My friends in the Middle East tell me that the recent events in Tunisia are stirring up political passions in ways that they haven’t seen in a long time. Since pro-reform demonstrators ousted the 23 year old one-party dictatorship of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, there has been talk about the possibility of an Arab world democratic revolution that will sweep away the region’s cabal of sit-tight dictators. I am not holding my breath yet.

I find a few things remarkable about the unrests in Tunisia.

  1. The role of young people.Young people, mainly students have been at the vanguard of the demands for political reforms and the street protests that have followed. Tunisia has always had a vibrant well-educated but largely unemployed youth population. Many of these young people with advanced degrees now lead the chorus for reform. What this tells me is that it is crucial to educate young people even when there are no ready jobs for them. It is better to have an educated and unemployed citizenry that an uneducated and unemployed one.
  2. The power of social networks.Even in the Arab world where access to the internet is still largely limited to a privileged few, I am struck by the ways Facebook, Tweeter and other social networks have provides a means for organizing for change. This is becoming a trend. In 2009, the organizers of similar protests in Iran effectively harnessed the power of the internet in spite of government crackdown. The age of absolutist control of information by the state seem to be coming to an end.
  3. The passion for democratic reforms.As at today (Jan 18. 2010), at least six North Africans from Egypt to Mauritania have set themselves on fire in an imitation of the self-immolation that set off the uprising in Tunisia. Ordinary people and taking the extreme step of setting themselves on fire as a way of drawing attention to desperate political and economic conditions under which they live. While I do not think this is the best way to pursue the cause, it says a lot about the yearnings for change in this region of the world.
  4. The inevitability of Change.“Those who make peaceful change impossible” wrote JFK, “make violet change inevitable.” What is becoming evident in Tunisia is that the ruling party is now belatedly scrambling to take control of the momentum for change knowing that the unrests may spiral out of everyone’s control. As one Tunisian Politician put it: “We have the choice of three possibilities… The first choice is the complete chaos of Somalia, the second choice is a military coup after a savior comes to rescue us from the chaos and lasts for 23 years, and the third possibility is working with the people who are in charge of the state right now to prepare fair elections” (New York Times). The political leaders in Tunisia did not have to wait to be confronted with the first two dire options before scrambling for the third.

I hope political leaders, ruling dictatorship, authoritarian cabals in the Middles East and elsewhere in the world are paying close attention.