Juan Cole writes:
Tunisian President Zine al-Abidin Bin Ali has fled the country before the advancing crowds pouring in to the capital’s center. A French eye-witness said of the masses thronging Bourguiba Avenue that “it was black with people.” The Speaker of Parliament is caretaker leader of the country. The dramatic events in Tunisia yesterday and today may shake the Middle East, as my colleague Marc Lynch suggested. As usual, the important news from the region is being ignored by US television news.
In some ways, the Tunisian Revolution is potentially more consequential for the Middle East than had been the Iranian one. In Iran, Shiite ayatollahs came to power on the back of a similar set of popular protests, establishing a theocracy. That model appealed to almost nobody in the Middle East, with the exception of Shiites in Iraqi and Lebanese slums; and theocratic Shiite Arabs were a minority even in their own ethnic group. Proud Sunni Arab nationalists, in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere, saw nothing to like there, even though they were saddled with a motley assortment of authoritarian presidents for life, military dictators, kings and emirs. Iranian leaders were shocked and dismayed to find that they had made a ‘revolution in one country.’ Their influence would come from championing the (Sunni) Palestinians and supporting Lebanon when it was attacked by Israel, not from their form of government. Iran was not like the French revolutionary republic, which really did become a model over time for much of Europe. It was an odd man out.
The Enlightenment principle of popular sovereignty has been mostly absent in the Arab world, and elections have been an odd Soviet-style shadow play, merely for show lest the dictators and kings be seen to be medieval in lacking anything called a parliament. Lebanon has been an exception, but with a population of 4 million it is a tiny country. The Kuwait parliament has shown signs of life, but in a constitutional monarchy where it was considered gauche to sharply question a cabinet minister related to the king, those are baby steps. It is too soon to tell if American-sponsored elections in Occupied Iraq are sustainable, and you can’t talk about popular sovereignty in a country occupied by foreign troops.
The Guardian reports:
For the first time – in a state where there is estimated to be one police officer for every 40 adults, two thirds of them in plain clothes, and people are afraid of even discussing politics in private for the informers on every corner – people took to the streets today chanting: “Ben Ali out!” and carrying banners saying “Ben Ali murderer!” They railed against his family and that of his loathed wife, Leila Trabelsi, seen as a cross between Imelda Marcos and Catherine de Medici. “Trabelsi thieves!” read one banner, against the woman whose family is reviled for taking tasty slices of state business and contracts, and plundering Tunisia’s wealth. Tonight there were reports that some of her family’s coastal villas and businesses had been attacked and ransacked.
“Today in Tunis people have said their last word. The people want Ben Ali out, along with his corrupt government which has no credibility,” said Mokhtar Aidoudi, a lawyer who was among the protesters. “We want to be able to express ourselves, a free press,” said a 20-year-old medical student from Sousse. She railed against the suppression of websites in a nation which lawyers say is the world leader in surveillance and internet censorship, rivalling North Korea and China.
“This is it,” said Hussein Bouchabar, a maths teacher who was taken from his classroom in the late 80s and imprisoned for four years for holding views contrary to the regime. Since his release, he has never found work and sells vegetables in a souk. Like others with him at the protest, militia regularly came to his house, to search and ransack it. His phones were tapped, his children could not get university scholarships. “This country is 10 million people living in an open prison, we hope that can change,” said a bus driver protesting with him, who showed his ankle swollen from a beating by police.