The popular uprising in Tunisia that overthrew the authoritarian regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has created tremendous uncertainty in the North African Arab country and raised expectations that political instability could also engulf other countries in the region. Ben Ali, 74, ruled with an iron hand for 23 years before his police state was swept away by anti-government riots that claimed the lives of at least 78 people. Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi unveiled a new government of national unity on Monday and promised that all political parties would now be allowed to operate in Tunisia. But it is unclear if opposition forces will be satisfied with the direction and pace of political change.
The uprisings began as protests over the Ben Ali regime’s political repression, increasingly visible corruption, and failure to effectively address Tunisia’s economic problems. Popular resentment of the government’s high-handed treatment of its own citizens was further stoked by high unemployment, rising food prices, cuts in government subsidies and grumbling about the kleptocratic behavior of Ben Ali’s cronies. Tunisians particularly grumbled about the exorbitant greed of the President’s wife Leila, derided as an Arab version of Imelda Marcos, and her family. The riots began after a 26-year-old man set himself on fire after police confiscated his unlicensed fruit and vegetable stand. His death touched a nerve with educated, unemployed youths and triggered the mass protests that toppled Ben Ali. The riots spread from poorer areas in the countryside to the capital of Tunis.
The isolated regime blamed the riots on troublemakers supported by unnamed foreign governments and clumsily attempted to put down the riots by ordering the police to shoot at demonstrators. After elements of the army and police bridled at such tactics and crossed over to join the demonstrators, Ben Ali and his family fled into exile. Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” now faces an uncertain future. The relatively spontaneous outburst of popular unrest now may be channeled in several different directions. Although the uprising did not have an Islamist cast, it is also not clear if it will lead to a transition to democracy. Different strands of the opposition could easily fall into a civil war that could result in the hijacking of the revolution by non-democratic forces, as occurred in Iran’s 1979 revolution.
The old regime could also make an unlikely comeback. Gun battles have been reported near the presidential palace as militias loyal to Ben Ali have counterattacked in support of the former president. But their strength is unclear, and they are not likely to be able to cow Tunisia’s opposition now that it is on the verge of consolidating power.
In addition to uncertainty within Tunisia, the uprising has injected a new element of uncertainty in other Middle Eastern countries that have also been plagued by rising food prices and chronic unemployment. Civil unrest has already destabilized cities in Algeria and Jordan in recent months. And protesters have recently adopted the Tunisian tactic of setting themselves on fire in Algeria, Egypt, and Mauritania.
Egypt, which also has a sclerotic authoritarian regime, is at risk of a similar popular unrest. The Egyptian stock market has fallen due to concern that the instability may spread to Egypt and be exploited by groups opposed to the rule of President Hosni Mubarak. Jordan, Libya, and Morocco may also be at risk of copycat outbursts of civil violence. But Elliott Abrams has noted that Arab monarchies such as Jordan and Morocco may have more perceived legitimacy and staying power than dictatorships such as Libya.
Iran may also be heading for a new round of civil unrest, motivated increasingly by economic grievances. The Islamist dictatorship in Tehran has triggered international sanctions that will exacerbate adverse economic trends and reinforce the need to cut subsidies in the face of rising food prices, inflation, high unemployment, and popular resentment of the repressive bullying of the regime’s thugs. But Iran’s ruthless regime has already made clear its willingness to perpetrate mass murder to retain power and is unlikely to be ousted as easily as Ben Ali.