Transformation in the Middle East

Comparing the Uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain

The Middle East is boiling. Unprecedented popular uprisings have rocked a number of countries, especially the three where I served as U.S. ambassador -- Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain. Demonstrators, taking to the streets to protest their dismal living conditions, refused to be beaten back, swelling until the autocratic presidents in Tunisia and Egypt were driven from power. As of this writing, the family-run government in Bahrain is fighting back, hoping its security forces and hold on power will be strong enough to outlast the protests. The uprisings in the three countries have had many similarities, but there have also been significant differences. All three face rising unemployment as a result of the global recession. They were experiencing growing gaps between rich and poor, stifled free speech, repression of the opposition, widespread corruption, and continuing autocratic control behind a veneer of democratic openings.

Tunisia had not seemed particularly shaky. It was a country that seemed to be doing many things right: universal education for men and women, low military spending, and positive economic growth. A large middle class was developing, and the country had become a popular tourist destination for Europeans. The government was authoritarian but also determinedly secular and pro-Western. The cracks, however, were larger than anyone thought: President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had carefully hidden the extent to which illness had weakened his control of the government; his ties with other centers of power, such as the military and police, had withered; and corruption within his family had become more flagrant.

Although the percentage of youth looking for work was lower than in neighboring countries, more were university graduates with higher expectations. Their frustration and anger became unbearable. The desperate act of one of them, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in front of a police station in a sad town in Tunisia’s interior, became the symbol and catalyzing spark for the whole generation. His act of self-immolation might have passed unnoticed, but it was captured on a cell-phone camera, and soon the rest of Tunisia -- and the whole world -- knew.

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