Tunisia’s Revolt Could Set the Region on Fire

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Tunisia’s Revolt Could Set the Region on Fire

One man’s self-immolation helped torch a government. If the winds blow wrong, the blaze could spread.

People in the Arab world are lighting themselves on fire—literally. These grotesque suicides represent a threat to the existing order in at least a dozen Middle Eastern and African countries.

Just this week, revolutionary, explosive events have rocked that region, and no one quite knows how things will end up on the other side. Some Western observers hope this signals a new era of democracy, liberalization and freedom there. In a sense, that is a likely outcome.

But if the past decade has proven anything, it is the error of the notion that greater democracy and freedom in this part of the world produce peaceful results.

Last month, a young Tunisian man started a disturbing trend. Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, was unemployed and had begun selling produce illegally to earn money for his family. When the police shut him down for lacking a permit, he protested through self-immolation.

In a sense, he may have lit the whole region on fire.

Mohammed died and became a hero. His dramatic act inspired a wave of public protests against the government. Tunisia’s autocratic president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has ruled for 23 years, living in opulence and luxury at the expense of his people. His regime first tried to crack down on the mobs by arresting and killing protesters. But the crowds only grew, and last Friday, they took over the streets of the capital. Within hours, the spooked president had sacked his government and fled the country on his private jet. The country now lies in the hands of a frail caretaker government. Just what will happen next is an open question.

However laudable one may believe this sudden eruption of people power to be (“I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people,” said President Obama), it also carries ominous and far-reaching implications.

Conditions in Tunisia that provoked the uprising—public discontent due to high unemployment, poverty and repression at the hands of secularist governments steeped in corruption—are identical if not far worse in several other Arab states. This has been the status quo in this region for decades. But times are changing. The advancement of communications technology—satellite tv, cell phones, Internet—is neutralizing governments’ ability to control information and prevent the public from mobilizing. Add religious fervor to the mix, and things get even more unpredictable.

Countries like Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Morocco all appear vulnerable to mass uprisings, not to mention Kuwait, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The concern now is that unrest in Tunisia could inspire similar revolts elsewhere, jeopardizing other governments.

“Every Arab leader is watching Tunisia in fear,” said one Egyptian commentator.

In just the past two weeks, at least eight more people have set themselves ablaze, in Algeria, Mauritania and Egypt as well as Tunisia. For unpopular Arab leaders, such bizarre, highly dramatic anti-government protest is the stuff of nightmares.

What really makes this development dangerous is its potential to be exploited by Islamists.

Secularist President Ben Ali, despot that he was, did work to keep Islamism in Tunisia in check. He outlawed Islamic political parties; he banned the headscarf, he battled the spread of jihadist ideology in classrooms and on tv. With him gone, no one quite knows what will happen. But Islamists have for years sought to cultivate Tunisia as a recruiting ground for terrorism. They see the government’s fall as their big break, an occasion ripe with opportunity.

Already the leader of Tunisia’s main Islamist organization has announced he will return to the country for the first time since 1989. And the leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, is urging Tunisian protesters to “send your children to us for training on how to use weapons and to get military experience.”

The United States is concerned. Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appealed to Arab leaders to beware “extremist elements, terrorist groups and others” who, amid the present turmoil, are “already out there, appealing for allegiance and competing for influence.” Under Ben Ali’s rule, Tunisia was actually an ally in the war on terror and considered one of the more stable countries in the region. For it to fall so quickly and unexpectedly is cause for serious alarm.

“Al Qaeda and other extremist groups don’t enjoy broad support in Tunisia, but they are disciplined and organized,” the Wall Street Journal warns. “History is full of liberal revolutions that were hijacked by new dictators.”

It’s not just that country at risk of radicalization. As Daniel Pipes wrote, “This fast, seemingly easy, and relatively bloodless coup d’etat could inspire globally Islamists to sweep away their own tyrants.” In a region where religious extremism isn’t uncommon, people power isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Egypt is the most troubling example. The region’s most populous Arab state, it is particularly vulnerable. Public discontent over the regime of President Hosni Mubarak runs extremely high, and there is no clear plan of succession. The strongest opposition force is the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization with strong ideological and logistical ties to Iran. As the Trumpet has long forecast, Egypt is ripe for a radical political shift. The precedent in Tunisia could hasten that change.

This truly is an extraordinary moment for this region. Just as these events have pounded at the creaky foundations of secularist Arab regimes, Islamism is prominently featuring within other neighboring countries that stand at pivotal junctures. Last week, Hezbollah leaders in Lebanon flexed their political power and toppled the government. In Iraq, followers of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr just enthusiastically welcomed their leader back. Southern Sudan is about to secede from its Muslim-controlled northern neighbor, a move that threatens to provoke a serious backlash among Islamists upset at losing ground.

Watch this region closely. The tumult in Tunisia could portend far greater, more widespread change. The risk of a surge in radicalism is high. Conditions are highly combustible. One young man lighting fire to himself may prove to be a spark with dangerously explosive consequences.