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Tunisia’s Upheaval Resonates in Arab World

January 17, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
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The political uprising in Tunisia has raised questions about the possibility of similar unrest in other parts of the region, especially after protesters set themselves on fire in Egypt, Algeria, and Mauritania.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The toppling of a repressive regime in Tunisia has galvanized the Arab world, raising the question of whether this will spread to other countries.

In Egypt, Algeria, and Mauritania today, protesters set themselves on fire, apparently copying the act that helped trigger the uprising in Tunisia.

For more on all this, we’re joined by Mona Eltahawy, a longtime reporter in the Middle East, now an award-winning columnist and lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues, and Shibley Telhami, professor at the University of Maryland and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He’s conducted numerous public opinion surveys in the Middle East and advised the State Department on Mideast issues.

Mona Eltahawy, starting with you, why is what is happening in Tunisia important?

MONA ELTAHAWY, Journalist & Commentator: It’s incredibly important just because of what we just heard from ordinary people on the streets of Tunis who spoke to the correspondent.

To hear a fellow Arab say the revolution isn’t over until we have gotten rid of the old regime and its inner circle gives me as an Egyptian goose bumps. What has happened in Tunisia is basically the people saying the impossible is possible, because, forever, Arabs have been told you cannot topple your leaders, you cannot topple your dictators.

And we saw it happen in Tunisia. And we continue to see Tunisians demonstrate and say no, until we get rid of the regime. That’s why Tunisia is important.

JEFFREY BROWN: Shibley Telhami, where is the discontent coming from? We hear about food prices. We hear about a lack of civil freedoms. In the past, we have often — we have often focused on Islamist dissent. What’s happening here?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University Of Maryland: Well, you know, clearly, this is not about Islamist dissent. There is Islamist dissent in Tunisia. And Tunisia has cracked down on Islamists more than other Arab countries. It’s not just political. It’s even traditional manifestation of Islamism were repressed.

But, clearly, this isn’t what it’s about. And in my own judgment, actually, over the past decade, much of the empowerment of political Islam has been really for other issues. People are dissatisfied with the existing order. They want to mobilize. They want to oppose, whether it’s about jobs or repression or the economy or foreign policy or identity, all of the above.

The real issue is not whether people have reason to want to revolt. We have seen the gap — we have been polling for a long time — the huge gap between what the public wants in the Middle East and the governments on domestic politics, on foreign policy, on identity issues.

The question is, why don’t they revolt? Why haven’t they revolted in the past? Why do they revolt in Tunisia? So, the question isn’t really whether they have issues. What makes it work? And that’s something really fascinating here, because it might tell us something about whether to expect a spillover effect across.

Clearly, every case is separate, but you look back, there was a revolution in the Middle East. It wasn’t in the Arab world. It was the Iranian Revolution in 1979. It did empower, and there were a lot of manifestations of it. Particularly, it empowered the new Islamist wave, political wave of political Islam in the Arab world.

There was also inspiration after the end of the Cold War, with the fall of Ceausescu. A lot of people expected something to happen. And there were inspirations, but they didn’t happen.

What’s really unique about the Tunisian case is, number one, it’s Arab, obviously. This is the first one we have in the Arab world. But, number two, it happens without leadership. I mean, this is not really — even in Iran, a case which was a popular revolution, we had leadership. This is inspired by, seemingly, a new empowerment, a new mobilization method, including, you know, the Internet and the Twitter and the information revolution.

And you have to ask the question whether this is really a delayed impact of the information revolution.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so, Mona Eltahawy, when you look at the larger Arab world, what do you look for to tell you whether this — this is the beginning of something that can spread?

MONA ELTAHAWY: Well, I think, to continue from what Shibley was saying, we have to remember that the Arab world is a very young or youthful part of the world. The majority of Arab citizens are younger than 30.

And the majority of them have known no other leader than the current dictators who run the Arab world. So, what I’m seeing when I look across the Arab world is a very youthful population that has been energized and empowered by watching their — the fellow youth of Tunisia go out on the street and say no.

Now, you mentioned all the — you mentioned earlier the self-immolation cases in Egypt, Algeria, and Mauritania. People are watching Tunisia very closely. And there are two groups of people that we have to keep an eye on. Arab dictators are watching Tunisia and hoping it fails.

We saw Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan leader, on television the day after the revolution in Tunisia telling Tunisians that they made a — they made a great mistake by overthrowing their dictator and saying that he was the best leader for them. Now, what essentially he was saying is: I am scared witless by what happened next door.

And this is what you will find among all the Arab regimes. They are very scared by what happened in Tunisia, and they want it to fail. On the other hand, Arab citizens are watching Tunisia very closely. And they want it to succeed because it is this popular movement. And we don’t know — you know, there’s no — there’s no opposition in Tunisia, because like many other Arab countries, Ben Ali is a dictator who either exiled or imprisoned most opponents to him.

So, basically, Arab citizens are sitting there wanting to learn from the Tunisian case and want Tunisia to succeed so we can see how to revolt, because we have been taught for decades Arabs are passive, Arabs are apathetic, Arabs don’t know how to revolt.

And here we are staging a revolution in Tunisia and watching it very closely. We cannot say, obviously, what is going to happen in the next few weeks in Tunisia or when and if a spillover effect is going to take place. But, as an Arab who is thrilled by what is happening in Tunisia, I know that everyone is glued to their television.

I’m glued to Twitter. I don’t sleep.

MONA ELTAHAWY: I’m glued to Twitter because I’m sitting there reading all the tweets from young Tunisians saying, I was on the street today saying no to more dictatorship. This is the true spillover effect.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Shibley, when you look at the potential obstacles, though, I mean, as she said, there are governments already taking actions against this, right? They’re — they’re — they’re helping with food prices in some countries. They’re saying, no, we’re not going to go down that road.

How — how — how strong is there — among governments, how much strength is there to avoid something like this, to say, we’re going to have instability if you — if you take to the streets?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: The public learns over time, obviously. And that’s what we have seen in Tunisia. But governments learn, too. And they have, you know, instruments of oppression that have been pretty effective. And that’s how they have been able to withstand a lot of difficult times, including and during the Iraq war, when in fact the vast majority of the public in the region opposed the Iraq war and many of the governments supported it.

And nothing really much happened. Can they do it again? Well, they’re going to try everything they can. But I can tell you, they are scared, because the — nobody thought that Ben Ali would abandon his post so quickly. They were scared by the vision of Ceausescu in Romania end of the Cold War, no question. And they took some steps.

So, I think they are all going to try to figure out what to do. Even ruling elites, I think they are going to have to reassess whether they can bank on it or not.

I can tell you something interesting, because, yesterday, I was listening to Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, give a speech, mostly about Lebanese politics.

JEFFREY BROWN: And another country that’s in turmoil at the moment, right?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Exactly, and there — there again, but he pointed to the Tunisian, you know, revolution in his addressing the Arab leaders, who were — quote — “banking on the West to save them from their people.”

And, of course, he was talking about Prime Minister Hariri, who was in the White House when Nasrallah brought down the government. But he was saying, look at what’s happened to Ben Ali. He leaves, and the West wouldn’t even accept him.

He was alluding to the report that France refused to accept him in France. So, there is an element of fear. And clearly it’s going to be exploited. Spillover, you know, I — if you asked me as a political scientist, I would say revolutions are rare in history. They have been rare in the Middle East. Each case is separate. Each case is different.

But there are new elements on this — in this field right now, the information revolution, Twitter, empowerment of the young, organization without political parties. Will it have an impact? Of course it will. What kind of impact, we don’t know.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just briefly, Mona Eltahawy, you both mentioned the social media, Twitter, Facebook, et cetera. You’re saying that these different groups in different countries are actually pretty well-connected through such things and through watching television?

MONA ELTAHAWY: They are absolutely connected. I mean, Facebook and Twitter and YouTube are incredibly popular in the Arab world amongst young people. And, as I mentioned, the majority of the Arab world is young.

But it’s very important to remember that Twitter didn’t cause the Tunisian revolution. Rather, it gave us a front-row seat to what happened in Tunisia. But there are very interesting instances where Tunisians were warning each other of where the regime snipers were using Twitter.

And Twitter now is incredibly popular among them to tell us about what happened in the street demonstrations they went to and as a way of connecting to fellow Arabs. So, social media is — absolutely are a new element here that are empowering young people to express themselves under regimes that have disenfranchised so many young people for such a long time.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mona Eltahawy, Shibley Telhami, thank you both very much.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Pleasure.

MONA ELTAHAWY: Thank you.