The Arab Spring sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East began in Tunisia, setting off a wave of political unheaval that has transformed the region. Soon after President Ben Ali fled Tunis, mass protests in Egypt toppled the administration of Hosni Mubarak, while Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Syria fell victim to varying degrees of deadlock and violence. Crisis Group has analyzed events as they played out in a series of reports on popular protest in North Africa and the Middle East, most recently in the report Tunisia's Way, available to read in full online.
The first Arab revolution may stand the best chance of ushering in the more open, democratic government that protesters demanded, and in many ways, can serve as a case study for the others. Part of the credit for Tunisia's hopeful prospects may lie with the relatively unified revolution that ousted Ben Ali. Tunisia's military and security forces soon sided with the protesters, allying most of the country against the President and his circle. Without support, Ben Ali could not cling to power.
Tunisia's revolution has also benefited from the presence of a highly pragmatic Islamist movement. Unlike some other groups in the region, Tunisia's Islamists have a history of cooperating with secular parties and communicating respect for minority and women's rights. If an active Islamist movement can indeed be integrated into a liberal democratic system, it will happen in Tunisia.
Tunisia's troubles are far from over. Many of the economic grievances underlying the protests remain, including disparities between the coast and the interior. In fact, the revolution may temporarily exacerbate Tunisians' economic hardship, as political upheaval drives away the tourism money so crucial to the country's economy. The international community can lend a hand by forgiving some or all of Tunisia's debt, coordinating the distribution of aid, and returning Ben Ali's frozen assets to the Tunisian people. Governments should also do what they can to restore confidence in Tunisia as a market.
Crisis Group's Robert Malley, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program, shared his insights into Tunisia's revolution in a recent conversation. Listen below.