A Night in Tunisia

January 14, 2011

A Night in Tunisia

"Wildcat protests and rioting" have "shaken" Tunisia's leader of twenty-three years, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, according to the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. The demonstrations, which the United Nations says have resulted in over sixty deaths, were sparked at least partly by a WikiLeaked document written by the American ambassador (and cleverly titled "Corruption in Tunisia: What's Yours is Mine") in which he detailed the ruling family's extravagent wealth (many Tunisians refer to Ben Ali's extended relations as "The Family" or "The Mafia"). And what began in mid-December as one small-town street vendor's self-immolation (after authorities took away his vegetable cart) culminated Thursday in the looting and destruction by protestors of a home owned by the president's uncle in a wealthy seaside resort.

President Ben Ali, who originally took power in a bloodless coup, then gave a speech in which he promised to halt violent crackdowns on the demonstrators, open up freedom for the press and stop Internet censorship—and "cut prices for sugar, milk and bread." He also promised to step down as president after his current term runs out in 2014, as required by Tunisia's constitution. But the Times also reports that his effort to sooth the public's anger (and save his own neck) have thus far come to naught.

Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl warns that the dominos of revolution could fall across the Middle East, spreading from Tunisia to Algeria, Libya, Egypt and Jordan. The same thought occured to former George W. Bush official Elliot Abrams. Marc Lynch is disappointed by the lack of major media coverage and commentary garnered by the protests, noting that "Tunisia is topic number one with Arab publics today, even if it isn't yet in Washington." Here at TNI online, Paul Pillar contrasts Kuwait's peaceful and gradual governmental transition with the more tumultuous examples in Tunisia, Lebanon and Egypt.

And we'd be remiss not to point out Henry Kissinger's op-ed on China in the Post, in which the foreign-policy don argues (along the same lines of Piers Brendon's Nov/Dec National Interest cover story) that a cold war between China and the United States is not inevitable, if both sides can "create a tradition of respect and cooperation."