Over the past three weeks, Tunisia has been a nation whose remarkable events have been shamefully underreported in the American media. As I understand it, the tough economic times resulted in a young man who could not find work, and took to selling fruit on a street corner, and then was arrested for not having a permit. Distraught over his situation, he committed suicide, and this set in motion a chain of events which led to popular demonstrations and riots. Just over a week ago, these reached a level of intensity that the well-entrenched President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was deposed. Popular calls for the institution of a functioning democratic government continue and the interim leaders of the country — the military and the Prime Minister — are struggling to find a way to respond to those popular demands, which so far seems to consist of issuing arrest warrants for Abidine and his family.
There are similar protests going on in Egypt. As in Tunisia, public demonstrations are outlawed but happening anyway, again led by calls for democracy on the part of economically disaffected young people in massive street demonstrations. They seem to have united around the figurehead of Mohammad ElBaradei, who has returned to his native nation at some risk to his own liberty to join the protests against the deeply-entrenched President Hosni Mubarek. Mubarak is dealt with as a partner to the U.S. because of his overt hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood — but the really good news is that the protesters in Egypt seem to reject the Muslim Brotherhood as much as they do Mubarak.
While the violence is regrettable, it is perpetrated by the repressive, functionally dictatorial governments who are being challenged by their own people. The moral fault for the violence and people hurt by it rests ultimately with the leaders who clamp down on protests rather than recognize the sovereignty of their people. It looks like 1989 in north Africa; it remains to be seen if the result will be like Eastern Europe or like China.
Let us hope that the Egyptian, Tunisian, and hopefully other peoples prevail and new democracies, ones with true respect for the rule of law and human rights, emerge from the struggles quickly and with minimal bloodshed.