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Tunisia leaves Arab leaders wondering: Should I pack a bag?

By Richard Engel, NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent
 
TUNIS, Tunisia – The Arab world has been changed by the uprising in Tunisia, but don’t expect to see the region’s government officials booking bulk rates on charter planes to Saudi Arabia any time soon. The changes that Tunisia’s popular revolt will bring to the Middle East will be slow, but profound, according to Middle East experts.
 
But what do they know? Middle East experts didn’t predict a month ago that Tunisia’s autocratic regime would fall like a cardiac case, so take their comments with a shaker of salt. 
 
Why did Tunis fall you ask again? Tunisia was an incongruous blend of poor people living in a rich country; educated people living in a boorish, outdated police state.

Thibault Camus / AP

Protestor holds a Tunisian flag as he shouts slogans during a demonstration against the party of deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in the center of Tunis, Wednesday.

Under the so-black-it’s-almost-purple-haired 74-year-old President Zine el-Abideen Ben Ali, currently cooling his heels in exile in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia’s economy was strong. But Tunisians lost their tolerance for old-fashioned repression and dictators’ timeworn favorites, like censorship, police intimidation and one-party rule. 

To the Tunisian kids, it felt oh so Stalin-like, so passé. Most Tunisians these days are on Facebook, that Web page some of you might have used that seems to want to take credit for every revolt on the planet, including the ones claimed by Twitter. Before Facebook and Twitter, students and other agitators with low boiling points organized revolts by talking. The tongue was the mighty weapon when a rallying cry was actually cried, but we didn’t call them Tongue Revolutions.
 
When not coming up with excuses for failing to predict the ouster of Tunisia’s president, most Middle East experts point to Egypt’s leaders as the next candidates to earn frequent flier miles on Saudi Arabian Airlines.
 
Like in Tunisia, Egypt’s population is rapidly losing interest in being told what to do.  But President Hosni Mubarak, who appears to share a colorist with Ben Ali, knows how to contain a revolt. Egypt has been in a state of emergency since 1981. Its security services are accused of being both brutal and efficient, with brutal playing the starring role. It seems unlikely that a few thousand protesters would send the Egyptian government shopping for suitcases.
 
The Tunisia effect could be a slow burn. Mubarak has made it as clear as Nile water (which is not that clear, yet clear enough) that he wants his son Gamal to follow him as president. Will that still be possible? 

The Egyptian people might not have accepted Gamal as the political waters stood a month ago.  Now that Ben Ali has left for his off-season pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, Egyptians’ tolerance for events that might have seemed inevitable could be lower. Even renowned fatalists like Egyptians might decide to decide their own futures.  (Note to readers based on this journalist’s experiences living in Egypt: It is best to avoid riding in taxis in places where people believe they do not control their own destinies. Fatalism may bring inner peace, but it is not good for defensive driving.)
 
Which other countries in the Middle East have educated, fed-up people, along with poverty, repressive regimes and high corruption you ask again? The list is long. Which will fall next, if any? 

Middle East experts will undoubtedly spend great amounts of time and limited brainpower guessing the wrong ones, not that that matters much. Facebook will take credit for the revolutions in any case.