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.
Tunisia's social and historical circumstances differ from its neighbors, which is why some commentators argue its bottom-up revolt is unique and domino revolutions in the region are unlikely. The Tunisian military is considered politically neutral. The country has a comparatively well-educated populace with rising economic expectations. The people understand how the corrupt system stunts their own ability to create wealth.
Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi's caretaker government (which will run the country until elections are held) is confronting demonstrators who demand that all Ben Ali supporters be excluded from any subsequent government. This puts Ghannouchi, a longtime Ben Ali ally, in a bind. Twenty-first century Tunisians know the game, and they don't want the same old authoritarian faces in charge backed by the same old money.
Al-Qaida's North African affiliate, al-Qaida in the Maghreb, and other militant groups will seek to influence events, and they represent a major threat. These extremists have little to say about jobs, however -- a key demonstrator demand. Their totalitarian ideology also runs counter to the calls for free speech and fair laws that energize Tunisia's revolt.
This leads to a tactical convergence of interests between tyrants and the terrorists. If the terrorists create enough mayhem, the tyrants bet the Tunisians will trade in their would-be democracy for a strongman who will stop the terror.
Pray that Tunisia can avoid such calculated chaos. The Iraqi people, however, did not capitulate to al-Qaida's terror campaign and, in so doing, dealt al-Qaida a strategic political defeat.
Tunisia's revolutionaries appear to be just as fearless. Tyrants and terrorists of all types and isms use fear to suppress demands for freedom. Chain-reaction revolts are unlikely, but Tunisia's rebellion is another indication of a psychological change lurking in Arab nations: They are losing their fear.
The revolt also demonstrates a people's willingness to accept responsibility for altering their own dreadful circumstances. That's bad news for the authoritarian leaders and al-Qaida.