Following the political earthquake that removed Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power nearly two weeks ago, seismic waves have been shaking ruling regimes from Algeria to Egypt, and from Jordan to Yemen. But if political earthquakes could somehow be measured on a “political” Richter scale, the question would be: Is this a magnitude 3 mild tremor that will pass, leaving behind little damage to the region’s authoritarian regimes and dictatorships? Or will it prove to be a magnitude 7 shocker, causing serious damage to a number of regimes?
Watching and reading Arab pundits and political analysts offers no conclusive answer. Most of the pan-Arab press appears to be celebrating the “Jasmine Revolution” that brought down the Tunisian dictator, cheering on protesters in Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, and Jordan and the rest of the Arab world. Meanwhile, Arab leaders have been at pains not to appear opposed to “the will of the Tunisian people” while at the same time trying not to encourage the spread of the “democracy virus” to their own countries.
It is anybody’s guess how events will ultimately unfold in Tunisia, where a transitional government made up of remnants of the “ancien regime” and a group of opposition and independent figures is trying to appease the disorganized and still angry masses, promising sweeping political reforms and democratic elections within months. But so far Tunisia’s revolution has only gone halfway, removing a president and shaking the establishment but not gutting the entrenched regime that still holds considerable power. That regime includes a military-security establishment that might decide, at any moment, to take things into its own hands and decide the future of the country, for better or worse.
It would be naive to assume that Tunisia has already made the transition from dictatorship to democracy before the current standoff unfolds, a process that may take several months and could turn bloody at any moment.
But the events in the region have certainly dispelled a number of myths and offered a few lessons for governments and observers. Perhaps the most important myth is that the Arab regimes, most of which have been ruling for decades, are too resilient and cannot be toppled, except through foreign military intervention or an inside coup or seizure of power. The other myth now being seriously questioned throughout the Arab media is that Islamists are the only alternative to these secular or apparently secular regimes. In Tunisia, the Islamists appeared to have little visible influence in the popular uprising, while the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has deliberately kept a low profile, perhaps for tactical reasons, leaving the disorganized popular masses of protesters of various political shades to take the lead.
Elaph.com, the Arab world’s most popular online newspaper, argues that the recent events in the region have demonstrated that “people are capable of breaking the fear barrier,” despite the ruthlessness of the ruling regimes. The paper quoted Burhan Ghalyoun, the director of a Middle East research center, as expressing surprise that the Tunisians “have achieved massive change at lightning speed, which goes to prove that change is not as difficult as we previously thought.”
Understandably, most of the official and semi-official Arab media have recognized people’s “right to peaceful demonstration and freedom of expression,” echoing calls from Washington and the West, but warned, at the same time, against actions that may undermine stability and security. Wisely, many governments in the region, including that of Jordan, have moved quickly to reduce the prices of consumer goods and promise political reforms to preempt an escalation of popular anger.
But unlike previous protests in Egypt and other Arab countries, this time the region’s leaders and their governments have not rushed to blame “foreign forces,” namely the U.S. and other Western countries, for instigating the riots. Tunisia’s government had always adopted a pro-Western stance, but today the West, which had turned a blind eye to human rights violations in that country for decades, is now almost silently watching as that regime crumbles, without any sign of wanting to do anything to save it.
However, one might argue that this month’s protests are not only the product of worsening living conditions resulting from the global economic crisis and homegrown corruption and mismanagement. They are also the product of decades of political oppression and humiliation by regimes that are now beginning to realize they can no longer oppress their own people with impunity. Social media and other modern and widely accessible communications tools have stripped these regimes of their monopoly on information. And since knowledge is power, the power is now shifting from the ruling few to the unruly masses, and these masses, in turn, are challenging the status quo throughout the region. But it is certainly too early for pro-democracy advocates in the region and beyond to bring out the Champagne glasses. It isn’t over till it’s over, and it is definitely not over yet.