Friday, January 14, 2011

The First Middle Eastern Revolution since 1979

by Juan Cole
Tunisian President Zine al-Abidin Bin Ali has fled the country before the advancing crowds pouring in to the capital’s center. A French eye-witnesssaid of the masses thronging Bourguiba Avenue that “it was black with people.” The Speaker of Parliament [first minister] is caretaker leader of the country, though Aljazeera is reporting that there are already demonstrations in the southern town of Qabis rejecting him, as well. The dramatic events in Tunisia yesterday and today may shake the Middle East, as my colleague Marc Lynch suggested. As usual, the important news from the region is being ignored by US television news. (Here is an English-languageeyewitness blog from one corner of the country).
In some ways, the Tunisian Revolution is potentially more consequential for the Middle East than had been the Iranian one. In Iran, Shiite ayatollahs came to power on the back of a similar set of popular protests, establishing a theocracy. That model appealed to almost nobody in the Middle East, with the exception of Shiites in Iraqi and Lebanese slums; and theocratic Shiite Arabs were a minority even in their own ethnic group. Proud Sunni Arab nationalists, in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere, saw nothing to like there, even though they were saddled with a motley assortment of authoritarian presidents for life, military dictators, kings and emirs. Iranian leaders were shocked and dismayed to find that they had made a ‘revolution in one country.’ Their influence would come from championing the (Sunni) Palestinians and supporting Lebanon when it was attacked by Israel, not from their form of government. Iran was not like the French revolutionary republic, which really did become a model over time for much of Europe. It was an odd man out.

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