The Tunisia Effect: Will Its "Hunger Revolution" Spread?

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Fethi Belaid / AFP / Getty Images

Residents rush to buy bread at a bakery in Tunis's Medina on January 16, 2011. Dozens of people crowded on Sunday at the few stalls open at the main market in Tunis as soldiers patrolled the streets but spirits were high after the overthrow of strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

No group is watching the events unfold in Tunisia more closely than fellow Arabs, most of whom live under autocratic governments and are feeling the same economic pinches of bleak job prospects and high food prices. Ali Dahmash, an activist who runs a social media agency in Amman, called it a "hunger revolution." Says Dahmash, "This is not just about politics and having a kind of freedom of speech or religion. This came out of despair. It was because of the economy."

Mishaal Al Gergawi, an Emirati commentator and businessman, agrees. "Tunisians and Algerians are hungry. The Egyptians and Yemenis are right behind them," he wrote Sunday in a Dubai newspaper column. He referred to the young Tunisian vegetable seller who immolated himself in the town of Sidi Bouzid several weeks ago to protest police preventing him from doing business, thus setting off the revolt. "Mohamed Bouazizi didn't set himself on fire because he couldn't blog or vote. People set themselves on fire because they can't stand seeing their family wither away slowly, not of sorrow, but of cold stark hunger."

Over the weekend, the social networking site Twitter exploded with posts from both the Arab world and its disapora in English, French and Arabic. They cheered on the Tunisian protesters and speculated which Arab leader might be the next to go. Posts quite openly called for the ouster of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak or Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. "Algeria is even worse than in Tunis. The police will actually go ... well, it's very vicious," Dahmash says. "In Egypt, the president has been there for 27 years in a [perpetual] state of emergency. With that, they can do anything in the country."

Like Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt have economies plagued by high food prices and a lack of jobs. On Sunday, protests broke out in Libya despite a speech by Gadhafi that rebuked Tunisian protesters for impatience, saying they should have waited for Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to step down in three years, as he had said he would. At the Tunisian embassies in Amman and Cairo, protesters gathered to express their frustrations while supporting the movement in Tunisia. One twitter poster even advised Queen Rania of Jordan that she should go palace-hunting in Jeddah — the coastal Saudi city is where Ben Ali fled Friday night after fleeing the country.

Still, for all the demonstrating in Arab capitals and candor on social websites, some Arabs are still reluctant to speak publicly of regime change in the Arab world. "The leaders are all genuinely paying close attention to this," says a Syrian executive who lives in Dubai. "They're thinking, 'Holy moley, how are we going to manage this?'"

Dahmash agrees. Ben Ali fled Tunis on Friday, and by Saturday morning, Dahmash says, food prices in the Jordanian capital had decreased by about 5% — probably upon orders of the government. More than the number, the reduction "is a sign of fear, in my opinion," he says.

Expatriate Tunisians like Walid Cherif are watching events unfold at home with a mixture of excitement and disbelief. "If you had asked me a week ago, none of us would've even imagined this happening," he says. "I'm very proud of it." He's not sure, however, that events in Tunisia will lead to revolt in the rest of the Arab world. Tunisia has always been different from its Arab siblings, he says. "Tunisia is known as one of the most progressive Arab countries in the world," We're the only country where polygamy is illegal in the Muslim world. Did that happen in other Arab countries? No."

In the meantime, Tunisia is still searching for a new person to lead it. Since gaining independence from France in 1962, the country has had only two leaders. During the past weekend, it had three. The army has imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew, and there have been reports of violence. Fires in two prisons have killed dozens. Despite the current chaos, Dahmash says he thinks the revolt will lead to a stable, legitimate government. Unlike much of the Arab world, Tunisia, he says, "has well-developed institutions. The people are mature and well-informed."

That should help what's being called the "Jasmine Revolution" to flower, compared to the unrest and violence that has plagued Iraq since U.S. soldiers forced Saddam Hussein from power. Cherif, who grew up in Tunis and left North Africa in 1996 to study for an M.B.A. at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., says he believes the events of the weekend are the start of a peaceful, more inclusive future for his country. "We're sure we're never going to have a dictator in the future, because whoever is going to come as president knows the power of the people," he says. "If they want to be a regime in total control like before, they'll have to think about it twice."

Dahmash, who has lived in Miami and Tampa and earned an MBA from American Intercontinental University in Ft. Lauderdale, says the Arab world wants change. "But we don't want change to come from abroad," he adds. "We want change to come from inside." The Syrian executive, who asked that his name not be used, agrees. "I personally have a feeling this event is the beginning of more to come." Unfortunately, he added, "it's going to get uglier. I simply don't believe change comes about as a byproduct of peace."