Mideast rulers watch Tunisia in fear of repeat

AFP, Sunday 16 Jan 2011

The region's leaders dread Tunisia's domino effect

Saana demonstrations
Students in Sanaa shout slogans during a demonstration in support of the ousting of Tunisia's President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali 16 Jan. 2011. (Reuters)

Governments across the Middle East anxiously watched developments in Tunisia on Sunday after the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fearing the spread to their doorsteps of violence and popular revolt.

After 23 years of iron-fisted rule, the Tunisian president caved in to violent popular protests on Friday and fled to Saudi Arabia, becoming the first Arab leader to do so.

Administrations in the Middle East were cautious in their response to his toppling, but are increasingly uneasy about the situation as opposition groups seek to take advantage of the upheaval in the north African country.

The world's largest pan-Islamic body, the Saudi-based Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), said the strife in Tunisia was an "internal matter" while urging people to "protect public and private properties."

It expressed hope, however, that Tunisia would show "the solidarity and unity of its people and their aspirations for enhancing democracy and good governance."
The United Arab Emirates echoed the OIC's plea.

"The UAE urges the Tunisian people in this delicate moment to stick together, to maintain national unity and to thwart any attempt to undermine Tunisia or its security and stability," said a cabinet statement carried by the state news agency WAM.

But Ben Ali's ouster appeared to embolden disenchanted youths in Yemen, with about 1,000 students taking to the streets of the capital Sanaa on Sunday urging Arabs to rise up against their leaders.

Flanked by human rights activists, the students marched from Sanaa University's campus to the Tunisian embassy.

They called for Arab peoples to wage a "revolution against their scared and deceitful leaders" and chanted: "Liberty's Tunisia, Sanaa salutes you a thousand times."

"Leave before you are toppled," read one banner, without naming Yemen's own President Ali Abdullah Saleh. "Peaceful and democratic change is our aim in building a new Yemen."

Syria's pro-government daily Al-Watan said the events in Tunisia were "a lesson that no Arab regime should ignore, especially those following Tunisia's political approach of relying on 'friends' to protect them."

"Arab leaders on sale to the West should learn form the Tunisian lesson. They should make Arab decisions according to what is favourable to the interest of the Arab people and not those of faraway countries," said the daily.

In Jordan, the powerful Islamic Action Front urged Arab regimes to carry out genuine reforms leading to "renaissance."

"Tyranny is the mother of all evil in the Arab world," the IAF said on its website. "This explains the state of retardation in the Arab world, despite all elements of success and progress the Arabs have."

Opposition MPs in Kuwait as well as pro-government press in Syria agreed.

"I salute the courage of the Tunisian people... All regimes that oppress their peoples and fight Arab and Islamic identity will meet the same fate," Islamist MP Waleed al-Tabtabai said.

Iran, which has good ties with the north African country, said it hoped "the Muslim Tunisian nation's demands are fulfilled through peaceful and non-violent means."

"We are worried about the situation in Tunisia," Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast was quoted as saying by Fars news agency.

For Israel, the dramatic events in Tunisia were a sign of regional political instability. "The region in which we live is an unstable region, everybody can see that today. We see it in several places in the broader Middle East," said Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. "There can be changes in governments that we do not foresee today but will take place tomorrow."

Tunisia's main political parties held talks on Sunday to form a national unity government as soldiers patrolled the streets amid fears of a backlash by supporters of Ben Ali.

Officials said the government would now investigate killings of civilians during the wave of protests that led to Ben Ali's abrupt departure and look into allegations of corruption of his inner circle.

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