Tunisia: People Power Succeeds Without Western Backing
CAIRO - These are scenes Western powers would have loved to see in Iran - thousands of young people braving live bullets and forcing an autocratic ruler out of the country. But it is in the North African nation Tunisia where an uprising forced the Western-backed autocratic President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country.
Western powers remain incredulous. France, the real power broker in the Franco North African nation, was giving Ben Ali tacit support until an hour before he fled Friday.
The French Foreign Ministry said it "backs" the measures announced by Ben Ali by way of overtures to the protestors, but asked for more freedoms. In effect France ignored the movement's demand for Ben Ali to go, and addressed Ben Ali as the legitimate leader.
The United States was clearly far more busy with the collapse of the government in Lebanon, a country critical to the main U.S. ally in the region, Israel, after the Lebanese opposition withdrew their minister from the coalition government.
Most of the reaction from other Western powers has been that they are "concerned" about the events and that they want their citizens there pulled out, and others warned against travel to Tunisia.
To date, at least 100 people have been killed, hundreds injured and millions of dollars in losses reported.
Ben Ali ruled the country since 1987. Like many other Western-backed Arab rulers, he ruled with an iron fist, leading to massive human rights abuses, widespread corruption and lack of democracy.
When a young street hawker named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in mid-December to protest unemployment and corruption in the central town Sidi Buzeid, Western capitals didn't react. Ben Ali, it was assumed, was sure to crush the protests that followed in no time.
Looking his confident self, Ben Ali initially refused almost all of the demands of the protesters in the town and its neighboring cities. But the protests continued unabated across most of Tunisia.
On Thursday night, Ben Ali stood shaken as he talked to his people through TV cameras. Appealing for "understanding" from the people he ruled for more than 23 years and asking for a new page, he promised to end orders to shoot at demonstrators.
It did not stop people. Thousands marched Friday afternoon to the interior ministry, the symbol of decades-long brutality.
"We want bread, and water and no Ben Ali", hand-written signs said, as seen in videos leaked online by activists during the protests.
The aerial views in Tunisia on Friday were reminiscent of Iran of 1979, when thousands marched to topple another Western-supported dictator, the Shah of Iran, and at a much faster pace.
Now Western powers led by the United States have invested millions of dollars in both covert and overt operations to bring the assertive, and occasionally anti-Western regime in Iran to its knees, and bring "regime change".
Western powers would have like people power to succeed in Iran rather than Tunisia. The last strong people movement in Iran was the Green Movement against the disputed presidential elections in 2009. But the movement could not topple the regime.
People in Tunisia had no such support from the West. Internet bloggers had hoped someone would come to their aid.
Blogger Sami Ben Gharbia wrote: "Sidi Bouzid discredited The West. U want regime change in Iran and not in #Tunisa? Well, we will democratize to #tunisia 1st, by ourselves!"
Fortunately for the protesters, the West cannot take credit for the revolution that forced concessions from Ben Ali almost on an hourly basis towards the end, and then threw him out.
Last week, President Ben Ali fired three members of his cabinet. On Wednesday, he called in the army to protect the capital city and important government buildings.
On Thursday, he fired top aides including the interior minister who had ordered the shoot-to-kill policy during the protests; a policy that initially led to the death of at least 60 people.
In his last attempts to hang on to power, Ben Ali ordered a night curfew. But online videos continued to show clashes with the police on Friday and scenes of widespread protests. Mega-stores with French-sounding names were shut down.
Many streets were deserted and shopping areas visibly empty. Only police forces in riot gear and angry demonstrators, most of them young people, were to be seen.
On Friday afternoon, Ben Ali dissolved the cabinet and parliament, and ordered early elections within six months. A couple of hours later, he imposed emergency law in the country. But another two hours later, Arab TV stations reported he had fled the country.