Revolution in the Arab World

Tunisia's unexpected secular coup stuns regional dictators -- is a new era on the horizon?

The Arab world is in shock as the dictator of Tunisia has fallen in the blink of an eye. There was no sign of impending doom for President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who was in power for 23 years. Yet, an attempted suicide by one 26-year-old sparked riots that led to his downfall, showing every Arab dictator how fragile their rule really is.

The first popular uprising to overthrow an Arab leader began on December 18, one day after 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi tried to end his life. He was unemployed despite having a college degree, forced to take care of his family by selling fruits and vegetables from a cart without a license. Government officers seized his cart and slapped him, compelling him to go to the governor’s office, pour gasoline on himself and set a fire.

Anti-government riots followed and a scared President Ben Ali visited Bouazizi in the hospital. He died on January 4, likely unaware that he had become Tunisia’s equivalent of Neda Soltan in Iran. Attendees to his funeral chanted, “Farewell, Mohamed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today, we will make those who caused your death weep.” The riots spread into Tunis and Ben Ali set a curfew and outlawed gatherings of more than three people.

The Chief of Staff of the military refused to order his troops to fire upon the protesters and was fired. The military forces tried to put down the rebellion, resulting in at least 60 deaths, but then the military turned against Ben Ali as the capital became a battleground. At the same time, Bouazizi tried to appease his citizens by saying he’d step down in 2014, allow freedom of the press, firing his government and even agreeing to hold elections in six months. Nothing worked. The Tunisian people would settle for nothing less than his departure.

Ben Ali fled Tunisia for Saudi Arabia after France refused to grant him entry. Former Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi announced that he was acting president and would hold legislative elections within six months, but the protests continued as the Tunisian people demanded that Ben Ali’s inner circle be removed from power. The Constitutional Council ruled that Ghannouchi was forbidden from serving, and the speaker of the parliament, Fouad Mebazza, was sworn in as the interim president.

President Mebazza and Prime Minister Ghannouchi have agreed to form a coalition government with the opposition parties and hold an election within 60 days, which some opposition leaders feel is too early. This proclamation has not stopped the crisis, as a prison riot has killed 42 and drive-by shootings are being carried out by members of the security forces. Family members of Ben Ali and his top security officer have been arrested. Portraits of him are also being ripped down.

Opponents of an aggressive U.S. foreign policy will point out that Ben Ali was overthrown without Western involvement and a neutral stance helps such protesters. In reality, one day before Ben Ali was overthrown, Secretary of State Clinton was in Qatar and expressed her support for the democratic forces in the region. She even pointed out a Tunisian democratic activist in the audience and said, “People have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order.” She continued, “In too many places, in too many ways, the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand.” There is no indication that her remarks played a role in Ben Ali’s downfall, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

There are several lessons about the spontaneous overthrow of Ben Ali, whose regime had been considered among the most secure in the region. First, even the most stable Arab dictatorships are in a shaky position as dissent simmers beneath the surface. The factors that caused the Jasmine Revolution exist everywhere else in the Arab world. Half of Tunisia’s 10 million people are under the age of 25 and are fed up with corruption, economic recession and overall government incompetence and tyranny.

One of the ways Ben Ali stayed in power was by warning that radical Muslims stood to gain from any liberalization. This is very similar to the strategy of Bashar Assad in Syria, whose regime stimulated the Mohammad cartoon riots to convince the West that democracy promotion would bring Islamists to power. However, as Newsweek observes, the overthrow of Ben Ali was a “secular grassroots revolution.” In fact, a filmmaker named Ben Khamsa approached demonstrators who tried to give the protests an Islamic character. When he confronted them, the crowd joined in and the men relented. “This has nothing to do with Islamists,” he said. “This Muslim fundamentalist thing in North Africa is a scarecrow.”

The biggest reason that the opposition is not led by Islamist forces is because the Tunisian dictatorship aggressively oppressed them. As Michael Koplow explained in Foreign Policy, “The absence of a strong Islamist presence is the result of an aggressive attempt by successive Tunisian regimes, dating back over a half-century, to eliminate Islamists from public life.”

Islamist leaders have been jailed, executed and exiled, ridding them of the ability to organize as the main opposition force. The dictatorship did not try to include them in the government or portray itself as having Islamic credentials. This stands in sharp contrast to the governments of Syria, Egypt and others who have tried to win legitimacy from devout Muslims.

The Jasmine Revolution’s secular nature does not mean that Islamists won’t benefit from it. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists often assert themselves by hinging to pro-democratic forces. After all, the Islamists look more favorably upon a democracy that allows them to have some influence than a dictatorship that completely stamps them out. Already, Islamist opposition leader Rachid Ghannouchi is announcing that he will return to Tunisia from London. Al-Qaeda is also praising the overthrow of Ben Ali and is calling on Tunisians to join its jihad.

Robert Spencer, director of Jihad Watch, told FrontPage that he believes Sharia law will be advanced because of the revolution.

“It opens the door for pro-Sharia forces to take power, because they enjoy a broad base of support among the people. Insofar as it is a popular revolution, it will tend toward the imposition of Islamic law in Tunisia,” he said.

Dr. Walid Phares, author of The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East, agreed that the secularists would have to withstand challenges from remnants from Ben Ali’s security forces, ultra-Arab nationalists and Islamists, but said victory is possible. He added that the Jasmine Revolution is part of a shift occurring in the region.

“In my new book, I have projected a new era of revolts and uprisings in the region but I have noted that it is going to be a long path, full of successes and setbacks before democracy becomes the dominant political culture in the region,” Dr. Phares told FrontPage.

“But the dynamics for change are here and they aren’t going back. From Iran to Sudan, Lebanon to Algeria, I see shakeups coming. A new era has begun,” he said.

The events in Tunisia have the potential to inspire opponents of other Arab regimes. Riots over food prices have escalated in neighboring Algeria and dozens of Egyptians have gathered to call for their country to follow in Tunisia’s footsteps. As the Jasmine Revolution succeeded over the weekend, thousands of Jordanians protested food prices. Significantly, like in Tunisia, these protests did not include Islamists, though the Muslim Brotherhood is now joining hands with 14 trade unions for a sit-in outside parliament.

The fall of Ben Ali will cause all of the Arab leaders to shiver. If an apparently stable leader like him could so quickly meet his demise, then they are no different. The fight for democracy in Tunisia is not over, but the Arab world has been changed by the Jasmine Revolution. The key question now is how the Islamists will fare now that they are given a chance to show themselves.