Uprisings: From Tunis to Cairo

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Alfred de Montesquiou/AP Images
Recently deposed Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his wife, Leila, greeting supporters in an affluent Carthage neighborhood near the capital, Tunis, October 2009

Dictators do not usually die in bed. Successful retirement is always a problem for them, and not all solve it. It is a problem for everybody else when they leave. What’s to be done afterward? The popular uprising that overturned the dictatorial Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali regime in Tunisia in mid-January sent a thrill of hope through Arab populations.

Aside from the exceptional and complex case of Lebanon, Arab nations have since the demise of the Ottoman Empire mostly suffered from European quasi empire, their own exploitative military and party dictatorships, and recently, hereditary family dictatorships, a reversion to absolute monarchy in secular guise. The dream of a united independent Arab nation to replace the Ottomans was destroyed by World War I peace settlements, which left the major Arab peoples in European empires as mandated states under the League of Nations.

Following World War II and the Suez fiasco, in the cold war setting of the American alliance with Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel, the region found itself dominated by Israeli arms and American support for existing regimes. The rise and subsequent failure of Colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser’s Arab Socialism in Egypt and Yemen did not interrupt most of the region’s political passivity, and Egypt itself, after the Camp David accords in 1978, became an American client state. This calm was disturbed only by the Iranian popular overthrow of the Shah, communal turbulence in Lebanon, and then the Gulf War and American invasion of Iraq.

However, the last began a chain of anti-American resistance and anti-status-quo movements that now have found explosive expression, casting the regional order into doubt. The Tunisian revolt has been followed by popular anti-regime protests and violence in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities, in which four people died on January 25. At least six people have attempted immolation in recent days in Egypt and there have been similar acts in Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, and Saudi Arabia. More than 90,000 Egyptians signed up on Facebook to participate in the January 25 rallies (CNN estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 took part), which despite a government ban resumed on the 26th, with calls for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. And on January 27, over 15,000 protesters marched in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, demanding that President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down.

The immolations of recent days in the region, one of them by a woman, have been motivated by the presumed hope to inspire in their countries what a despairing Tunisian provincial fruit and vegetable vendor—who was trying to support his widowed mother and seven siblings and was humiliated by a slap in the face by a policewoman—accomplished when he immolated himself on December 17,…


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