Agonizing analyses are in progress in Middle East palaces, prime ministers' offices and security bureaus, of the uprising in Tunisia which put its president to flight on Jan. 14 to judge its effect on their regimes. Fixated hitherto on the threat of radical Islam, they were unprepared for a spontaneous uprising of an Arab street and are asking themselves if it cannot not happen in Cairo, Amman, Damascus, Tripoli or Rabat. The question became more pressing as the shocking street battles and riots which filled television screens a week ago persisted.
They saw that the unrest is not about to go away and there is no knowing how it will turn out. It is now evident that in the near term, the turmoil is not about to produce an orderly political process leading to a general election and a moderate government with a Western orientation. The only certainty today is that the disturbances will continue to tear through the heart of the once-stable Tunisia, pitting the military in bloody battles against armed street gangs and masses which have begun visiting the mosques. Who finally comes out on top – and when – is anyone's guess.
The only certain outcome is that the old political, military and economic regime ruled with an iron hand by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is gone for good. The street refuses to tolerate its survival – even for a period of transition until order is established. This level of disobedience is sending unfamiliar shudders down the spines of the long-serving Arab rulers and their minions, all of whom suddenly feel insecure and vulnerable.
Four of the five lessons the region can begin to draw from the tumult in Tunisia are disquieting:
A Middle East regime cannot always depend on a loyal army
1. Long-serving Arab regimes like that of Ben Ali's which lasted 23 years are writing their own prescriptions for sudden outbreaks of popular revolt to hit them in the back without prior warning.
2. Once the army refuses to obey orders to shoot rioters and break up demonstrations by force, the ruler has no shield against the street: He must other take to his heels like Ben Ali or be killed.
3. Arab peoples have been remarkably patient with rulers who stay in power on and on for decades. Today, they are showing signs of impatience with he heavy burdens of economic hardship, high unemployment levels, soaring prices and lack of democratic liberties which are their lot. Indeed, their situation may have deteriorated to the point that they are ready to put their lives in the hands of unpredictable new rulers who may make their lives worse, so long as they are rid of the incumbents.
Modern media and Internet enable them too to watch their fellow sufferers in Tunisia and help spread the contagion.
4. The Tunisian revolution starting from the street is also being closely studied by opposition movements across the Middle East as a model for emulation. Before them too is a contrasting model, the mass demonstrations erupting in Tehran in 2009 which were brutally suppressed by the Iranian Islamic regime.
Regime opponents seeking power will no doubt balance the risks against the rewards of mobilizing the street to overthrow their regimes, depending on the conditions prevailing in their respective countries.
Islamic movements were not part of the popular insurrection
5. The fifth lesson is the only one offering a possible silver lining for Arab rulers and the West, particularly the US: Radical Islam had no role as a player in the Tunisian insurrection – or even thus far as a beneficiary. Although the Tunisian Islamic movement was weak and unassertive compared, say, with the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, its failure to seize the opportunity of havoc in Tunisia shows that Islamic movements of the Arab world are by and large not geared to fighting their battles against governments through popular revolt.
Or else, this is a deliberate strategy: Like in Iran, radical Islamic movements seek to overthrow regimes and rule in their stead, not let people power prevail.
The Tunisian example is therefore a living refutation of the threat constantly brandished by Western politicians seeking to promote their Middle East agendas that Arab lands are on the verge of falling into the hands of Islamic movements. It is a fact that when the people rose up against the Ben Ali regime in Tunis, the Islamists were nowhere to be seen or heard. Their leader did not stir from his place of exile in London, England – even when an attempt was made to form a "unity government" – an attempt which foundered after 24 hours.
Interestingly, too, Saudi Arabia was hardly mentioned in the context of the knock-on effects of the Tunisian upset. The oil kingdom and the struggle waged there over the succession to the throne appear on the surface to have been untouched by the turbulence in Tunisia.
Its wider impact and the situation in Saudi Arabia are analyzed in a separate article in this issue.