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Is Al Jazeera Fueling "Tunisteria"?

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The remarkable events in Tunisia are proving irresistible to Al Jazeera's editorial board who cannot avoid the temptation to equate the popular street uprising that swept the Tunisian dictator aside with the downfall of communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe.

Shall we call this the Date Palm Revolution (a few prefer The "Jasmine" Revolution") just to add a little more color to it?

True, the apparent overthrow of Ben Ali and his cohorts has sent shockwaves throughout the palaces of Arab autocrats. And few Middle East observers would have bet their mortgage that despotic Tunisian ruler Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali would lose his iron grip on Tunisia in a little under a New York minute.

But it is woefully premature to pop the champagne corks extolling the eventual certitude of democratic revolution in the Arab world as if Tunisia were a Hungary, a Poland or a Romania and setting the Arab world dominoes in motion. What happened in Tunisia most likely will stay in Tunisia; it was not a revolution as much as a palace coup.

Having visited Tunisia often, it was evident on each occasion that the heavy weight of Ben Ali's police state was grinding Tunisia into political poverty. During this 23 year grip on power, Ben Ali tossed into jail thousands of ordinary Tunisians on trumped up charges, and converted Tunisia's jail system into a Soviet-style Gulag. The prisoners were from all walks of life: Islamists, lawyers, journalists, political activists and just plain citizens who dared to utter a word against the regime and the presidential family business conglomerate clique known as the Trabelsi clan.

The immediate question on the table for the U.S. is whether there is a danger that a valiant secular democratic transition could be hijacked by Islamists, or worse, elements of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM).

Fortunately, the chances of Tunisia falling into the hands of Salafists are slim. For Al Qaeda, Tunisia is a mirage for Islamic extremists -- not an oasis -- because of Tunisia's long history of middle class secularism.

Moreover, unlike his fellow Egyptian autocratic ally, Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali did not have to suffer too long from an organized Islamist opposition like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Throughout the 1990's the majority of Tunisians -- shocked by events in next door Algeria during its civil war with extremist Islamists -- more or less accorded Ben Ali the green light to round up, jail, and exile anyone who dared to carry a protest sign in one hand and a Koran in the other.

The only semi-organized Islamist movement in Tunisia is the Hizb al-Nahda (HN) (The Renaissance Party). But HN has never had a lock on the spiritual allegiance of Tunisians, and has been riveted by factionalism and the imprisonment and exiling of its leadership. And the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG) an offshoot of AQIM, exists in name only.

So if Tunisia is safe from a Salafist takeover at the moment, who will be in charge? As violence and demonstrations continue unabated, the only two coherent institutions in the country are the military and the trade unions, and the real danger is that the military will step in and then rule by martial law until it is able to put a lid on the violence and thus determine the ultimate fate of Tunisia's revolt -- something akin to the role that Turkey's military played several decades ago.

However events play out in Tunisia, there is no doubt that the "Tunisian Street" has captured the imagination of dissatisfied Arabs across the region, fueled in part by what I prefer calling the "Al Jazeera Factor."

Americans should not underestimate the role that the ever popular Arab news channel Al Jazeera plays in challenging the Arab world's status quo, using events in Tunisia to fuel its favorite political pastime of disgorging its anti-authoritarian editorial bias across all of its media platforms -- much to the anger and hostility of most Arab rulers, particularly those Al Jazeera views as too pro-western (Al Jazeera gives quite a pass to the despotic Syrian regime as well as to its Qatari benefactors).

Mind you, I am just as eager as the next person to see the Arab world's transition to a more just and civil society, but to have Al Jazeera serve as the master of ceremonies compels a closer examination of its particular role here, as compared to other Arab media covering the unfolding drama.

Al Jazeera's wall-to-wall coverage of events in Tunisia is how Arabs across the Middle East are deciphering events there. Through internet and Twitter feeds, Al Jazeera sees itself less and less as exclusively a news gathering organization and more and more like a "Wizard of Oz" type instrument for social upheaval in the region -- whether or not it brings to power Salafi extremists is immaterial to its mission. Stoking anger and hostility has become Al Jazeera's mantra, and its producers have taken to heart the axiom "if it bleeds it leads" to such a degree that baton-swinging policeman clubbing Tunisian demonstrators literally took up the entire first ten minutes of one news broadcast as the emotional reporter cried into his microphone about the unjustness of Arab autocrats.

Those images are surely empowering grass-roots dissent which in turn is causing wary Arab rulers to swiftly and preemptively react to forestall a similar uprising in their own backyards. And Al Jazeera's editorial and opinion commentators are having a field day mesmerizing how a similar spectacle could unfold across other Arab states.

Am I according Al Jazeera far too much credit for stoking events in Tunisia? Perhaps. But Al Jazeera has proven worthy in Gaza, in Lebanon, in Iraq and in Iran of its reputation as a fiery instigator of public opinion and less an impartial reporter of it.

Let's hope that Al Jazeera's penchant for regional anarchy is tempered by cooler heads within Arab democratic dissident ranks who have far more to lose than audience share if they prematurely swallow Al Jazeera's bait.