Series of events unfolding in the twilight days of all the dictators, both civilian and military, are intriguingly identical. They all handle the uprisings in strikingly similar fashion. Pakistanis, who can clearly recall the protests against massive rigging of 1977 elections, will testify to the fact that dictators do not realize the gravity of situation and intensity of public sentiments till they are booted out. It was unfortunate for Pakistanis that their very genuine protest demonstrations were hijacked by the clergy because the protest leaders were behind the bars. The rest is history, the dark ages which still continue. The handling of uprising against the shah of Iran was no different. The dictator of Tunis handled the uprising in the similar fashion though he met his fate much quicker that his other cousins. Foreign Policy Magazine, in its latest edition has made an interesting comparison of the shah and President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. According to a latest article, Ben Ali seemed intent on compressing the shah's yearlong series vacillations into a tidy one-week time frame.
The pattern was familiar. First, a show of denial: The shah started 1978 by denouncing street protests as conspiracies directed from abroad, while Ben Ali started this week by declaring mass demonstrations to be "terrorist acts." Next a halfhearted show of force to restore law and order: In the autumn of 1978, the shah declared martial law and organized a military government; Ben Ali, for his part, imposed a nationwide curfew this week and presumably instructed security forces to use deadly force against continued protests. Then a hasty series of concessions that are inevitably interpreted as too little, too late: Late in the game, each leader tried to shuffle his cabinet into a more liberal arrangement. That's followed by a transparently cynical, and frankly depressing, declaration of sympathy for the protests: The shah went on television in November to announce, "I have heard the voice of your revolution"; Ben Ali went on television on Thursday to tell his restive populace, "I have understood you." Finally, there's the retreat into exile -- the shah fled to Egypt in January 1979, while Ben Ali is now reported to be in Malta, France, or Saudi Arabia.
But does this carry any lesson for dictators in Middle East, “where presidents and kings have rusted on their thrones?” According to the New York Times, that seemed premature, particularly because the contours of the government emerging in Tunisia were still unclear — and because Tunisia is on the periphery of the Arab world, with a relatively affluent and educated population. Yet the street protests erupted when Arabs seemed more frustrated than ever, whether over rising prices and joblessness or resentment of their leaders’ support for American policies or ambivalence about Israeli campaigns in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009. Tunisia’s protests were portrayed as a popular uprising, crossing lines of religion and ideology, offering a new model of dissent in a region where Islamic activists have long been seen as monopolizing opposition. Even if they serve only as inspiration, the protests offer a rare example of success to activists stymied at almost every turn in bringing about change in their own countries.