Tunisia's Nervous Neighbors Watch the Jasmine Revolution

The Arab world ponders the lessons of its first successful popular uprising

  • Salah Habibi / AP

    Protesters demand that members of his party be ejected from the new government

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    Some of Ben Ali's erstwhile peers were plainly rattled. The rulers of Jordan, Egypt and Yemen announced measures to bring down prices of food and fuel, apparently to quell disquiet among their populations. Others lashed out. In a TV address, Gaddafi portrayed Tunisia's revolutionaries as impetuous and impatient youths who had brought chaos upon themselves. "Tunisia now lives in fear," he said, betraying his own anxiety. "Families could be ... slaughtered in their bedroom or citizens in the street as if it were the Bolshevik or American Revolution." In Sudan, the authorities jailed opposition figures who talked of launching their own Tunisia-inspired protests. The unsubtle message: Revolution is dangerous. Don't try this at home.

    Since the Jasmine Revolution had been leaderless, chaos was its inevitable aftermath. Ben Ali's chosen successor as President lasted a single day, and the one installed after him couldn't keep his "national unity" Cabinet united for even a week. Gun battles between the military and die-hard Ben Ali loyalists continued sporadically, and Islamists demanded a say in government. Relieved to be rid of their past, Tunisians were not yet sure of their future.

    The Little Dictatorship That Could
    Political uncertainty is a new experience for most Tunisians. Ben Ali's regime was nothing if not predictable. And for a long time, it had also seemed progressive. Ben Ali had been a model dictator. For the first two decades of his rule, he built up Tunisia's education system, protected women's rights and stamped out Islamic radicalism. Unlike many other Arab countries, Tunisia has compulsory free education until age 16, and more than one-third of high school graduates attend a university. To Western eyes, Tunisians seemed freer, more liberal than their neighbors. Few women wore veils, for instance.

    Since Tunisia lacked the oil riches of so many other Arab states, Ben Ali promoted tourism instead: Europeans flocked to Tunisia's Mediterranean beaches (where there was no taboo on bikinis) and Carthaginian and Roman ruins. Tunisia's small population meant it was not hard to keep the economy growing 5% a year, much faster than the rate of any of its neighbors. Tunisia's per capita income of about $8,000 is one of the highest in North Africa.

    In exchange for all this, the dictator expected his people not to mind very much that he suppressed any opposition and muzzled the media — or that his family got a disproportionate share of the economic pie. Compared with the dire poverty in much of Africa, it seemed a fair deal. If his subjects didn't protest, neither did his allies in the West. France was relieved that he kept the economy ticking, since it meant that fewer Tunisians would try to sneak into French territory. The U.S. was pleased to have a staunch anti-Islamist running things in Tunis while al-Qaeda's North African franchise made inroads in Algeria and Morocco.

    When I last visited Tunisia, in 2007, to describe its success for TIME, then — Minister of Development and International Cooperation Mohamed Nouri Jouini told me he had returned home from Oregon after Ben Ali's bloodless coup in 1987 convinced him that Tunisia would boom. It did. About 80% of people in Tunisia own their homes — about the same rate as in Europe. Microsoft, Pfizer, L'Oréal and other multinational companies set up large Tunisian operations, lured in part by the country's favored trading status with the European Union, a short boat ride away. In a 2007 ranking of 131 countries by the World Bank and World Economic Forum, Tunisia was seen as having the best economic prospects in Africa and the third best in the Arab world. I asked Jouini if he worried that Tunisians would grow weary of their political restrictions and one day challenge the system, but he dismissed the question, saying, "People are conscious of [the government's] achievements and want to keep them."

    But when the global economy slowed in 2008, those achievements began to shrink in the eyes of Tunisians. The job market quickly dried up. Ben Ali's education policies were producing tens of thousands of qualified young men and women every year, but now many faced the prospect of long unemployment. About 25% of youths in Tunisia are believed to be unemployed, roughly the same proportion as in neighboring Algeria. But unlike Algeria — and Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries — Tunisia has no huge natural resources to cushion a severe downturn. And unlike China, it is too small to diversify at high speed, and its main earners, such as tourism and olive-oil exports, are ill suited to create high-paying jobs.

    Faced with dismal prospects, previous generations would have left for Europe, joining the millions of Tunisian migrants already there. But the E.U. has drastically tightened its immigration laws, and its labor market now includes millions of Poles, Romanians and other Eastern Europeans who will do low-paying jobs that were once the domain of North Africans. "With the closure of European borders, the youth felt trapped," says Moncef Marzouki, an opposition leader who returned to Tunis on Jan. 18 after many years of exile in Paris. Without that escape route, he says, young Tunisians "had no choice. They had to fight."

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