He was the minor dictator of a minor nation in North Africa that’s best known for exporting workers and courting low-rent tourists. But when Tunisia’s President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali fled his country on Friday after more than 23 years with a ruthless grip on power, the Arab world was swept by the kind of excitement that augurs epochal change.
From Morocco to Egypt to Jordan and beyond, the news racing across the Internet and on cell phones hit these long-oppressed societies the way word of the fall of the Berlin Wall impacted the shaky dictatorships of the decrepit Soviet Empire in 1989. Indeed, Ben Ali and his wife had come to be known in their own country as “the Ceaucescus,” a reference to the brutal couple who ruled Romania for decades, then faced summary execution when they fell.
What was especially shocking to Arab regimes was the way Ben Ali’s overthrow began: a young fruit and vegetable vendor who had his cart confiscated by police in the town of Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire last month to protest against job shortages and low wages. As news of the self-immolation spread, so did riots. At first, the head of the military, Chief of Staff Rachid Ammar, refused to put his troops into the streets to stop the protests. Ben Ali replaced him. Then last weekend the soldiers began shooting in earnest. The death toll mounted. But the riots continued, moving from outlying cities into the heart of the capital. And at that point the military, it appears, decided to replace Ben Ali. A state of emergency and curfew have been declared and the ineffectual prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, has appeared on television to say he is running a self-described “temporary” government.
These events are resonating so widely because the core problems of Tunisia are common to just about every country in the region: a growing population of young people who are at once educated and ambitious, unemployed and frustrated, muzzled and resentful.
In a speech on Thursday, just one day before Ben Ali fell, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told an audience in Qatar that “a growing majority” of the people in the region are under 30, and in some countries, like Yemen, the population is expected to double in the next three decades. “People have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order,” said Clinton, who called special attention to a member of the audience “whose work on human rights and democracy in Tunisia I admire.” Then with unusual vehemence, Clinton warned that “in too many places, in too many ways, the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand.” Whether Clinton was aware how fast Ben Ali was sinking at that point is not clear.
Yet for all the talk about human rights, the United States and Europe have grown so accustomed to the same set of strongmen running the Arab world year after year that there’s going to be some pretty frantic scrambling to sort out new relationships with new leaders as the old ones disappear.
In Egypt, the octogenarian President Hosni Mubarak will have held power for three decades this year, and is getting set to install himself for another term. In Algeria, the shadowy military regime survived a brutal civil war against radical Islamists in the 1990s, but now faces new unrest. In Jordan, the authority of the Hashemite dynasty has been undermined by dissent among influential retired generals and protests among the tribes that were its traditional base of support. Yet all these regimes are considered important allies of the West just the way they are, and no one has any idea how they might be replaced, or when, or by whom.
Ben Ali was Tunisia’s intelligence chief, with notoriously close ties to the CIA, before he moved to overthrow the increasingly senile Habib Bourguiba in 1987. Even back then, Ben Ali presented himself as a key player in the fight against extremism. By crushing dissent, courting tourists and playing along with international financial institutions, Ben Ali created an image of his country as a bastion of prosperous stability that Western governments appeared ready to embrace—at least in public.
In recent years, however, even the U.S. embassy in Tunis found Ben Ali’s regime hard to stomach. As Ambassador Robert Godec wrote in a July 2009 cable that surfaced through WikiLeaks, Ben Ali and his regime had “lost touch with the Tunisian people.” Corruption was on the rise, and popular resentment growing. “Tunisians intensely dislike, even hate, first Lady Leila Trabelsi and her family,” wrote Godec. It’s probably too much to say that WikiLeaks helped inspire the overthrow of Ben Ali, but the content of the cable was considered so damaging to the regime that it tried to block the websites where it was displayed.
France, which has a large population of Tunisian workers and longstanding historical ties to the country, remained keen to downplay Ben Ali’s faults until the very end. Even as the rioting gained momentum in recent weeks, top French officials suggested they would help Ben Ali’s forces restore order. Yet once Ben Ali cut and ran, the authorities in Paris let it be known he wouldn’t be welcome in France.
As Ben Ali’s plane is reported in different locations around the world, the traffic on Twitter suggests the emotions that have been aroused:
“Breaking: An earthquake just hit Egypt, ooops sorry that was Mubarak shaking!!”
“Ben Ali's plane stopping over in Cairo before final destination in the Gulf? A couple of seats free for Mubarak.”
“If Ben Ali plane ran out fuel, let it be above Mubarak mansion, then we'll live victory.”
As of this writing, it’s still not clear where Ben Ali and his family will end up. The same can now be said for their country and for the region.
Christopher Dickey is Newsweek magazine's Paris bureau chief and Middle East editor. The author of five books, including Summer of Deliverance, his Shadowland column about counterterrorism, espionage, and the Middle East appears weekly on Newsweek online.
This originally appeared in The Daily Beast.