In the beginning was a “young man”. Distraught at how life treated him and desperate at any future prospects, the young man set himself ablaze. The news of self immolation spread, and struck a nerve with lots of Tunisians who have to endure the same daily ordeals. What followed was extraordinary. The act inspired further suicide attempts and sparked an uprising. A wave of protests erupted and swept through Tunisia. The world was mesmerized with the stunning spectacle of crowds surging into the streets. In the outset, reprisal was swift. The protesters were exposed to the brutality of the police and the security forces. Scores were arrested and others were shot. However, the flame of revolt was relentless. Tunisians were far from being deterred by tear gas, live ammunition, curfews and tanks. Images of martyrs galvanized crowds onto the streets. Rallies continued to escalate. Tunisians refused to be intimidated by the repressive state apparatus. Faced with their defiance, the regime started to retreat to stave off the popular uprising. The president’s promises were derided as an empty gesture to lull deepening frustrations and to quell fury. The concessions only emboldened the protesters. People streamed into the streets, and protests spread from one city into another. This was culminated by the first Arab leader toppled by his people and chased into exile.

A Domino?

The Arab world watched attentively the scenes from Tunisia. The Arabs watched in solidarity, excitement, and exhilaration at the unprecedented turn of events. The Arab nations were elated that one of their own were able to stand up for itself. The first time in recent memory that popular protests have ousted a leader in this part of the world. The revolution that overturned the regime demolished one of the Arab world pillars: nations tie a knot with the entrenched leaders “till death do us part.”

Democracy has supplanted despotism in other areas once plagued by dictators, but the Arab world remains autocratic and authoritarian. This implanted a stereotype that the Arab public is not accustomed to challenge authority. Political lethargy and social apathy is perceived the rule. Today, one of these countries is challenging this common perception. These developments catapulted several questions to the headlines: Could the Arab world be taken by contagion? Is the Arab world teetering on the brink of an awakening? Will the Tunisian precedent act as an inspiration to the Arab people to rise from their slumber?

On one hand, some argue that the ruling clique is on the edge as these decrepit regimes are likely to crumble in a domino fashion. According to this opinion, a historic opportunity beckons in the Arab world. The revolution seemed an antidote to the despair, and gives an unimaginable momentum to the cause for change. Ben Ali presided over the most tightly run ship in the Arab world. No one expected the ship to capsize, but it did. This offers an example of success which boosts the confidence of the opposition, and eliminates the psychological barrier that impedes the people from standing up for themselves. The revolution has punctured the fear factor that has long kept discontent in check. These events have also seared themselves into public political discourse, and forced the Arabs to entertain unsettling questions.

On the other hand, others argue that a domino effect is not likely. According to this opinion, there is always a confusion between what one wishes and what to expect. As much as some wish to see the same scenario in other countries, Ben Ali’s fall will not portend a similar fate for other leaders. The proponents of this point of view argue that the unique features of Tunisia are abundant. First, Tunisia enjoys a high level of urbanization compared to other Arab nations. This implies that congregation is more likely, and that aspirations for improved living standards are higher. Second, Tunisia enjoys the highest level of education in the Arab world. This suggests that the level of political maturity and social awareness is also higher. Third, access to the internet and social networks is more widespread than other countries. This facilitated communications during what some referred to as the first Facebook revolution. Fourth, the revolution does not have Islamist tendencies. Islamists waiting in the wings are a usual scarecrow. This bogeyman gives free reign for regimes to suppress any uprising with the total blessings of the West. In this case, there was no place for that kind of concern. Fifth, the Tunisian military commanders and the armed forces did not interfere. Some claim that this could be attributed to the fact that Ben Ali violated the tradition of courting military circles. Others are unlikely to commit the same deadly sin. Finally, the regime iron-fisted rule and ruthless grip on power did not create a vent for fury. This pushes people to have no option but a confrontational approach. Others in the region are bound to learn from the lesson. This implies that they will take steps to fend off possible unrest and absorb discontent. The announced plans to subsidize basic needs and to slash price hikes, in several countries, are an attempt to stanch the public anger.

A Syndrome

A syndrome is a combination of detectable characteristics that are seen in association. It is a concurrence of symptoms. In the case of Tunisia, the syndrome is the association of political, economic, and social phenomena that occurred together, and paved the way to the popular upheaval. The Tunisian syndrome can be detected in any other country if similar symptoms occur concurrently. The only way we can address the question of whether the other Arab countries are susceptible to the social unrest witnessed recently in Tunisia, is by checking whether they also suffer the Tunisian syndrome.

The combustible symptoms in Tunisia are plenty. First, a growing population that is composed largely of young people who are educated and naturally ambitious. The bulging young population is a victim of an educational system that has succeeded in providing them with qualifications that can not be utilized and aspirations that can not be achieved. They are largely unemployed. They find themselves frustrated at the lack of opportunities and the grim future.

Second, a minority monopolized the wealth of the entire country. The president’s clan and entourage live lavishly, the cronies are left looting the country, and the lackeys grew to become a controlling elite. The prevalent nepotism precludes all but the well connected from economic opportunity. The obscene corruption by those in the corridors of power, and the excesses of the wealthy, are in stark contrast to the dire situation of the dispossessed and the disenfranchised. The indifference to the plight of the ordinary man, provoked the greatest public ire and indignation. In the meantime, the regime has overdone its trumpeting of Tunisia’s progress, as a bastion of prosperity and a beacon of stability. However, the gap between the regime rhetoric and empirical reality widened. The pretence of economic reforms is perceived by the masses as a way to amass wealth by those in the president’s milieu, while the overwhelming majority live in grinding and abject poverty. The widening wealth disparities created a rift between the ruling and the ruled.

Third, a minority monopolized political power. The regime created a facade of democracy, where elections are rigged and marred with irregularities. The regime did not tolerate any genuine competition that would challenge the status quo. Daunting hurdles were put in place for the opposition. The morass of restrictions, security scruples, constitutional impediments, and containment policies, all acted to cripple conventional party politics. Parties were not allowed to expand their grass root activities. Accordingly, the opposition was weakened. The ruling elite dictated policies in pursuit of their personal interests. The regime seemed impervious to change, and the president continued to lead without relenting to any of the public demands. They tolerated no advice or criticism, and viewed all dissent as subversion. This sclerotic and stagnant political order became out of touch with their young populaces.