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January 20, 2011

Tunisia: One of U.S.'s tyrant friends has gone

The Canadian Charger

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Less than a month after a young Tunisian graduate, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire triggering a popular revolt against the 23-year rule of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the president has fled to Saudi Arabia, and commentators are speculating on which U.S.-backed tyrants may be next.

As Tunisians, angry over police repression, poverty, unemployment, corruption and the opulent lifestyle of President Ali and his cronies, filled the streets, many noted the similarities to protests that brought down U.S. - backed tyrants from Iran to the Philippines in the 1980's, as seemingly invincible strongmen succumbed to the will of the people.

Unlike the 1980's when governments could impose strict controls over information outlets,  satellite channels like Al Jazeera, Facebook and Twitter mean Arabs around the region are watching Tunisia's transformation live, and sharing ideas over the internet, which may inspire others to follow.

"The coverage of the fast-moving developments and the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime on Al Jazeera television brings this process into the living rooms of hundreds of millions of Arabs," wrote Rami G. Khouri, a Beirut-based analyst, in an article published on syndication agency Agence Global.

Indeed, the effect is already being witnessed in the Arab world: Tunisian President Ben Ali fled on Friday January 14, and by the following Monday a man had set himself ablaze outside the parliament building in Cairo, Egypt - the second largest recipient of American aid, after Israel. On the same day protesters in Mauritania and Algeria set themselves alight in apparent attempts to copycat the fatal self-immolation of the Tunisian man.

The officials said the fire engulfing the man was quickly put out but they had no word on his identity or motives. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media. However, they risked the full weight of government reprisals to get the message out to the world.

Ahmed el-Naggar, an economic analyst at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said prices in Egypt were rising faster than Tunisia and the average Egyptian earned less but noted protests rarely gathered more than a few hundred.

In part, he said Egypt had critical independent newspapers and other safety valves, unlike Tunisia, that helped contain opposition to the government of President Hosni Mubarak, 82, who has been in power for three decades.

"But if outstanding issues of the minimum wage and rising prices, constitutional amendments and presidential succession are not addressed and resolved, tension levels will keep rising until society explodes," he said.

In what is currently being characterized as a small revolution, people are demonstrating outside the Egyptian parliament for better pay.

Meanwhile, Jordan, stung by its own protests, has responded like others in the region by announcing a package to help cut prices of fuel and staple products.

Libya and Morocco have taken similar steps. Both Morocco and Jordan are major non-NATO allies of the United States, with Jordan enjoying close relations with the U.S. and the United Kingdom.  However, changes may be on the way.

"The old methods of oppressing people are ending. The writing is on the wall, either you open up or you implode," said a prominent Jordanian politician, who asked not to be named.

American government officials regard Libya as a strong counter-insurgency partner. The State Department has determined that Libya, at least until 2009, was cooperating with the United States in the war against Al Qaida. In a report sent by the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, the regime of Libyan leader Moammar Khaddafy was described as fighting Al Qaida and blocking operations in the Middle East.

In Gaza, Hamas supporters rallied holding large posters of Ben Ali bearing the words: "Oh, Arab leaders, learn the lesson."

"It was always said that the Arab world was boiling but the continued state of stagnation made some doubt infiltrate minds. I think this doubt has now gone," Hany al-Masri, a Palestinian commentator based in Ramallah, said.

Popular frustrations extend to the Gulf, but these oil-producing states with vast financial reserves have a welfare system in place to buy off the opposition.

While neocons in the Bush administration – former Secretary of State Condolezza Rice in particular - constantly boasted that they had done more to bring democracy to the Middle East than any other administration – chiefly because they invaded Iraq – they continued to support autocratic regimes throughout the region, under the guise that these regimes formed a bulwark against Islamic extremism.

Nothing much has changed under the Obama administration, although it is more focused on Afghanistan, where it's attempting to bring “democracy” to the country by propping up the corrupt, drug trafficking Karzia regime.

Tunisia – timeline

DECEMBER, 2010

17: Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old university graduate, sets himself alight in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid in a protest over unemployment. He dies on January 5 from burn wounds.

19: Bouzazizi's protest touches off a wave of unrest and clashes in Sidi Bouzid.

24: Two are killed in clashes at Menzel Bouzayane, not far from Sidi Bouzid.

JANUARY, 2011

8-10: More than 50 people die in three days of rioting in Tunisia's central Kasserine region, according to a trade union representative. The authorities say 21 died.

10: Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali slams "terrorist acts" by hoodlums but also pledges to create 300,000 extra jobs in a television address.

11: The first clashes take place in the capital Tunis and its suburbs, while clashes continue in Kasserine.

12: Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi announces the dismissal of interior minister Rafik Belhaj Kacem, the freeing of those arrested, except those involved in acts of "vandalism", and a probe into corruption. Several demonstrators are killed, while troops are deployed in Tunis and the residential suburb of Ettadhamen.  The government imposes a curfew in the capital, where a rights group says eight have been killed overnight in unrest.  The UN calls on Tunisia to launch an independent probe into the violence.

13: The army withdraws from Tunis, which remains occupied by special forces. One demonstrator is shot dead. Ben Ali says he will not seek another term in office and orders police to stop firing on protesters.  Rioting and pillaging in the tourist area of Hammamet, 60 kilometres, or 37 miles, to the south of Tunis.  Medical sources say 13 civilians died in security force gunfire in the Tunisian capital and its suburbs, after Ben Ali's speech on Thursday.

14: Thousands of protesters demand Ben Ali resign in marches across the country. Tourism firm Thomas Cook says it is evacuating more than 2,000 tourists from Tunisia. Ben Ali sacks the government and calls early elections in six months. Ben Ali leaves the country to Saudi Arabia to be replaced by interim president Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi.

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