On Jan. 14, Tunisia's president for life, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, resigned in the face of nationwide protests and fled the country for exile in Saudi Arabia. Media reports indicate his wife brought along a ton and a half of gold bullion.
This is a familiar script for besieged tyrants in South America and the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. In 1979, the Shah of Iran quit his country in vaguely similar circumstances. In 1986, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier left Haiti with family and filched millions. Duvalier recently returned to that sad land and could face criminal charges.
Tunisia, however, is a predominantly Arab Muslim country, which make Ben Ali's skedaddle a bit unusual. Middle Eastern wiseguys used to claim that an Arab dictator departed in only one of two ways: by natural death or assassination in the wake of a coup d'etat when another faction of the ruling class decided to place its own strongman in power.
Tunisia 2011 offers another model. Ben Ali faced a popular national uprising spurred by mass anger at his two decades of misrule. He tried to suppress the revolt, and several dozen demonstrators were killed. Instead of dispersing in fear, however, the courageous crowds swelled. In an echo of Eastern Europe 1989, security forces were reluctant to fire on the demonstrators. Tunisian street police and soldiers identified with their grievances: contempt for Ben Ali, his brutal secret police and his regime's systemic corruption.
The regime also failed to suppress the demonstrators' political and operational communications. Credit digital technology. The demonstrators used the Internet to promote their cause and cell phones to coordinate their protests.
Tunisia's North African neighbors are worried. The strongmen and monarchs running Egypt, Algeria, Libya and Morocco fear that discontent may spread. Why? StrategyPage.com noted in a report issued after Ben Ali's exit that, "In most Arab countries, a group of able politicians makes deals with the wealthier families and agrees to run the place for their mutual benefit ... with the rest of the population considered ignorant peasants, to be manipulated and taxed indefinitely." With the Internet, however, the manipulated classes are no longer so ignorant. The authoritarians know they confront a social and political time bomb.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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