. Wages are low in the job-creating euro-centric tourism and textile manufacturing hubs established in “free trade zones.” The hardships of ordinary people have become all the more acute for, under the diktat of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, government subsides have been either lowered or removed in the food and gasoline sectors.
With mass misery rising, heavy corruption centred round the President, the President's wife, Leila Trabelsi and her family emerged as an emotive symbol to ignite the rebellion. According to a WikiLeaks cable from the U.S. embassy in Tunis, the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families had cornered nearly 50 per cent of the country's wealth. It was, therefore, not surprising that when the crowds went on the rampage on January 15, they targeted business properties associated with the two nepotistic ruling clans. In the Tunis neighbourhood of Cite Habib, a villa belonging to Leila Trabelsi's nephew was set afire. Dealership showrooms, owned by Mr. Ben Ali's son-in-law Mohamed Sakher El Materi, of Kia, Fiat and Porsche vehicles were also burnt down. The next day, Imed Trabelsi — Ms. Trabelsi's nephew who had been stabbed — died in a Tunis military hospital, accounting for the first fatality in the ruling family in the aftermath of the month-long uprising.
As the Tunisian revolt gathers its second wind, the role of the military could become crucial. It is widely believed that Mr. Ben Ali's nearly 1,80,000-strong security police are at loggerheads with the regular army. In fact, unlike the police whom the protesters targeted, evident from the torching of a number of police stations, the military continues to remain a popular force. The army's neutrality and thus its clean popular image came into focus when it declined to fire at the protesters, causing Mr. Ben Ali to sack his Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Rashid Ammar.
The uprising in Tunisia is leaving behind a deep imprint on the impoverished youth in the neighbouring countries. But can it spread fast and strongly enough to challenge the deeply entrenched regimes that have been built on the foundations of patronage, pillage and ruthless force, perpetrated by the grossest human rights violations?
The psychological impact of the Tunisian example in the region is palpable. In Algeria, four persons set themselves ablaze to protest their dire economic and political situation. Egypt, demographically the largest nation in the region and cultural heartbeat of the Arab world, has also witnessed a case of self-immolation.
Panic is also setting in among the regimes, though it would be erroneous to assume that its feckless dictators are considering throwing in the towel anytime soon. Nevertheless, a nervous Egyptian establishment has decided to rein in the prices of essentials like rice and sugar, and end the breadlines by not withholding wheat flour to bakeries for previous violations. The Egyptian daily, Al-Mesryoon, has reported that on the security front, instructions have been passed to prevent Opposition forces and movements from holding demonstrations or protests.
The Libyan dictator, Muammar Qadhafi, also appeared shaken by the dramatic developments on his doorstep. Soon after Mr. Ben Ali fled, he strongly disapproved of the Tunisian revolt. In a televised address, he chided the Tunisian people for being impatient. “You have suffered a great loss,” he said. “There is none better than Zine to govern Tunisia.”
A stunned Arab League — which has largely degenerated into a cabal of dictators and plutocrats — scampered to the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to collectively absorb the shock inflicted upon it by the commoners of Tunisia.
Despite the revulsion that it has generated, it would take much more than high-octane emotion to dislodge the odious dictatorships. Nevertheless, Egypt seems to echo loudest the radical voices of fundamental change that are resonating from the Tunisian street. Unlike many of the smaller countries, Egypt's battle-hardened core of the poor and the dispossessed are also its best organised.
Besides, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is a highly potent force, which might come into its own as part of the larger Egyptian opposition, especially as the iron-fisted regime of President Hosni Mubarak is soon likely to witness a major transition.