[Viewpoint] Jasmine Revolution creating waves

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[Viewpoint] Jasmine Revolution creating waves

Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali stepped down last weekend, 23 years after he took power in a bloodless coup. While he resigned from presidency, he was practically ousted. As the army surrounded the presidential palace, Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia. Who would have guessed such an ending to an absolute power?

The last straw breaks the camel’s back. A seemingly inconsequential episode can change the course of history all at once. However, it is a result of accumulated causes, not a momentary coincidence. When accumulated distrust and dissatisfaction reach critical mass, even the most solid, tightly controlled system may fall like a dam with a hole. The sum of the grudges, outrages, frustrations and despair spontaneously explode.

What changed the flow of Tunisia’s history was the death of a young man who had lost his hopes and dreams. Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his vendor cart. The 26-year-old was making a living by selling fruit on the street, and he had been harassed by the police because he did not have a permit. Four weeks after the self-immolation, the Ben Ali regime collapsed.

If Ben Ali had cared for the citizens’ dissatisfaction over various pressing issues - soaring prices, the high unemployment rate, the growing gap between rich and poor, widespread corruption of the privileged class, political oppression, human rights abuse and long-term dictatorship - the regime might not have fallen so easily. Ben Ali announced a belated plan to satisfy the public, but it was only a statement of surrender, admitting his defeat.

On Oct. 26, 1979, the sudden death of a dictator brought spring in Seoul, when Koreans were not yet prepared. A similar confusion of anticipation, anxiety, hopes and uncertainty is occurring in Tunisia. The Tunisians can settle the chaos and pursue democratization, but the chaos can lead to the rise of yet another dictator.

The Jasmine Revolution showed that Tunisia is an open society, where social network services such as Twitter and Facebook and satellite television Al Jazeera have wide influence. Sixty-five percent of the population is under 25, and 60 percent of high school graduates go on to higher education.

Since independence in 1956, Tunisia has consistently promoted Western secularism; the Islamic nation has kept a distance from Islamic fundamentalism. However, they cannot be entirely optimistic. It would not be so easy to erase the legacy of Ben Ali’s regime and make peace with the past.

Regardless of the result, the Jasmine Revolution is creating powerful waves in the entire Arab world. Leaders of Maghreb neighbors in North Africa such as Algeria, Morocco, Libya and other Arab countries, including Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Jordan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, are watching the Tunisian crisis closely.

As each country is in a different situation, the revolution is not likely to spread like dominoes. Nonetheless, self-immolations are occurring in Algeria. In order to prevent such protests, Arab leaders are taking pre-emptive moves to appease the angry public, and it certainly is a significant change.

Even in the 21st century, the Arab world remains an exception to democratization. As the Cold War ended, most countries in Latin America, East Asia and Eastern Europe and most countries in Africa become democratized, but the Arab countries have not. It was a dominant idea in the West that achieving democracy in the Arab world would be a challenge. Because of an obsession with deterring Islamic fundamentalists from controlling the oil supply, the Western world has neglected autocratic Arab rulers.

If democracy is achieved in the Middle East, it would be the event of the century that would fundamentally shake the Middle Eastern order. If such an order were to take root there and democratic mechanisms began to operate, the political and economic order of the Middle East would go through a revolutionary change. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran’s nuclear program, the distribution of petroleum resources, the relationship with the United States and Europe could all change.

The flower of democratization has begun to blossom because of Tunisia. The international community will pay attention to the consequences of the Jasmine Revolution.

*The writer is an editorial writer of JoongAng Ilbo.

By Bae Myung-bok
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