(Editor’s Note: This was written yesterday and events are quickly unfolding even as you read this.)
Events in Tunisia are unfolding extremely fast. President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali is on his way out of the country in response to days of protests that have brought the country to a virtual standstill. Arabic media outlets are now reporting that Ben Ali is either on a plane, or preparing to leave immediately. His prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, has taken over as head of government and promised early elections, as well as political reforms. Al Jazeera has indicated that members of Ben Ali’s family may have been arrested, and there are rumors that his relatives have not been allowed to board his plane out of the country.
I’ve been watching Arabic TV outlets this morning — Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and BBC Arabic, primarily — to get a better sense about what’s going on in Tunisia, and the reactions of the Tunisian Street in response to the departure of Ben Ali. Not surprisingly, his departure is being seen as a tremendous victory for the Tunisian people, which it certainly is. This broad-based movement appears to have no clear leadership but has spread rapidly throughout Tunisia by way of Facebook, Twitter, and mobile phones. The government has proven totally unable to deal with this huge wave of opposition that has emerged in recent days. While the protests appear to have started as a result of economic concerns — the government has failed to provide the jobs and economic opportunities that people want, a familiar story in the Arab world — the demonstrations have expanded their focus to include denunciations of the government’s corruption and the lack of political freedoms that it allows.
The big question now is whether or not Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi will be able to calm the country, now that the president has left. (No one yet knows where he is going, although Al Jazeera is reporting that either the Gulf or Saudi Arabia may be his destination of choice, and that France has refused to let him land in Paris.) Signs indicate that the the uprising is not over. Although Ghannouchi has pledged reform, a number of Tunisian analysts and protesters who I heard interviewed this morning pegged Ghannouchi as a part of the problem — i.e. another member of the government elite who is likely to bring more of the same. As I write this, Al Jazeera is reporting that more protests are springing up in the streets as people call for a completely new government. Ghannouchi does not yet appear to have been accepted by the protesters as a viable alternative to Ben Ali.
The coverage of these protests — and of police brutality against the demonstrators — is being broadcast throughout the Arab world, and we can imagine what kind of effect this might be having on the Arab public. Tunisian analysts and demonstrators are talking about freedom, human rights, government corruption. It is clear that Tunisia has set a powerful precedent for the region: that corrupt governments that deny their people human rights and basic decency can and will be held accountable. That these protests can be populist, and homegrown. And that they do not need the support of outside powers. There can be little doubt that authoritarian leaders across the region, watching the development rights now, are quaking in their boots.
What is evident is that Tunisia will never be the same. The government has been disgraced. An Arab reporter I heard this morning noted that no Tunisian parliamentarian had protested the use of live fire against the demonstrators. The next government, if it hopes to avoid this type of public ire, will have to either engage in massive co-optation and repression, or institute a series of political reforms in order to pacify the Tunisian masses. Given the decentralized nature of the protests, it doesn’t seem to me as though the co-optation of the opposition (as has been so successful in places like Jordan and Egypt) is likely to have the same effect in Tunisia. Nor does overwhelming repression seem likely, given the size of these protests and the increasing involvement of international actors (who would surely protest if broad-scale repression were to occur.) Some type of political reform program by the government seems to me to be the most likely future outcome of the Tunisian revolution.
Another interesting point is the role of Wikileaks. According to the New York Times:
Some demonstrators also cited the evidence of cables from the United States Embassy in Tunisia that were released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks providing vividly detailed accounts of the first family’s self-enrichment and opulent lifestyle.
Jeb Koogler is an Associate at the Watson Institute for International Studies. A speaker of Arabic and a student of the Middle East, he blogs at www.fpwatch.blogspot.com. This is cross-posted from his blog.
Be sure to also read TMVer Kathy Kattenburg’s take on events in Tunisia.
SOME STORIES TODAY ON TUNISIA (breaking now):
—Egypt says respects choice of Tunisian people
—New Change of Power Raises Questions in Tunisia
—Tunisia in turmoil after ousted president flees
—In Tunisia, a new era emerges as longtime leader departs
—Tunisia’s Constitutional Council: President Ben Ali’s Departure is Permanent
–-Hope for Tunisia as leader flees
—Live: Tunisia turmoil a day after fall of Ben Ali
—In picture: Tunisia tensions
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