Fire burn and cauldron trouble in Arabia

Yesterday I tweeted two pieces on events in Tunisia: one by Juan Cole calling the events there the first revolution in the Middle East since 1979, the other by Brian Whitaker calling it a moment in history but hesitating to use the R word.  So which is it, revolution or not?

Ten hours or so later, I think Brian Whitaker has the edge still, though it may still bend Juan Cole’s way.  The flight of a president may be the first stage of a revolution, but it really depends on what comes thereafter.  The regime has not fallen, yet.  The prime minister claims to be holding on to power, whether constitutionally or not is unclear.  Can he continue to do so?  Will he be forced into making fundamental changes? Or will he be able to reestablish order without promising anything significant?  Will he in turn be chased out?

This morning, Ben Wedeman of CNN is broadcasting that the anticipated “jasmine” revolution looks more like a military coup, at least on the streets of Tunis, where the soldiers have restored a modicum of calm.  A great deal depends on what happens today and tomorrow, and in particular whether the demonstrators reappear and whether they attack the army or maintain nonviolent discipline.  Violence at this stage is likely to harden the response of the security forces and end any hope for fundamental change in a more democratic direction.

How will events in Tunisia affect the rest of the Arab world?  This is a big question, which Marc Lynch asked several days ago. Algeria has already seen similar demonstrations precipitated by rising food prices and unemployment.  It is easy to imagine that Egypt, facing a problematic succession, might see something similar, as its regime is a sham democracy/kleptocracy similar to Tunisia’s.  How about Jordan?

Also interesting is that no one is asking these questions about Iran, which recently reduced food and fuel subsidies and suffers many of the same ills–underemployment and unemployment in particular–that plague Arab countries.  President Ahmedinejad appears to have planned and executed his price-increasing economic reforms relatively well, cushioning them with welfare payments.  And if Iran is a bridge too far out of the Arab world, what about Syria, whose regime isn’t even a pretend democracy? No sign of protest there, or in Libya, at least for the moment.

Two other, unrelated but interesting, bits of news from the Arab world and its environs:  the Hariri government in Lebanon has fallen and South Sudan has successfully completed its independence referendum, with a minimum of violence and disruption.

I confess to finding it hard to get excited about Lebanese politics.  It is small and its unusual ethnic makeup makes it unique.  But Hizbollah, which precipitated the government’s fall because it didn’t get the guarantees it wanted from the prime minister concerning the Special Tribunal’s much-anticipated indictments of Hizbollah leaders for the murder of his father, is a force to be reckoned with, not only inside Lebanon.  How far will it go in pushing to end confessional representation in Lebanon and demanding Shia rights to govern there?

The South Sudan referendum is the success story of the week.  As it ends today, it seems the referendum has met the requirement that 60 per cent of registered voters vote, and the vote is assumed to be heavily in favor of independence, since no one seems to have found a South Sudanese who would vote for anything else.  Definite results will not be certified for some time.  The week was relatively violence free.  The longer term consequences may, however, still present serious problems:  there are many issues to be settled between north and south before the July declaration of independence, and Khartoum may well take a sharp turn in the Islamist direction as it loses a good part of its non-Muslim population.  Khartoum shares many ills with its Arab neighbors to the north.

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