By Anthony Shadid
The New York Times
January 14, 2011
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Hours after President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia on Friday, a Lebanese broadcaster, in triumphant tones, ended her report on the first instance of an Arab leader to be overthrown in popular protests by quoting a famous Tunisian poet.
“And the people wanted life,” she said, “and the chains were broken.”
The day’s seismic events in Tunisia, the broadcaster, Abeer Madi al-Halabi, went on, would serve as “a lesson for countries where presidents and kings have rusted on their thrones.”
Tunisia’s uprising electrified the region. The most enthusiastic suggested it was the Arab world’s Gdansk, the birthplace of Solidarity in Poland, which heralded the end to Communist rule in Eastern Europe. That seemed premature, particularly because the contours of the government emerging in Tunisia were still unclear — and because Tunisia is on the periphery of the Arab world, with a relatively affluent and educated population. Yet the street protests erupted when Arabs seemed more frustrated than ever, whether over rising prices and joblessness or resentment of their leaders’ support for American policies or ambivalence about Israeli campaigns in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009.
Tunisia’s protests were portrayed as a popular uprising, crossing lines of religion and ideology, offering a new model of dissent in a region where Islamic activists have long been seen as monopolizing opposition. Even if they serve only as inspiration, the protests offer a rare example of success to activists stymied at almost every turn in bringing about change in their own countries.
“A salute to Tunis, which has opened the road to freedom in an Arab world devastated by years of waiting on the curb,” said Burhan Ghalioun, head of the Centre d’Études sur l’Orient Contemporain in Paris and a political science professor at the Sorbonne.
That the events in Tunisia took place far beyond the region’s traditional centers of power did little to diminish the enthusiasm they seemed to generate. In fact, the very spectacle of crowds surging into the streets and overwhelming decades of accumulated power in the hands of a highly centralized, American-backed government seemed an antidote to the despair of past years — carnage in Iraq, divisions among Palestinians and Israeli intransigence and the yawning divide between ruler and ruled on almost every question of foreign policy.
The protests’ success gripped a region whose residents have increasingly complained of governments that seem incapable of meeting their demands and are bereft of any ideology except perpetuating power. The combustible mix that inspired them — economic woes and revulsion at corruption and repression — seemed to echo in so many other countries in the Middle East, American allies like Egypt foremost among them.
Al Jazeera headlined its broadcasts: “Tunisia ... the street creates change.”
Mohammed al-Maskati, a blogger in Bahrain, put it more bluntly on Twitter. “It actually happened in my lifetime!” he wrote. “An Arab nation woke up and said enough.”
Through the eight years of the Bush administration, democratization was at least a rhetorical priority of American policy in the Middle East, even as the United States maintained its support for Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian governments in the region. On Thursday, as the protests in Tunisia were escalating, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clintonissued a scathing critique of Arab leadership and the region’s political and economic stagnation. Her comments seemed one attempt to reposition the United States, which backed Tunisia’s dictatorial leader as a partner against terrorism.
In the end, the most dramatic change in the old Arab order in years was inspired by Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old university graduate who could find work only as a fruit and vegetable vendor. He set himself on fire in a city square in December when the police seized his cart and mistreated him.
A Facebook page called Tunisians hailed him as “the symbol of the Tunisian revolution.” “God have mercy on you, Tunisia’s martyr, and on the all free martyrs of Tunisia,” it read. “One candle burns to create light and one candle beats all oppression.”
In Egypt, his name came up at a small solidarity protest.
“Egypt needs a man like Mohamed Bouazizi,” said Abdel-Halim Qandil, a journalist and opposition leader who joined dozens of others at the Tunisian Embassy.
The momentum of Tunisia’s street protests overshadowed other instances of dissent in the Arab world. In Egypt, protesters, often lacking in numbers, are occasionally beset by divisions between secular and religious activists. The mass protests in Lebanon that followed the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister, in February 2005 ended up deepening divisions in a country almost evenly split over questions of ideology, sectarian loyalty and foreign patrons.
Tunisians’ grievances were as specific as universal: rising food prices, corruption, unemployment and the repression of a state that viewed almost all dissent as subversion.
Smaller protests, many of them over rising prices, have already taken place in countries like Morocco, Egypt, Algeria and Jordan. Egypt, in particular, seems to bear at least a passing resemblance to Tunisia — a heavy-handed security state with diminishing popular support and growing demands from an educated, yet frustrated, population.
In Jordan, hundreds protested the cost of food in several cities, even after the government hastily announced measures to bring the prices down. Libya abolished taxes and customs duties on food products, and Morocco tried to offset a surge in grain prices.
“It’s the creeping realization that more and more people are being marginalized and pauperized and that, increasingly, life is more difficult,” said Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut. “You need little events that capture the spirit of the time. Tunisia best captures that in the Arab world.”
Despite the enthusiasm, the scene Friday night in Cairo might serve as caution.
The protesters who gathered at the Tunisian Embassy in the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek chanted slogans into a megaphone and waved red Tunisian flags. They went through a litany of the region’s strongmen — from Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya to Hosni Mubarak of Egypt — and warned each that his day of reckoning was coming.
“Down, down with Hosni Mubarak!” some chanted.
“Ben Ali, you fraud! Mubarak, you fraud! Qaddafi, you fraud!” others shouted.
They were ringed by police officers in black berets, and outnumbered by them, as well. They had little room to maneuver. And an hour later, the protesters went their way, a Tunisian flag flying from one of the cars, as it ventured down a largely empty street.
Nada Bakri contributed reporting from Beirut, and Liam Stack from Cairo.