Tunisia, a country whose citizens have long put up with a corrupt leadership and rigid controls on both their economic and political rights, has finally had enough.
With an unemployment rate hovering around 13.5 percent and a highly regulated economy, growth has been slow and unable to quell the anger and frustration over police state rule, which has maintained strict limitations on the press and the internet.
The tipping point occurred on December 17, when a young man Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in protest when government officials barred him from selling vegetables on the streets of Sidi Bouzid. Following this final act of desperation, demonstrations triggered across the town which lies within one of the poorest regions of Tunisia. President Ben Ali retaliated with aggressive police action as well as labeling the protesters “terrorists”, which only seemed to further anger them and win supporters to their cause.
When none of these tactics proved to be effective, President Ben Ali began to make an attempt at concessions, promising to “deepen democracy and revitalize pluralism.” But it was too late. In an act uncharacteristic of the strong-arm ruler, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia with his family after being rejected entrance to France.
These unexpected turn of events should be welcomed by the Western world. The Tunisian people have successfully overturned an oppressive government and now seek to implement many of the freedoms we enjoy.
Although the death toll continues to mount, the protesters must not relent in their demand for reforms and remember that, “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” as Jefferson once said.
One recent effect of the revolution in Tunisia has been to inspire other Arab states. Following suit, rioting began to break out across Egypt on January 25, over similar reasons of economic stagnation and political repression.
However, unlike the events in Tunisia, there are reasons to be wary of a political upheaval in Egypt. Although most of the initial protesters appear to be advocates of secular democracy, their success in ousting President Mubarak may actually usher in an even worse governing entity. Throughout the period of his long reign, he has battered democratic-minded opposition, making them ill-prepared for any sort of power shift, which leaves one of the several Islamist groups as the likely candidate.
The hope is that before Mubarak goes the way of his friend Ben Ali, he will implement many of the sought after reforms. The 82 year old dictator must restore legitimacy to Egypt’s election laws in order to step down gracefully.
And in a welcome move by the administration, while in Jordan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated, “We support the universal rights of the Egyptian people… including the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly.” She went on to say that “we urge the Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including on social media sites.”
Unfortunately, it may already be too late. On January 28, with no end in sight to the chaos, the Islamist groups may have already begun to make their move. Egyptian scholar Samuel Tadros reported “seeing Islamists out in full force among the protesters.”
He went on to describe that, “they poured out of the mosques after Friday prayers and are marching and shouting Islamist slogans.”
Rep. Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan has taken the accusation even further claiming that the “Egyptian demonstrations are not the equivalent of Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution”, but a “reprise of Iran’s 1979 radical revolution.”
Before we get on board behind the revolution in Egypt (or any overthrow of a tyrannical government for that matter) it is important to make sure that whatever is replacing it is not actually worse than its predecessor. As bad as Mubarak’s military dictatorship may be, it is preferable to an Iranian-style theocracy.
Though it may be the case that this fear of a rising Islamism is premature, as there is a real possibility the advocates for a liberalized democratic state are the ones who will be able to assert themselves, and transform their nation into something like a modern-day Turkey. An Islamist takeover of Egypt is surely terrible to contemplate. Only time will tell in either case.
The full ripple effect of Tunisia and now Egypt however is yet to be seen. And some analysts such as Joel C. Rosenberg believe Jordan could be next, and unlike Egypt “there is a very high risk that Islamic radicals would take over the regime.” Let us pray this is not the case. For now we can only hope that Tunisia and Egypt change for the better.