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Tunisia revolt: Will it spread?

Tunisia president flees, other North African leaders are worried.

Tunisia riots
A Tunisian demonstrator throws a rock during clashes with security forces on Mohamed V Avenue in Tunis on January 14, 2011. There are worries that the riots which toppled Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali will spread across North Africa. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO, Egypt — Less than an hour after the news broke that President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had fled Tunisia, the political reverberations of his departure were already being felt over 1,000 miles away in Egypt’s capital.

Outside the Tunisian embassy in Cairo on Friday night, a thick line of baton-wielding riot police and plainclothes security watched anxiously as dozens of Egyptian opposition members chanted slogans critical of the government led by President Hosni Mubarak since 1981.

“Oh Ben Ali, tell Mr. Mubarak we have the airplane waiting for him to leave too!” Egyptian protesters screamed from behind the security cordon.

For weeks, the Arab world has watched with surprise at the events in Tunisia, once seen as the stable model for other countries in the North African region. Waves of popular unrest crashed for weeks across the tiny North African state.

What started as one man’s self-immolation in protest of rising unemployment and a stagnating economy in central Tunisia, erupted into a countrywide fury against the repressive regime run by Ben Ali since 1987.

Despite attempts by Ben Ali to quell the rising uproar, including the sacking of his interior minister and the dissolution of parliament, violence escalated. Since mid-December, when the protests began, at least 23 people have been killed by police attempting to disperse crowds with live ammunition and tear gas.

Demonstrations, which had intensified into rioting and looting, reached the capital city, Tunis, earlier this week, eventually culminating in Ben Ali’s departure Friday evening.

Initially it was reported that Ben Ali went to France, but he was refused asylum by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, according to Le Monde. It is now reported that Ben Ali and his family have gone to Saudi Arabia.

Some in Egypt, especially members of its notoriously fractured opposition, are looking to the recent events in Tunisia with a glimmer of hope. They see that a popular movement can challenge even a regime that has been entrenched for decades. Egypt’s Mubarak government, say some analysts, is more likely to be watching with uneasiness, for precisely the same reason.

“This is really an historic event for the entire region,” said Issandr el-Amrani, a Cairo-based analyst and writer of the Arabist blog. “Rulers in this part of the world, some of whom head authoritarian regimes, will be eager to see this situation resolved, because their citizens have been watching nightly news of an uprising unfold in a neighboring Arab state.”

If Egyptians are aware of the news in Tunisia, it has not been coming from state-run sources.

Although reports of the widespread protesting in Tunisia has dominated headlines in Egypt’s independent media over the past month, the official coverage has been scant.

Some speculate that Mubarak government is reticent out of fears that similar unrest could occur in Egypt — the Arab world’s most populous nation, and also one with a stagnating economy and high unemployment among youth.

And violent clashes over rising food prices broke out in another North African country, Algeria, earlier this month, resulting in 2 deaths.

“We are hoping this will create a domino effect and reach Egypt,” said Basem Fathy, 26, a youth leader in the Egyptian opposition Al-Ghad party. “Many people think that democracy can’t come from a popular uprising — but we’ve seen it happen now in Tunisia. It is possible.”