By Christophe de Roquefeuil /AFP
CAIRO: The ousting of Tunisia’s president after violent protests is a stark warning to authoritarian regimes across the Arab world, whose people have long voiced similar grievances, analysts said.
A joke making the rounds in Egypt shortly after the news that the Tunisian leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, had fled the country after 23 years in power, reflects the mood on the streets of Arab nations.
It says: “Ben Ali’s plane is approaching Sharm el-Sheikh (Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s residence on the Red Sea resort) not to land, but to pick up more passengers!”
Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution,” as it has been dubbed, “is the first popular uprising to succeed in removing a president in the Arab world,” said Amr Hamzawy of the Carnegie Middle East Centre based in Beirut.
“It could be quite inspiring for the rest of the Arab world.”
“Some ingredients in Tunisia are relevant elsewhere,” from Morocco to Algeria and Egypt to Jordan, he said, citing unemployment, heavy handedness of police and human rights violations.
The Tunisian example also shows change can come from the Arab societies themselves.
“It doesn’t have to be an invasion like in Iraq. It’s a big lesson for autocratic regimes in the region,” Hamzawy said.
The Lebanese daily An-Nahar said in an editorial that the “echo” of the unprecedented revolution would resound “in more than one country of the region.”
On Friday and Saturday, dozens of Egyptians joined a group of Tunisians outside their embassy in central Cairo amid scenes of jubilation and a heavy police presence.
“Listen to the Tunisians, it’s your turn Egyptians!,” they chanted.
“Politics in the Middle East often spills over with much speed and ease because of porous borders and shared cultures,” said Bilal Saab, a researcher at the University of Maryland.
In neighboring Algeria, deadly riots have also rocked the country this month in protest at the rise in price of basic goods.
In Jordan, thousands took to the streets on Friday in several cities to protest against unemployment and inflation, demanding the sacking of the government.
But while the message from Tunisia would be heard loudly in the rest of the Arab world, some say, its short-term impact and the potential spread of popular uprisings were still too difficult to evaluate.
And the uncertainty surrounding the Tunisian transition calls for caution, they say.
“The message is very strong. But to know if what happened in Tunisia can happen elsewhere like Algeria or Egypt is difficult,” said Amr Al-Chobaki of the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
The risk of Islamists profiting from the political changes is also invoked by the region’s governments.
The capacity for Arab autocratic regimes to survive should not be underestimated, Al-Chobaki said.
Tunisia is a country that never left “any room for civil society or the opposition,” he said.
But in Egypt for example, the regime has left little valves open “to allow the people release tension … and to avoid a social explosion,” he said.
According to Claire Spencer, who heads the Middle East and North Africa Program in Chatham House in London, a peaceful spread of democratization is not a given.
“Whether they can manage a smooth transition without too much violence in Algeria is a question mark,” she said.
Ben Ali, in power for 23 years, fled with his family to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday night.
Thousands of Tunisians from Montreal, came to rally in the downtown streets of Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Jan. 15. (AFP Photo / Rogerio Barbosa)