Juan Cole: Tunisian Revolution Shakes, Inspires Middle East





[Juan Cole, the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, maintains the blog Informed Comment. His most recent book, just out in paperback, is “Engaging the Muslim World.”]

The Tunisian uprising that overthrew the 23-year-old regime of strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had resonances throughout the Middle East. Leaders of countries invested in the region’s authoritarian and highly unequal status quo rejected the political revolution, while groups and states that want change welcomed it. The spectacle of masses of demonstrators pouring down Bourguiba Avenue on Friday, overwhelming security forces and putting the president to flight, raised the hopes of the dispossessed and the downtrodden, even as it inspired a gathering dread in the breasts of the region’s dictators and absolute monarchs. Whether or not, as many observers rushed to predict, a wave of discontent will radiate from Tunis throughout the Arab world (and there are reasons to be cautious about that prospect), the “Jasmine Revolution” is a Rorschach test for distinguishing reactionaries from innovators in the region.

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom worried that the Tunisian events might lead to regime change in other countries. Originally from Tunisia himself, Shalom expressed disquiet that a more democratic Middle East might not share with Tel Aviv a concern with fighting what he called radical fundamentalists, who he said threaten Israel. He was probably talking about the possibility of, say, the Muslim Brotherhood taking over Egypt or Jordan, both of which have peace treaties with Israel that are likely be abrogated if another government comes to power. It is hypocritical, however, for the Israelis, who are always criticizing the Arab world for being undemocratic, to express such anxiety about the prospect of democratization....


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