The Jasmine revolution in Tunisia holds a beacon of renewal for the North African Arab countries (Algeria, Morocco and Egypt), if it succeeds in permanently dethroning dictatorship.
Dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled for 23 years through repression while enriching his family, fled to Saudi Arabia leaving the Prime Minister in charge. But the tens of thousands of people confronting the government on the streets refused to accept a surrogate of the President. Within hours Parliament Speaker Foued Mebazaa, a political insider but not a Ben Ali protégé, was named the top man bringing calm to the streets.
Ben Ali fell because the police and army refused to shoot at the people and tanks failed to intimidate because the soldiers would have disobeyed orders to fire during the final hours before his departure. Earlier, they shot and killed dozens of people and sporadic shooting began some hours after he left.
Despite the bloodshed, this turn of events is exhilarating and extraordinary for an Arab nation. Tough rulers have held each Arab country in a vice for decades, including Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, a close US ally, whose entire reign of over 29 years has been under Emergency Law.
Eyewitness accounts say that well-armed government-backed militiamen dressed in civilian clothes systematically pillaged shopping malls and public sites like the train station in the hours before Ben Ali fled. Their goal was to discredit the pro-democracy protesters as thugs and criminals.
The events in Tunisia will turn out to be historic if army hardliners and Ben Ali’s supporters do not regain control through fear as the adrenaline rush of the Jasmine revolution peters out. My anecdotal poll of friends in Tunisia and frequent visitors suggests that much depends on the Saudi reaction and American pressure on the Saudi princes.
If the Saudis do not meddle, free and fair elections may be possible in Tunisia within two or three months under the watchful eye of the United Nations. That would create the Arab world’s first democracy, something that the Iraq war has failed to do. The Saudis could meddle because a popular revolution dethroning an authoritarian government threatens their regime directly by planting the hope of freedom on Arab streets.
Saudi Arabia is run by a pact between the princes and the Muslim establishment dominated by Sunni Salafism, which is unique to that nation but has spread its medieval version of Islam and Sharia law to many developing Muslim countries. Salafism and its extreme Wahabi offshoot are the beliefs from which Al Qaeda and Taliban have grown and are now spreading to Somalia and the Horn of Africa through the Shahab Islamists.
Schools spreading these Saudi-origin doctrines have directly influenced Pakistan over the past 30 years. Conservative Islam with medieval traits has such a strong grip over Pakistan, despite over $13 billion dollars of US aid since 2001, that hundreds of lawyers and police showered rose petals on the assassin of a moderate Muslim leader a few days ago. The killer was a Special Forces bodyguard assigned to Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, the country’s richest and largest province. He riddled the governor with nearly 30 bullets in the back but no other soldier moved to stop him. Street demonstrators praised him and Islamic leaders warned people against praying for his soul because he opposed an anti-blasphemy law. The Punjab Prime Minister did not offer condolences to his widow for fear of being targeted.
This kind of harsh behavior is influenced by the teachings of Saudi preachers who fanned out into Afghanistan and Pakistan about 30 years ago. The bosses of those preachers are the pillars behind the Saudi throne. A revolution like the one in Tunisia is a nightmare for both them and the princes. Their medieval agenda would be ruined.
Dictators in Algeria and Egypt and the royal family of Morocco might fall if people poured onto the streets to protest lack of jobs and freedom of expression and police refused to shoot, as in Tunisia. Neither Islam nor dictatorship would be in charge across North Africa. Instead, nascent democracy, however imperfect, would.
Such a wave of freedom would be wonderful for Arabs everywhere and the world but a disaster for the rich sheikhs of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Dubai. They know how people caused the Soviet Union’s collapse and bought freedom to Hungary, Ukraine, Georgia, Romania, Czechoslovakia and the Baltic states. In those countries, soldiers and police who served the police-state for decades refused to fire on the people. Without the violence required to impose their rule, the dictators fell. That has now happened in Tunisia. The people’s courage and police wisdom deserve a toast.