It is still somewhat uncertain just how events will shake out in the Northern African country of Tunisia, with a "national unity" government designed to hold things together until elections can be held and beset by resignations and continuing protests. What is certain, however, is that Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, a dictator who ruled ruthlessly for 23 years, has been ousted and forced to flee for Saudi Arabia (which denies for now that it has offered him political asylum).
Ben Ali is the first Arab dictator in living memory to be ousted by a movement of popular unrest. The accomplishment is still tenuous and has come at a price: the Tunisian government says 78 people have been killed over the past month. Navanethem Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, who plans to send a team of investigators next week, puts the death toll at 100.
Events in Tunisia have sent shock waves through the Arab and Muslim worlds. The Egyptian government expressed confidence in the ability of the Tunisian people to move forward and avoid anarchy – and quickly said its own government was in no danger, despite one report of emergency meetings. The Syrian government announced the formation of a new National Social Aid Fund, while the Jordanian government during the month Tunisia has been in turmoil has reduced taxes on petroleum products and increased subsidies for basic goods.
Many Arab newspapers attributed the fall of Ben Ali to his government's close alignment with the U.S. and Western interests due to the dictator's concern about jihadist terrorism. Whatever the truth, U.S. influence is now uncertain in Tunisia and is bound to decline throughout the Arab world. This is not necessarily a bad thing. U.S. meddling in Muslim countries has produced more headaches than happy endings.
It is uncertain how things will play out in Tunisia; it is hardly uncommon for revolutions to usher in regimes that turn out worse than their predecessors. If it has made Arab autocrats throughout the Middle East a little more nervous and opposition forces a little more hopeful, however, it can't be all bad.