The Arab world is in shock as the dictator of Tunisia has fallen in the blink of an eye. There was no sign of impending doom for President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who was in power for 23 years. Yet, an attempted suicide by one 26-year-old sparked riots that led to his downfall, showing every Arab dictator how fragile their rule really is.
The first popular uprising to overthrow an Arab leader began on December 18, one day after 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi tried to end his life. He was unemployed despite having a college degree, forced to take care of his family by selling fruits and vegetables from a cart without a license. Government officers seized his cart and slapped him, compelling him to go to the governor’s office, pour gasoline on himself and set a fire.
Anti-government riots followed and a scared President Ben Ali visited Bouazizi in the hospital. He died on January 4, likely unaware that he had become Tunisia’s equivalent of Neda Soltan in Iran. Attendees to his funeral chanted, “Farewell, Mohamed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today, we will make those who caused your death weep.” The riots spread into Tunis and Ben Ali set a curfew and outlawed gatherings of more than three people.
The Chief of Staff of the military refused to order his troops to fire upon the protesters and was fired. The military forces tried to put down the rebellion, resulting in at least 60 deaths, but then the military turned against Ben Ali as the capital became a battleground. At the same time, Bouazizi tried to appease his citizens by saying he’d step down in 2014, allow freedom of the press, firing his government and even agreeing to hold elections in six months. Nothing worked. The Tunisian people would settle for nothing less than his departure.
Ben Ali fled Tunisia for Saudi Arabia after France refused to grant him entry. Former Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi announced that he was acting president and would hold legislative elections within six months, but the protests continued as the Tunisian people demanded that Ben Ali’s inner circle be removed from power. The Constitutional Council ruled that Ghannouchi was forbidden from serving, and the speaker of the parliament, Fouad Mebazza, was sworn in as the interim president.
President Mebazza and Prime Minister Ghannouchi have agreed to form a coalition government with the opposition parties and hold an election within 60 days, which some opposition leaders feel is too early. This proclamation has not stopped the crisis, as a prison riot has killed 42 and drive-by shootings are being carried out by members of the security forces. Family members of Ben Ali and his top security officer have been arrested. Portraits of him are also being ripped down.
Opponents of an aggressive U.S. foreign policy will point out that Ben Ali was overthrown without Western involvement and a neutral stance helps such protesters. In reality, one day before Ben Ali was overthrown, Secretary of State Clinton was in Qatar and expressed her support for the democratic forces in the region. She even pointed out a Tunisian democratic activist in the audience and said, “People have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order.” She continued, “In too many places, in too many ways, the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand.” There is no indication that her remarks played a role in Ben Ali’s downfall, but it certainly didn’t hurt.