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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    And they used the one weapon they understood much better than the regime: the Internet. With nothing but time on their hands, many unemployed Tunisians — smart, multilingual and wired — were already spending hours a day on Facebook and other social networks. They had long since figured out ways to evade the government's crude firewalls. After Bouazizi set himself alight, they put their online skills to use. "We were downloading all sorts of videos about Ben Ali's regime from YouTube, via proxies, and putting them on Facebook," says Rima Aloulou, 26, an unemployed civil engineer. "After two or three days, the government would shut it down. We did it again. It was like a war," she says. The young cyberactivists easily made state television and radio stations irrelevant — and were able for the first time in 23 years to undermine the regime's propaganda. "The youth didn't buy the lies, like our generation," says Mounir Khélifa, an English professor at the University of Tunis. When Ben Ali announced on television on Jan. 13 that the police were no longer shooting live bullets at demonstrators, Khélifa was inclined to believe him. But his son, 26, persuaded him otherwise, saying, "Dad, wake up. The information is out there."

    Burning Down the House
    Anger quickly focused on the very things that in better times Tunisians were prepared to overlook. The greed and corruption of the First Family were now intolerable. Protesters lambasted Ben Ali's second wife Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser who accumulated vast wealth as First Lady and bestowed lavish gifts on her numerous relatives; she has 10 siblings. About half of Tunisia's businesses — including a bank, hotels, a property-development firm and the two biggest newspaper companies — are in the names of the extended family. The distributorships of Porsche, Volkswagen, Kia and Alfa Romeo cars all belonged to Ben Ali's son-in-law Sakher El Materi. His lavish lifestyle was the subject of a 2009 diplomatic cable, acquired by WikiLeaks, in which the then — U.S. ambassador, Robert Godec, warned State Department officials that the ruling family's excesses could lead to the regime's collapse. Godec described a sumptuous dinner at El Materi's home, where the young tycoon pressed the ambassador to help him acquire the McDonald's franchise for Tunisia and where the ice cream and frozen yogurt had been flown in from St.-Tropez, France, on his host's private plane. The household pets included a caged tiger named Pasha, which reminded Godec of Uday Hussein's caged lion in Baghdad.

    Such details fanned the protesters' fury, and the First Family's assets bore the brunt of their wrath: their homes in the seaside suburb La Marsa, close to Hannibal's ancient city of Carthage, were looted. After the dictator fled, many Tunisians flocked to La Marsa to see how his family had lived, filing through the grand houses in evident wonderment. I walked into a sprawling two-story mansion with a panoramic sea view, whose airy living room opened onto a large pool deck with an outdoor shower and a mosaic fresco of frolicking dolphins. An elevator led to a Jacuzzi and several bedrooms upstairs. The resident of this idyllic place was Adel Trabelsi, whose schoolteacher's salary was probably about $300 a month but for whom money was no object because he is the nephew of the erstwhile First Lady. The house was burned by protesters on Jan. 14; now incredulous locals were snapping photographs of themselves amid the wreckage. Across Tunis, luxury cars once sold by El Materi had been smashed and burned.

    Ben Ali and his family face indefinite exile; some members of the First Family are believed to have fled to Paris, where they are huddled in a hotel near Disneyland. Might they be joined by the First Families of other North African dictatorships? Like Ben Ali's Tunisia, Algeria and Libya have aging tyrants in Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Gaddafi, as well as a growing population of young unemployed. But while Tunisia might inspire hope in the hearts of the oppressed, it will also likely steel the resolve of the oppressors. "The Tunisian thing is going to remind people that things are possible," says Fouad Hikmat of the International Crisis Group, when asked if a similar uprising could break out in Sudan. "But if anything like this moves people onto the street, the government will try to block it with force."

    Deployed for years as U.N. peacekeepers in Africa, Tunisian soldiers opted not to side with their President against the people. The army's chief of staff, General Rachid Ammar, reportedly refused Ben Ali's order to fire on protesters — the Presidential Guard and security police had no such compunction — and has become a hero to many Tunisians. The youth in Morocco and Algeria who have demonstrated in recent weeks against rising food and fuel prices might not be able to count on similar restraint from the military forces there.

    And Tunisia may not seem worth emulating if the chaos that has followed Ben Ali's departure continues. Islamists, long shut out by the dictator, have thronged the streets, demanding that their banned party be allowed to join the coalition government. Protesters are also raging against the continued presence of Ben Ali's acolytes in the government. Three trade-union leaders who joined the Cabinet have since resigned. If political upheaval continues, there are fears that the military may take over, a narrative depressingly familiar in the Arab world.

    For the moment, however, Tunisians are still inhaling the Jasmine Revolution's intoxicating scent of possibility. In cafés and restaurants, people gather for open discussion of politics and pore over uncensored newspapers — unthinkable under Ben Ali. Khélifa, who studied British Romantic poetry at Yale University, says that for days he has been repeating two lines from William Wordsworth's Prelude , written in the aftermath of the French Revolution: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very heaven!" At least for now.

    — with reporting by Rana Foroohar / New York and Alan Boswell / Juba, Sudan

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