BEIRUT (Reuters) - The near-silence of Arab leaders about the popular protests that chased Tunisia’s ex-President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali from power speaks volumes.
People across the region have watched enthralled as street unrest forced Ben Ali to flee the North African country he has ruled for 23 years -- an unprecedented spectacle in the Arab world, where authoritarian leaders can usually only be dislodged by army coup, assassination or their own mortality.
U.S. President Barack Obama urged free and fair elections in Tunisia, a call echoed by other Western leaders -- many of whom had turned a blind eye to Ben Ali’s repressive style.
But Arab capitals have largely kept quiet, apparently stunned by the seismic explosion of protest in Tunisia.
“What will worry many governments in the region is that the crisis was spontaneous and not organized,” said Henry Wilkinson of the Janusian Security Consultancy. “Events in Tunisia have shown the risk of a pressure cooker effect: if you have a system of intense suppression without addressing the causes of discontent, a crack in that system can lead to an explosion.”
A cautious statement from the Cairo-based Arab League called for Tunisia’s “political forces, representatives of Tunisian society and officials to stand together” and keep the peace.
Saudi Arabia, a monarchy that gave Ben Ali refuge, expressed support for Tunisians as they overcome this “difficult stage.”
In Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak has ruled for almost 30 years, the foreign ministry said it respected the choices of the Tunisian people and trusted their wisdom “in fixing the situation and avoiding the collapse of Tunisia into chaos.”
Sudan said it welcomed the political change in Tunisia, using similar language about respecting the will of Tunisians.
The military overthrow of Sudan’s president Jaafar Nimeiri in 1985 after a wave of popular protests is perhaps the closest parallel in modern Arab history to Ben Ali’s ouster. Sudan’s current president, Omar al-Bashir, took power in a 1989 coup.
In Iraq, where a coup backed by violent unrest toppled the Hashemite monarchy in 1958, the government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, sidestepped comment on the upheaval in Tunisia.
“This is an internal issue for Tunisian people. We do not interfere in the affairs of other countries and respect the choice of the people in the region,” he said.
Iraq can boast a government that was formed, albeit with huge difficulty, after a genuine election, unlike those in most Arab countries, which offer more form than substance.
The reticence of Arab leaders over Tunisia may reflect their fears that, as North Africa analyst Camille Tawil argues, “what happened in Tunis proved that the people can topple a government in the Arab world by taking to the streets and demonstrating.”
But it does not necessarily mean they will stand by if their own people are inspired to replicate Tunisia’s revolt.
“Other autocrats will not have the squeamishness about suppression with violence that the Tunisians showed,” said Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Libya and Iran.
He said some, such as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, “will conclude that they are still right to never give an inch, whether to Islamists or just reformers” and that regime survival is best served by resisting any Western pressure for change.
Arab rulers often justify repression by suggesting the alternative is to see radical Islamists seize power, but Tunisia offers little obvious support for this argument.
“Ben Ali’s regime overplayed the Islamist card, trying to scare people about al Qaeda. People saw through it,” said Saad Djebbar, an Algerian lawyer and political analyst.
“And as it turned out there were few beards in the street in the protests, even though, to be fair, many Tunisian Islamists prudently don’t wear beards.”
Arab leaders with more wealth at their disposal also have options to deal with dissent that the Tunisian leader lacked.
“Tunisia simply had fewer cards to play. The country doesn’t have the recourse to hydrocarbon rent to make all problems go away,” said North Africa analyst Geoff Porter, citing moves by Libya and Algeria to reduce food prices by forgoing tax revenue.
Even resource-poor countries such as Jordan have tried to forestall unrest by taking similar measures they can ill afford.
For Beirut-based commentator Rami Khouri, the message of the Tunisian insurrection was clear.
“It marks the end of acquiescence and docility among masses of ordinary Arab citizens who had remained remarkably complacent for decades in the face of the mounting power of Western-backed Arab security states and police- and army-based ruling regimes.”
He said the grievances of Tunisian protesters were shared across the Arab world, except perhaps in small rich Gulf states.
“These complaints are about rising prices and job shortages, but also about the heavy-handed and condescending manner in which ruling Arab elites treat their citizens,” Khouri wrote.
Additional reporting by William Maclean in London and Shaimaa Fayed in Cairo; Editing by Samia Nakhoul