Tunisian Revolution: Other Arab Dictator At a Crossroads

The revolution in Tunisia portends trouble for nearby regimes, from Egypt to Libya. Ex-CIA officer Bruce Riedel on why other dominoes may fall—and how U.S. policy just got more complicated.

The revolution portends trouble for nearby regimes, from Egypt to Libya. Ex-CIA officer Bruce Riedel on why other dominoes may fall—and how U.S. policy just got more complicated.

Something amazing and remarkable happened in Tunisia this week which is sending a tidal wave of expectations throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds. The Tunisian people overthrew a dictator who had been in power for 23 years. No Arab country has done so before. Other Islamic countries, Iran in 1978 and Pakistan in 2008, have seen dictators overthrown by civil unrest but never in the Arab world. The big question is who is next? And the answer may be Egypt. Zine al Abidene Ben Ali was Tunisia's secret police boss when he orchestrated a bloodless coup in 1987. He had been the power behind the scenes for some time before the coup. During his tenure he brought stability and some economic growth but ruthlessly suppressed dissent and labeled almost all opponents as Islamic extremists.

Photos: Tunisia's Uprising

After his ouster, Ben Ali apparently wanted to find refuge and exile in France, which has a large Tunisian émigré population. But Paris said no thanks, fearing his presence would exacerbate tensions with the country's large Muslim population. So Ben Ali is in Saudi Arabia, which has a long tradition of offering asylum to ousted Muslim leaders. The kingdom takes them in on the proviso that they stay out of politics.

Is Tunisia a harbinger of change elsewhere? Certainly the problems that brought down Ben Ali can be found elsewhere in the Arab world. High unemployment and even higher underemployment—especially among restless young men—in a period of rising food and energy prices and global economic downturn characterize virtually every major Arab country from Morocco to Yemen. Several are also led by regimes that are long in the saddle. Tunisia's immediate neighbors Algeria and Libya both fall into this category.

The joke in Cairo this weekend was whether Ben Ali's plane would stop in Cairo to pick up Mubarak.

But the big question mark is Egypt. With the Arab world's largest population and biggest intelligentsia, Egypt has been run since 1981 by Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak, 82, came to power in a hail of bullets when his much more flamboyant and charismatic predecessor Anwar Sadat was assassinated by a band of four jihadists in the Egyptian army during a parade marking the anniversary of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. I was the chief of the Egypt desk in CIA that day and assured a worried Reagan administration that Mubarak would hold onto power. I was right for thirty years.

Mubarak has held on to power ever since that October day and has never appointed a Vice President to be a successor. He has brought remarkable stability to Egypt despite fighting a bitter and bloody battle with jihadist terrorists led by Ayman Zawahiri, the number two in Al Qaeda, in the 1990s. But stability has led to lethargy and stasis. Egypt, once a leader in the Arab world and the Islamic world, has fallen to a being a backwater.

Christopher Dickey: The Youth Revolution in TunisiaMike Giglio: Tunisia Protests, the Facebook RevolutionMubarak has flirted with the idea that his son, Gamal, might succeed him—but has also suggested he might run for reelection again this year himself despite age and failing health. For a long time there was really no viable alternative, but now the former head of the IAEA Muhammad al Baradei has emerged as a spokesman for change and has forged an informal alliance with the country's largest opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. Even before Tunis erupted, smart experts were suggesting scenarios in which change could come to Egypt.

Behind the scenes, power in Egypt remains with the army and secret police as it has since Gamal abd al Nasir seized power from a decrepit monarchy more than a half century ago. After Sadat's assassination—and in the face of Zawahiri's challenge—Mubarak vastly expanded the size and power of the mukhabarat, or secret police, and the Ministry of the Interior. The internal security police force has one and half million men under its command, four times the size of the regular army, with a budget of one and a half billion. As any tourist knows the police are everywhere. Every Egyptian knows an informant is everywhere, too. Estimates suggest 80,000 political prisoners are in jail. While the population has doubled since Sadat died, the number of prisons has quadrupled.

Mubarak has relied for decades on his secret police Chief Omar Suleiman, 75, to keep order and maintain control. Suleiman is an accomplished counterterrorist fighter well known in Western capitals and highly respected by intelligence services around the world. He has often been Mubarak's go-to political operative, handling delicate negotiations like dealing with Hamas in Gaza.

Mubarak and Suleiman have doubtless been rattled by what they have watched on al Jazirah television coming from Tunis. The joke in Cairo this weekend was whether Ben Ali's plane would stop in Cairo to pick up Mubarak. But Egyptians have been making jokes about Mubarak and his longevity for years now—and he is still there.

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The stakes are enormous for America in Egypt. Transit through the Suez Canal is vital to our navy and our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The peace Sadat made with Israel is vital to Jerusalem, which every Israeli leader knows. A stable pro-Western Egypt has been the bed rock of our Middle East policy since Henry Kissinger. U.S. assistance—both economic and military—has averaged about $2 billion a year since 1979.

Barack Obama's challenge in Egypt will be to avoid tying America to Mubarak and trying to hold back the winds of change that are coming while not destabilizing a critical ally. The United States has a poor track record of pulling off that difficult balance. In Pakistan, George Bush hung by his man Pervez Musharraf far too long. The result is that Pakistanis hate America.

What has just happened in Tunisia is a revolution in Arab politics. No one knows now if it will be a one-off or the beginning of a trend. For President Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton, the region just got a whole lot more complicated.

Bruce Riedel, a former long-time CIA officer, is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. At Obama's request, he chaired the strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. He's also the author of The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future