Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution is the first of its kind: the toppling of an autocrat in the Arab world who was till the end backed by Western powers. What now remains to be seen is if unrest in this Maghreb country will spread across the Middle East.
Early signs, if there can be any, are already there. As in Tunisia, Algeria too has been ravaged by riots in protest against food prices. Shortly after Tunisian President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali fled his country, the Algerian government of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had stormed to power in in 2009 with 90 per cent of the votes, beat a retreat. It tried to nip the protests by hastily cutting down the cost of staple foods such as sugar, cooking oil and flour. Import duties on sugar, cooking oil and other foodstuffs too were slashed.
Similar protests have hit Jordan. Over 8,000 people staged protests against escalating food prices and unemployment. The protests there have not escalated yet, but the Tunisian uprising might just provide fuel to the public anger here. In Egypt, which is ruled by another West-backed tyrant (Hosni Mubarak), there have been protests too. But the most recent ones were in solidarity with the Tunisian uprising. This should be making Mubarak squirm.
The Tunisian experience should serve as a wake-up call, not only for other autocrats in the Middle East, but also for the West which has backed these tyrants while turning a blind eye to the way they have been quelling popular movements and stifling the media.
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who assumed the Presidency in November 1987 in a bloodless coup d'état from then President Habib Bourguiba who was declared incompetent, remained a tyrant till the end. Political opponents were either jailed or exiled, the media was throttled, corruption was institutionalised, and the dividends of any economic progress remained in the hands of a chosen few. All this while the West remained silent.
Even as the protests that were triggered off by the self-immolation of a man in the town of Sidi Bouzid spread across the country, the West could not see it coming. It certainly refused to acknowledge the popular protests. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton told an Arab satellite television audience that the United States was "not taking sides" in the Tunisian crisis. It was only later that the US administration decided to swim with the tide. Clinton went on to say later, "While some countries have made great strides in governance, in many others people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order. They are demanding reforms to make their governments more effective, more responsive and more open."
Rumour has it that the West wanted Ben Ali to step down because it did not want the unrest to spread to other Arab countries. Everywhere in the Arab world, if anyone has benefited from public resentment against the dictators have been Islamists. Even though the Tunisian protests were not coordinated by any Islamist bloc, the West did not want to take chances. It is the manner in which Ben Ali relinquished power after 23 years that gives credence to such speculation. He first announced that media controls would be eased and that the police would no more fire at protestors. Then he declared emergency and fled.
Ben Ali is gone. It remains to be seen who in the Arab world will be next. Protesters in Egypt chanted outside the Tunisian embassy, "Ben Ali, tell Mubarak a plane is waiting for him, too!"