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Tunisia echoes in the Arab street
by by Dina Ezzat-
Al-Ahram Weekly
20-26 January 2011

Having toppled their president, Tunisians are waking up to the demands of the day after the crescendo of their revolution: ousting the remainder of the regime of Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali, taking the corrupt entourage of the ousted dictator and his political party to justice, and preparing for presidential elections within two months.

`One way or another we are going to build a truly democratic regime. There are still many questions about how things will work out, however,` said a Tunisian diplomat who preferred to remain anonymous.

Concluding their economic and social summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, on Wednesday afternoon, Arab leaders renewed their commitment to development strategies of their countries and pledged a $2 billion programme to boost faltering economies and create new job opportunities for young Arabs.

President Hosni Mubarak, who chaired the meeting, stressed the importance of economic cooperation as a national security requirement and said investment in the Arab world`s youth would bring future rewards, calling the young generation `the most precious of all our resources and wealth`.

The summit opened with impassioned remarks by Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa that `the Arab soul is broken by poverty, unemployment and general recession... This is in the mind of all of us.`

`The Tunisian revolution is not far from us,` Moussa warned. `The Arab citizen has entered an unprecedented state of anger and frustration.` He called for an Arab `renaissance` to lift people from their frustration.

While working to put their house in order after a quarter of a century of the Bin Ali police state, Tunisians might not be paying much attention to the volume of political enthusiasm their Jasmine Revolution has induced into the Arab street.

`It`s not that we`re expecting a revolution in every Arab country but we are certainly monitoring a great deal of admiration of the Jasmine Revolution in many Arab countries,` said a Cairo-based foreign diplomat.

Admiration of the Tunisian elimination of the firm grip of Bin Ali is not all. In several Arab cities, people have been inspired by the Tunisian revolution and have started to take to the streets to demonstrate against social and political injustice.

In Algeria, Libya, Jordan, Yemen and elsewhere in the Arab world there are demonstrations -- albeit on a limited scale. The demonstrators` complaints are being accommodated in these, and in other Arab capitals, with socio-economic packages that seem to prioritise social sensitivity over economic reforms prescribed by international organisations.

In Egypt, Mauritania and Algeria, individuals have set themselves on fire to demonstrate poverty and unemployment, following the now considered heroic example of Mohamed Bouaziz, the jobless Tunisian whose self-immolation ignited his country`s revolt.

`We are obviously being very alert about possible demonstrations that could be prompted by any of these incidents. We are keeping our eyes wide open,` said an Egyptian security source. He added, however, that there are no indications of any big demonstrations round the corner.

`I think it would be a bit too alarmist to expect the Tunis events to be replayed blow-by-blow in any other Arab country,` said a Cairo-based Arab diplomat whose country has seen some socio- economic demonstrations over the past few days.

This and other Arab diplomats who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity shared a sense of unease on the part of some governments over a possible stamina for Tunisia-style revolutions but insisted that each country has its own political context and that revolutions cannot just be copy and paste from one country to another.

Some of these Arab diplomats suggested that it won`t be long before their governments resume business as usual even if some economic reform plans have to be spaced out, delayed or even cancelled.

`There also might be a tendency towards the expansion of freedom of the press and more inclusion of the opposition,` said one Arab diplomat whose country`s record of freedom is not subject to much international praise. He added that the experience of some countries in using the media to `let off steam` might also be copied.

According to a Western diplomat, however, `there was nobody in Tunis who thought four weeks ago that Bin Ali would have been toppled -- nobody, not the French, not the Americans, not anyone,` he said. He added, `almost everybody thought that Bin Ali would resort to firm coercive measures. He wanted to, but his army let him down. That was not expected.`

It was only when Bin Ali made his third appearance on TV to address the nation and to promise considerable socio-economic and political reforms that some started to question his ability to stand up to the demonstrations, said the same diplomat. Twenty-four hours later, the Tunisian president fled the country and with no clear destination of refuge.

Foreign diplomats who argue caution in speculating over a growing revolutionary sentiment across the Arab world say constitutions were amended in several Arab countries during the past few years to allow for a life-time presidency or for scenarios of selected succession to power without much reaction by the respective Arab peoples.

`So, I think it is unrealistic to say that following the Tunisian revolution there will be a revolution in every Arab country,` said another Western diplomat.

According to a statement by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Doha during her participation in the Forum for the Future, it is also unrealistic to expect Arab peoples to continue succumbing to regimes that have long been associated with corruption and dictatorship.

Clinton said that the situation is exacerbated by dwindling natural resources and the difficulty of the region`s large population of young people who are caught between unemployment and limitations on the freedom of expression.

In some Arab countries, Clinton added, `people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order.

`The region`s foundations are sinking into the sand,` warned Clinton over the weekend.

This said, there are still no indications, at least thus far, that this US administration is prepared to change its low level of pressure to promote democracy in the Middle East, not even at the inspiration of the Jasmine Revolution.

And, to judge by European diplomats who spoke to the Weekly, there is no evidence either that the EU is willing to go far in activating its call for fast- track democratisation among its southern neighbours.

Stability and the exclusion of scenarios of Islamist rule remain a top priority for all Western capitals concerned. Since the fall of the Bin Ali regime, Arab and Western commentators have been arguing that the Jasmine Revolution should serve as a reminder to many that there comes a moment when the will of the people overcomes their fear of coercion.

To judge by the talk in diplomatic quarters this might be the thinking of some Arab leaders today -- but maybe not for long.

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