By HADEEL AL-SHALCHI and BRIAN MURPHY, Associated Press
Sat Jan 15, 2011
CAIRO – The stunning collapse of Tunisia's long-ruling president brought cheers from the streets and a flood of messages on Middle East websites Saturday with one overriding question: Could it happen next in Egypt or other iron-fist regimes in the region?
There's little doubt that Tunisia's people-power uprising — a potent mix of economic gripes and demands for political freedoms — will embolden similar calls in a region dominated by authoritarian leaders and ruling monarchs. Protesters in Cairo mocked Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and trade union activists in Jordan chanted: "Tunisia is teaching us a lesson."
But chances appear far less likely of a rapid domino-style political housecleaning such as what occurred in Eastern Europe after the Cold War, experts say.
Many states with deep political rifts, such as Egypt and Iran, maintain vast security forces heavily vested in the status quo and have shown no signs of breaking ranks to join protesters. Other hard-line regimes like Syria come down harshly and swiftly against dissent.
And smaller states with well-organized political opposition, including Kuwait and Bahrain, provide their native citizens with wide-ranging social benefits that few would dare put at risk with a full-scale mutiny.
"We only have to look at Iran to see the challenges for anyone thinking they can bring change just by going to the streets," said Sami Alfaraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies, referring to the massive protests that were eventually crushed after the disputed re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009.
Still, he said it's a mistake to underestimate the power of the upheaval in Tunisia.
"This gets planted in minds that it is possible. They believe it can happen in their country," Alfaraj said. "Leaders cannot just dismiss that."
Friday's ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali followed the country's largest protests in generations and weeks of escalating unrest among young people and others who have seen relatively little benefit from Tunisia's recent economic growth.
Those issues have echoed across the region as many other regimes face similar complaints.
In Jordan, more than 5,000 people joined rallies on Friday to protest rising prices and demand the removal of the prime minister. King Abdullah II last week ordered reductions in prices and taxes on some foods and fuels to help ease the burden on the poor.
Messages congratulating the Tunisian people also flooded the Internet on Twitter, Facebook and blogs in the latest example of the web's powerful role to galvanize and organize political movements. Many people replaced their profile pictures with red Tunisian flags.
Saudi King Abdullah's palace said the ousted president and his family were welcomed in the kingdom with a wish for "peace and security to return to the people of Tunisia." Other Arab leaders issued few official statements in a possible sign of the tense political climate. The Arab League urged calm, saying it was "the beginning of one era and the end of another."
"Now the bell is ringing and it should be a reminder to other leaders that people are fed up. They need political freedoms and serious economic reforms, that there must be an end to corruption and nepotism," Jordanian political analyst Labib Kamhawi said.
In Cairo, a small group of activists gathered outside the Tunisian Embassy for a second day and drew comparisons between the North African countries: claims of chronic corruption and poverty, a heavy-handed security force and limits on the press and Internet.
The protesters outnumbered 5-to-1 by riot police — chanted "soon we will follow Tunis" and other slogans against the government of Mubarak, who has ruled for three decades.
"What happened in Tunis gave hope to all of us that fear can be broken and that dictatorships can be defeated," said activist Mohammed Adel.
Another demonstrator, Ashraf Balba, said the time for change will come.
"The spark will come at a time God will decide, and at that time the world will be surprised with the events in Egypt," he said. "We are more than ready."
It's this street-born nature of Tunisia's revolt that also has captivated the region, where the standard script of opposition has been Islamic-inspired movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Lebanon's Hezbollah challenging Western-backed governments.
Jordan-based analyst Mouin Rabbani, who closely follows Palestinian affairs, noted the popular uprising in Tunisia differed because it wasn't led by a political movement.
"The factors that led to the beginning of the process in Tunisia exist through the region. But there specific factors, like the extraordinary stupidity and arrogance to which Ben Ali responded to the protests," Rabbani said. "But I don't think because Ben Ali fell, others are next."
Iran's state-run media gave matter-of-fact coverage to the Tunisian rebellion and left out any analysis or commentary.
Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast, however, urged Tunisian authorities to heed the "demand of the Tunisian people."
Iranian authorities, meanwhile, have waged an all-out battle on political opposition since the protests and clashes after Ahmadinejad's re-election. It was the country's worst internal unrest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution — perhaps the closest modern parallel to the events in Tunisia.
Mohsen Sazegara, a U.S.-based leader of the Iranian opposition, dedicated 15 minutes of his daily webcast to comparing Tunisia to Iran's "Green Movement." He concluded that the Tunisians succeeded because many members of the army and police refused to battle protesters.
The events in Tunisia, however, found an unreceptive audience in Moammar Gadhafi, who has ruled neighboring Libya for more than 40 years.
In a speech on national television, the Libyan leader criticized the loss of life and questioned the wisdom of ousting one president to replace him with another, and said the Tunisians were making a mistake by causing chaos in their country.
"What reason is there to fight?" asked Gadhafi, dressed in an uncharacteristically demure black suit. "Tunisia's situation has never really been so bad that it deserved such a reaction from the people."
The uprising in Tunis also had ripples in Sudan, where voters in the south were marking the of a weeklong independence referendum that is widely expected to lead to the creation of the world's newest country.
Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted on an international indictment for war crimes in the western region of Darfur, also faces a rebellion in the west and east, and internal opposition.
A recent hike in prices of oil and basic commodities had caused protests in Sudan universities and calls for resignation of local officials. The economic crunch is expected to increase with the likely southern separation.
Similar cries came from the streets in Damascus, where President Bashar Assad has not matched his liberal economic policies with any political reforms.
"Rulers in the Arab world should beware, they should work to bring down food prices and allay people's concerns otherwise they could meet the same fate," said Haitham Ahmad, a merchant.
Activists in the tiny Gulf nation of Bahrain — where majority Shiites have challenged Sunni rulers for greater rights — were denied a license to hold a rally and gathered instead at the Tunisian Embassy to silently place flowers in solidarity with the rioters.
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers contributing to this report: Sarah El Deeb in Khartoum, Sudan; Jenny Barchfield in Paris; Dale Gavlak and Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan; Hamza Hendawi in Cairo; Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran; Elizabeth A. Kennedy and Bassem Mroue in Beirut; Zeina Karam in Damascus, Syria, and Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem.