The sudden and yet unexplained exit of Tunisia's strongman, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, 74, after 23 years in power has potential implications for the Middle East and for Muslims worldwide. As an Egyptian commentator noted, "Every Arab leader is watching Tunisia in fear. Every Arab citizen is watching Tunisia in hope and solidarity." I watch with both sets of emotions.
During the first era of independence - until about 1970 - governments in Arabic-speaking countries were frequently overthrown as troops under the control of a discontented colonel streamed into the capital, seized the presidential quarters and the radio station, then announced a new regime. Syria endured three coups d'etat in 1949 alone.
Over time, regimes learned to protect themselves through overlapping intelligence services, reliance on family and tribal members, repression and other mechanisms. Four decades of sclerotic, sterile stability followed. With only rare exceptions (Iraq in 2003, Gaza in 2007) did regimes get ousted; even more rarely (Sudan in 1985) did civilian dissent have a significant role.