Image Credit: Gulf News

T he revolution has claimed 100 martyrs; first among them was Mohammad Bouazizi who set fire to himself on December 17 and ignited the uprising. Like half of all Tunisia's graduates, Bouazizi had been unable to find work but managed to eke out a living by selling vegetables from a wheelbarrow. When the police confiscated it claiming it was not ‘properly licensed', it was one humiliation too far.

The Tunisian uprising has reversed the equation of regime change in the Middle East. The US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq to depose their leaders — a violent, uninvited and humiliating intervention which has cost more than a million lives. Here, the Tunisian people have brought down a US-friendly despotic government by legitimate civil protest.

Despite police firing live ammunition and tear gas, the unarmed Tunisian protesters heroically refused to give up their struggle and former president Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali — one of the Arab world's most ruthless autocrats since he seized power in a bloodless coup in 1987 — was forced to flee.

With Bin Ali went his wife's infamous extended family (popularly known as the ‘voyoucratie' - which roughly translates as ‘lout-ocracy') whose members had built up enormous private fortunes by ransacking the nation they ruled with an iron grip.

The Tunisian uprising has claimed up to a 100 martyrs; first among them 26-year-old Mohammad Bouazizi who set fire to himself on December 17 and ignited the revolution. Like half of all Tunisia's university graduates, Bouazizi had been unable to find work but managed to eke out a living by selling vegetables from a wheelbarrow; when the police confiscated it claiming it was not ‘properly licensed' it was one humiliation too far.

Equally significant in these momentous times is Tunisian Army chief, General Rachid Ammar. He refused to obey the beleaguered president's order to fire live ammunition on protesters and while Bin Ali begged for six more months in his palace at Carthage, General Ammar advised him that his personal safety could not be guaranteed if he clung on to power.

Comparisons with the former USSR's ‘house of cards' disintegration are inevitable. The big difference however, is the role of the US. America fomented resistance within the Soviet bloc whereas it upholds, praises and supports friendly Arab governments regardless of their record in power.

Since 9/11 the rationale for this uncritical support has been the prevention of ‘terror'. Bin Ali presented himself as a kind of buffer against Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and tried to invoke fear of Islamic extremism when he realised just how precarious his tenure had become.

France backed Bin Ali until the last moment — even offering to send over riot police to help him regain control — but when the plane carrying him to exile tried to land in Paris it was turned away, forcing him to take refuge in Saudi Arabia.

America's betrayal of its erstwhile friend took a little longer. The uprising was more than three weeks old before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered her support to the caretaker government, urging it (with no trace of irony) to adopt broad economic and political reforms.

US policy in the region has already subtly shifted. Without the escalating protests in Tunis, I doubt Clinton would have urged leaders of Yemen's opposition parties to find ‘alternatives' to the continued rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh as she did during her January 13 visit to Sana'a.

Nor would one have found her at the Future Forum in Doha on January 16, like a teacher scolding her pupils, giving an assembly of Arab foreign ministers a lecture about democracy and human rights and ordering them to listen to their people.

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has already issued a warning to the West not to ‘interfere in [Arab] affairs'.

There have already been copycat immolations in Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania.

With 65 per cent of the region's population under 25, and with youth unemployment at critical levels, the situation is explosive. Compared with many of her neighbours, Tunisia is relatively affluent, with a large, well-educated middle class.

Sagacious governance

Several Arab governments have already reduced the prices of foodstuffs and other basic commodities in an attempt to dissipate popular rage and prevent the eruption of protests in the streets of their cities and capitals.

While it is true that people want bread at reasonable prices, they also want sagacious governance, political freedoms, social reforms, as well as carefully-drawn development plans providing jobs to youths. More important still they want rulers who will combat corruption and secure a fair distribution of wealth.

To date, only the Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi (who also supported Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauescu) has spoken out against the Tunisian uprising, saying he was ‘pained' by the fall of Bin Ali.

Other Middle Eastern regimes are being more circumspect although Sudanese Islamist opposition leader Hassan Al Turabi was arrested in Khartoum shortly after he had warned in an interview of a Tunisia-style uprising.

For now, what most concerns us is what happens next in Tunisia. The ‘caretaker government' consists of many familiar faces including would-be leader Mohammad Gannouchi, who, when Minister of Finance, was the architect of the failed economic policies which contributed to the uprising. Another old fox who wishes to re-invent himself as a lamb is Dr Abdul Wahab Abdullah who was Bin Ali's chief advisor on the most effective means of oppression. The protests continue, and it is significant that while the police are responding with violence, the army are mostly standing by as General Ammar plays a canny waiting game.

It is to be hoped that the brave Tunisian people do not allow their revolution to be hijacked. There are plenty of well-educated, fair minded people both in Tunisia and in exile who could form the Arab world's first, proper, working democracy.

Meanwhile, if, as some commentators believe, the Tunisian adventure triggers a mass, forced expulsion of the region's autocrats and dictators we would like to suggest that the US administration purchases a small island in the Indian Ocean on which to offer these friends and allies unlimited hospitality ... a sort of five-star Guantanamo Bay. 

Abdel Bari Atwan is editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi.