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January 13, 2011

Tunisia on the Brink of Revolution?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

There are revolutions that happen. There are revolutions that almost happen. And then's there's Algeria. 

Today, we are witnessing a remarkable series of events in Tunisia, long considered one of the most stable Arab countries. But it isn't. It wasn't. As we speak, protests and riots have spread throughout Tunisia, including in the capital. Protestors have taken over a mansion of one of the Presiden's relatives and tried to storm government buildings. On many occasions, they've overwhelmed police. Western coverage is still somewhat spare, although a good place to start is Brian Whitaker's blog and the hashtag #sidibouzid on Twitter. 

We are entering a critical phase, and the Western response - which so far has been lacking, to say the least - may very well prove decisive in pushing Tunisia in one direction or the other. But let me be clear, as some of my colleagues have criticized me for overestimating U.S. influence in the Arab world. What America does may not decide whether the revolution actually happens, but it will be crucial in the aftermath. Even if the Ben Ali regime falls, it does not mean it will be replaced by a functioning democracy. The most likely outcome, at least in the short run, is chaos. To turn chaos into something more constructive will require something beyond half-hearted Western statements of "concern." What will happen to Ben Ali and his family, if the presidential palace is overtaken? Will factions or remnants of the regime fight back? 

The Tunisian regime has already shown that its willingness to "shoot into crowds" (something that less repressive regimes, like Egypt and Jordan would have more difficulty stomaching). The willingness to shoot is correlated with the perception that one is likely to get away with it. With France, Tunisia's former colonial master, tacitly (and not-so-tacitly) supporting the regime and military, the consequences of brute repression have been limited. So far. 

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The willingness to shoot is correlated with the perception that one is likely to get away with it. With France, Tunisia's former colonial master, tacitly (and not-so-tacitly) supporting the regime and military, the consequences of brute repression have been limited. So far.
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