'Tunisia will be a spark provoking similar revolts'

How will the abrupt fall of Tunisian leader Ben Ali affect other countries in the region? Renowned Sorbonne scholar Burhan Ghalioun told France24.com that many Arab countries are ripe for such a revolt.


The tightly controlled and at times brutally repressive government of former Tunisian president Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali was toppled by a popular uprising this week.

On January 6th, Sorbonne scholar Burhan Ghalioun predicted Ben Ali's government would no longer be able to contain the pressure from the street protests and would fall.

France24.com spoke to him to find out if any other authoritarian regimes in the region were now condemned to fail.


France 24: Can we expect similar revolts in neighbouring counties as a result of the events in Tunisia?

Burhan Ghalioun: We should not consider contagion as something mechanical. There will certainly be a change in the ideas and feelings of the Arab population in neighbouring countries, specifically for those who live under similar regimes. The political context has already changed because of this revolution. The leaders of the Arab states are reviewing their positions. In just a few days we have witnessed a rise in salaries and concern over unemployment. This is to show they care about the people, and it’s the people who were the source of Ben Ali’s downfall. It’s not going to happen all of a sudden. I believe the events in Tunisia will be a spark that will provoke perhaps similar revolts or unrest in Arab countries that have similar problems.

F24: Can you point to any countries in particular?

BG: I think Egypt is ready for an uprising, but I don’t know exactly how it will come about. I don’t think it will be identical, Egypt is different. I don’t see why something similar couldn’t happen in Libya: A super-rich country where the population is unhappy and lives close to extreme poverty. A revolt could happen in several different countries, but what is important to highlight today is that for 20 years, under the guise of a campaign against terrorism, Tunisia’s government concealed a problem that has now exploded before the eyes of the entire world.

F24: What are the potential risks during the power vacuum Tunisia is experiencing?

BG: There are groups that have lost out, who benefitted from Ben Ali’s system and are now trying to abort this revolution by setting fire to public buildings, and doing whatever is still within their power to indicate that the situation on the ground is the result of anarchy and disorder. The first danger comes from these reactionary forces inside the country. The second comes from the Western powers, who worry that a government who will not bend to their will take shape. I’m talking especially about European powers. But the US will also react if the Middle East is affected. They are all scared of governments that are really representative of the people.

There are also extremist forces like al Qaeda to be concerned with. They think that a successful democratic system will stop the spreading of their influence. It is clear therefore, that there are a lot of forces that need to be monitored during this period of transition. The only thing won during the unrest was the destruction of a bankrupt system, but everything still remains to be done to create a democratic system.

Professor Burhan Ghalioun is a writer and currently heads the Centre for Contemporary Oriental Studies at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

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