Practically overnight, it seems, the "Jasmine Revolution" that has swept over Tunisia has reshuffled the geopolitical deck in the greater Middle East.
Over the span of less than three weeks, protests over unemployment and political restrictions in the sleepy North African nation became a nationwide phenomenon, challenging the country's long-serving president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and his ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally. In the face of this widespread dissatisfaction, Ben Ali blinked, making a number of major political concessions—among them, announcing he would step down as president once his term was up in 2014, and putting curbs on the national military's use of force in dealing with the protests (thereby effectively giving the opposition free reign of the streets). Rather than mollify his opponents, however, these conciliatory measures only served to embolden them, and less than 24 hours later Ben Ali had fled the country for the relative safety of Saudi Arabia. Since then, political turmoil has reigned, as remaining politicians have attempted to cobble together a durable interim government in the face of ongoing public discontent.
In the process, Tunisia's popular uprising has become a model of sorts. The catalyst for Tunisia's turmoil—the self-immolation of an unemployed 28-year-old vegetable seller—already has spurred copycats throughout the region (specifically, in Egypt, Mauritania and Algeria). And in many quarters, there is new hope of movement toward true democracy in the historically-stagnant Middle East. "Tunisia is now the model to follow for all Arabs," one hopeful Algerian has told Reuters. "The time for dictators and dictatorships is over."
Would that it was. With its aging autocrats and dilapidated dictatorships, the Middle East is in dire need of serious grassroots change. Yet, if history is any judge, Tunisia's popular revolt isn't likely to catalyze a democratic "domino effect," as many seem to believe. To the contrary, the lesson Middle Eastern leaders are likely to take away from Ben Ali's sudden fall from grace is that the Tunisian president wasn't ousted because he was a strongman, but because he wasn't enough of one.
During his 23-year tenure (1987 to 2011), Tunisia's second head-of-state ran what could best be described as a softly repressive regime. Subtle signs of state control, ranging from limits on Internet bandwidth to a pervasive presidential cult of personality, were on full display to any tourist. Toward its citizens, Tunisian authorities were less subtle; over the years, the invasive, draconian way in which the government treated political dissidents and suspected Islamists alike earned it the ire of international observers and non-governmental watchdogs like Human Rights Watch. And yet, in comparison to its regional counterparts, Ben Ali's dictatorship was decidedly benign. Indeed, as the always-astute Christopher Hitchens has eloquently put it, the defining feature of Tunisia's ancien regime might just have been that it "didn't really trust its citizens to be grown-ups."
That's a far cry from the megalomaniacal leaders (like Libya's Colonel Qaddhafi) and ruthless dynasties (such as the Assads, pere and fils) that tend to be the regional norm. Indeed, one need only recall the Iranian regime's brutal suppression of the so-called "Green Movement" that emerged following the fraudulent 2009 reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president to understand how easily Tunisia's anti-government stirrings could have become national tragedy. That they did not is doubtless a testament to Ben Ali's restraint. But the resulting price paid by Tunisia's strongman serves as a troubling reminder for regional autocrats that perceived weakness can come at a high cost. And as a result, Middle Eastern leaders are more likely than ever to double down on their investment in state repression.
None of this is to minimize the extraordinary events now taking place in Tunisia. Real pro-democracy stirrings are afoot there, and the Tunisian example could indeed lead to more responsive politics among regional governments fearful of following in Ben Ali's footsteps. (Kuwait's Emir, for one, has already launched a generous program of government grants for his citizens in a bid to quell domestic dissatisfaction.)
By the same token, however, it would be a mistake to overstate the infectiousness of the Tunisian experience—or to fail to anticipate the likely backlash against it. In their assessments of the unfolding events in North Africa, Western observers would do well to remember that not all capitals are Tunis, and not all regional leaders will depart the political scene quietly, the way Ben Ali did.