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Tunisia: a 'wake-up call' for Arab leaders

By Charlene Gubash, NBC News Producer

 

Christophe Ena / AP

Protesters chant slogans against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis, on Friday.

CAIRO –  Four months of rioting brought down one of the most authoritarian leaders in the Arab world, Tunisian President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali, Friday. And many – from Arab analysts to average citizens – believe this may mark a turning point in the Arab World.  

After two decades of unaccountable leadership, Tunisians suffered from an increasingly unbearable degree of poverty, unemployment, widespread corruption and injustice at the hands of the powerful state security. On Friday they showed the world they’d had enough. But, unfortunately, their plight is a common one shared by the majority of citizens across the Arab world. 

Many in the region stayed glued to satellite channels Friday watching as Tunisian riot police beat and kicked demonstrators and shot tear gas canisters into crowds. They watched as injured demonstrators were carried away by their colleagues, as the prime minister announced that Ben Ali was no longer in power, and as anchors tried to determine exactly where Ben Ali had fled.

And many viewers outside Tunisia pondered what lessons their leaders took away.

“I think it has made governments around the region aware that uprising and revolution can happen in the world. It is a wake-up call for some. Definitely after what happened in Tunisia, things will not be the same as before,” Gamal Abdel Gawad, senior analyst at the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “There are many similar countries among non-oil producers, with a lack of democracy and a lack of civil institutions. After Tunisia, perhaps, we will be seeing a different Arab world on the side of the government and people.”

Gawad pointed out that the coverage of the government’s overthrow was unprecedented. 

“The last time this happened was in 1985 when the Sudanese overthrew Numeiri and then there was no satellite TV. This is the first upheaval of that sort watched around the clock instantly by everybody in the region, and its impact will be felt.”

A Cairo University political science professor, Dr. Horeya Megahed, agreed. “This might give a lesson to other governments. They might absorb the problems of the people and respond to them.” 

However, Hani Sabah, an Egyptian technician, could not imagine a similar reaction in his own country.

“The oppression the Tunisians faced was so much pressure that it made them explode and do what they did. They suffered from unemployment and high prices,” said Sabah. “But it would be hard for that to happen here with the president and his gang around him…The government’s attitude is: say whatever you want and we will do whatever we want.” 

Sabah doesn’t anticipate a people's rebellion in Egypt. “Everybody wants to change the system, but the government right now is completely protected … They will shoot at [protesters] with live ammunition. If they are planning to overthrow the government, they will finish them off.” 

Aly Ibrahim, a Cairo plumber, was glued to the TV on Friday and surfed channels to catch the latest developments. 

“The Egyptian news broadcast only a fraction of the story for fear people might get the message. Be sure that so many other countries will get the message and will say, ‘These people managed to do that.’ … The message people got is, ‘Enough is enough!’ They see prices rising, problems in society, and nobody is moving a finger.”