The Jasmine Revolution ousting Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali may well be the most dramatic political event to occur in the Muslim world since the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979. In fact, it may be the first major effort to open up society and political institutions to democracy that has occurred in the Arab world since the rise to power of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey in 1923.
What is so different this time is modern technology. The revolt in Tunisia and its ripple effects are being felt virtually immediately throughout the Arab world. From Libya to Egypt, from Jordan and Lebanon to Syria, regimes are feeling the tremors wherever Internet access is readily available, and where satellite dishes and cellular telephones are virtually unable to be quieted.
Admittedly, Tunisia is different from Morocco or Saudi Arabia or Iraq. It is a country of less than 11 million people, as opposed to Egypt which has a population of 84 million. It is a more modern, secular, and advanced society both socially and economically than virtually all countries in the region. Despite the fact that it was an authoritarian regime, it outlawed radical Islamic parties. Tunisia has a broader and deeper educational system and the middle class is more sophisticated and worldly.
That said, it was ruled for generations by rulers who limited individual freedoms, stifled the press, and restricted the Internet. Despite this, a dramatic underground movement was waiting to explode.
Will Tunisia become a democracy or will the nation’s dreaded secret service trump the much more enlightened military and make Tunisia an authoritarian police state? Will an Islamic fundamentalist regime emerge or will the openness expressed by those who overthrew Bin Ali now be prepared to take Tunisia seriously into the modern world? Finally, what will the attitude of the new regime be towards the West, towards fundamentalist Muslims, towards the traditionalist Islamic regimes, and towards Israel?
There is a genuine concern as to how this revolution in Tunisia will be treated in Saudi Arabia, the region’s most powerful and most closed authoritarian regime. How will the tyrannical rulers and religious clerics respond? Will they seek to capitalize on this revolution by expanding their power and authority?
Major copycat unrest appears to be developing or even emerging in Egypt, Jordan, and Libya. Will similar revolutions there be repressed or will they succeed? In Iran — which already had demonstrated a growing, genuine dissident movement — will the events in Tunisia strengthen and galvanize the anti-regime movement or invite a further crackdown?
The most immediate potential tinderbox is Egypt. Elections are planned for the fall and many expect that despite weak health President Hosni Mubarak will be overwhelmingly reelected (unless succeeded by his son). There were already signs of serious unrest in Egypt prior to the Jasmine revolution. Egyptian authorities have dramatically increased their persecution of Coptic Christians and have been watching with great trepidation as the Muslim Brotherhood threatens to challenge the regime and its secular orientation.
The West is also caught up in the drama. As President Obama said in his Cairo speech in June 2009 and as Secretary of State Clinton expanded upon in her speech last month in Doha, democracy is on the move, even in the Arab world. But no one thinks that road will be smooth, straight, or harmless.
For years it has been said that once the Israelis and the Palestinians reconcile their differences, it will be easier to address other issues in the Arab world. Not to minimize the need to resolve all aspects of the Arab-Israel conflict, but the dramatic events of the past few weeks have shown that the Arab world is in deep turmoil whether or not Arabs and Jews make peace. Middle Eastern regimes are unstable and threatened with enormous conflicts, the threat from radical Islam, and restive populations.
The world may soon realize that resolving the Palestinian problem pales in comparison with, and is a mere distraction from, the gut issues facing the Islamic world which have been so visibly exposed in Tunisia.