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(FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)
(FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

Doug Saunders

A sudden tear in the fabric of the Arab world Add to ...

The violent events that reached a climax in Tunis on Friday aren't just the first full-fledged popular revolution the world has seen in some time - they're a sudden tear in the fabric of the Arab world, an irreparable rupture in the slick logic that has held two dozen countries in half-development limbo for generations.

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To most outside observers, the Tunisian uprising seemed to appear from nowhere: Seemingly minor "food-price protests," which began four weeks ago in the city of Sidi Bouzid with the self-immolation of a young man and spent December and early January in bottom-of-the-page news briefs, suddenly exploded into a mob takeover of the streets of the capital on Friday, leading long-time President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali - within a period of hours - to sack the government, call an election and then flee the country on his private jet, leaving the Prime Minister in control of a caretaker regime.

The people - and these were clearly ordinary citizens, not bearded Islamists or foreign-funded elites - won the day, and their country. It's fair to say the Arab world will never be quite the same.

Tunisia's popular uprising is all the more surprising because it wasn't part of a narrative that had been given a name and assigned a colour months in advance. To most people outside Tunisia, distracted by events in the United States and elsewhere, this came out of nowhere, in a country too often described as a "benign dictatorship," one of those places we happily visit on package vacations because the torture chambers are kept well out of sight.

But not only Westerners were taken by surprise. Indeed, to most Arabs outside of Tunisia, it seemed the last likely place to experience an anti-authoritarian uprising.

Mr. Ben Ali, who has ruled the country since 1987, has been not so much a paternal figure as an avuncular one, showering gifts of economic modernization, foreign investment, education and technology, so the repression of politics, media and urban communities appeared to be secondary.

Indeed, few Arabs, who heard a lot about the protests in their news media, believed they had much to do with food-price inflation or joblessness. After all, Tunisia's unemployment rate, at 13 per cent, is half that of some Arab countries to the east and south; its citizens have greater purchasing power than those of Bahrain or Libya; and they have the highest education rates in the Arab world, with more access to cellphones and the Internet than residents of Lebanon, Jordan or Syria.

"If the citizens of Tunis are dissatisfied," the director of Dubai-based Al Arabiya television, Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, marvelled in late December, "what can we say about the citizens of other Arab nations that are suffering from an even worse situation and reality?"

Indeed, what can we say? In the past, we've said one of two things: First, that this form of leadership is part of Arabic culture and tradition and is, therefore, broadly accepted by Arabs in ways it wouldn't be by anyone else. Second, that the democratic option would inevitably lead to rule by radical Islamists, and that the besuited fellows whose pictures adorn the wall of every room are the alternative.

These two myths have led the West to provide backing, legitimacy and investment to Arab dictators for decades, and to avoid supporting democratic opposition groups the way it did in places such as Eastern Europe. While U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made an impressive speech in Doha on Thursday calling for region-wide reform, France, among other countries, continued to support Tunisia's Ben Ali regime as late as Friday night.

What are the results of these twin myths? We have supported some of the worst regimes on Earth. The Arab states, despite a wealth of resources, have seen an economic growth rate of 0.5 per cent a year between 1980 and 2004 (and no better since then), according to the United Nations Development Program, placing them at the bottom of the world's growth list; millions of their citizens live in extreme poverty, making less than $2 a day; and there are vast, intergenerational levels of unemployment.

Is it any wonder, then, that Arab citizens stopped believing the myths? Whatever the outcome, it will no longer be possible to say of those oppressed citizens, whether you're an Arab ruler or a foreign observer, that "this is simply their nature."

 

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