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MIDDLE EAST: Activists, Arab leaders on edge as Tunisia hangs in the balance

January 16, 2011 |  8:25 am

Tunisia jan16_2F

Emboldened Arab citizens are taking on their own leaderships as the region watches with anticipation to see whether Tunisia's recent uprising will successfully replace the oppressive regime of Zine Abidine Ben Ali that ruled for 23 years.

Most regional leaders have stayed silent on Ben Ali's flight into exile amid national riots, a reticence that many observers have interpreted as fear. But even staunch supporters of the Tunisian protest movement are cautious to call "revolution" too early.

"Right now the Arab regimes are annoyed, but they aren't afraid," said Munsif Ben Ali, a Tunisian expatriate in Beirut and the head of the local solidarity movement in Lebanon (he shares a last name but no relation to the ousted president).

Ben Ali spoke to Babylon & Beyond on the sidelines of a demonstration on Sunday as several hundred activists gathered in front of the United Nations headquarters in downtown Beirut to express support for the Tunisian protesters.

"Many of the symbols of Ben Ali's regime are still in place," he said. "When real change is completed, then [the Arab leaders] will be terrified."

While the official reactions have been muted, reactions to any perceived support for Ben Ali and his government have been swift and angry, and not just from secular reformists like the ones who made up most of the rally in Beirut.

When Saudi Arabia announced on Saturday it had granted Ben Ali and his family asylum in a heavily guarded palace in the seaside city of Jedda, there was an immediate backlash from religious Saudis who objected to granting protection to a man who oversaw the torture and imprisonment of thousands of Islamists in Tunisia.

Queen Rania of Jordan became the butt of many ominious jokes over the weekend when she tweeted that she was "watching developments in Tunisia and praying for stability and calm for its people." She was met with a barrage of Twitter taunts, including "lol Jordan is next!" and "start palace hunting in Jedda."

Libyan leader Muammar Ghaddafi, who is seen as a source of sad comedy even in the best of times, invited the wrath of the masses when he was quoted telling the official Libyan press that Tunisians had acted rashly by driving Ben Ali out of power.

The only powerful political body in the region to offer support to the Tunisian activists was the militant Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, which issued a statement on Saturday (Arabic link) announcing its "pride" in the Tunisian people and calling on Arab leaders to learn a lesson from the Tunisian example.

But some commentators accused the group of hypocrisy, noting its conspicuous silence when similar popular protests erupted in Iran following the disputed 2009 presidential elections. Iran is Hezbollah's main patron.

The Iranians, for their part, seemed unmoved by the events in Tunisia. In a speech before Parliament on Sunday, Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani warned Tunisia to be vigilant against the United States, which he accused of seeking to use the recent upheaval to reassert its power in Tunisia.

“The behavior of USA and some other countries is ridiculous," he said. "They were the supporters of despotism in Tunisia until yesterday and now turn out to be the sympathizers toward the nation of Tunisia."

Similar sentiments were echoed by others across the region who were not impressed with the United States and France for belatedly jumping on the Free Tunisia bandwagon.

"France and the United States only supported--and by support I mean they paid lip service to the Tunisian uprising when they realized that Ben Ali's presidency was over," said 34-year-old Zeina, who attended the rally in Beirut. "For 24 days [of protests] no one gave any comment."

--Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Sympathizers in Beirut rallied in support of Tunisian protestors. Credit: Bassem Chit

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