Christopher Walker: How Tunisia's revolution sparks fears of 'domino effect'

AUTOCRATIC leaders across the Arab world have been put on notice to an extent never seen before by the ignominious flight of President Ben Ali of Tunisia and his corrupt family after the "Jasmine Revolution" which now threatens to bring down other Middle Eastern regimes, and undermine the basis of Western security policy in the oil-rich region.

The flames ignited by the self-immolation last month of an unemployed Tunisian graduate Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, in protest at police harassment and his inability to earn a living wage have turned him into a symbol and martyr of the mass discontent to citizens in the 22 members of the Cairo-based Arab League.

They have been fanned to an extent not conceived only a few years ago by the spread of Arab TV satellite channels – notably Qatar-financed al-Jazeera which has led the charge in reporting events in Tunisia – and a new army of educated but often jobless young Arabs who have embraced the opportunities to focus unrest provided by Facebook, Twitter and defied all attempts by the autocratic and out-of-touch rulers to close down the internet.

It was these 21st century revolutionaries who dubbed 74-year-old President Zein al-Abdine Ben Ali of Tunisia and his corrupt second wife Leila, 21 years his younger, the "Ceausescus of the Desert". It was an insult that has not gone unnoticed by leaders in Washington. Moscow, Paris and Berlin who are only too aware of the domino effect that saw the collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, ending with the execution of the Romanian dictator and his wife.

Having experienced at first hand the blatant autocracy in most Arab countries and contempt for democracy of the type which allowed President Ali to return to power for his fifth successive term of office in 2009 by a laughable alleged majority of 89.6 per cent of the vote, I would nominate six – Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Syria, Jordan and the Gulf state of Bahrain – as the most likely to see their regimes overthrown by a Tunisian-style uprising.

In fact, Algeria, which has a border with Tunisia and is also a former French colony, has also just experienced days of rioting after hikes in food prices this month forced the government – a blend of the army and the ruling party known on the streets as "le Pouvoir" or "the Power" – to direct some of its $150bn gas export booty to boost subsidies. The sullen crowds of unemployed young men who loiter in the streets during the day to avoid the often stifling heat of their overcrowded apartments are known as "les gardiens des murs", or "janitors of the walls".

But most worryingly for Western strategy in the Middle East, it is Egypt, the most populous Arab state with a fast growing population of 80 million, where the current regime – led by the octogenarian and ailing President Hosni Mubarak – that is the most vulnerable.

Should its unhappy total of 40 per cent of citizens living on under $2 a day, its army of unemployed youths, its ultra- repressive measures against the popular Muslim Brotherhood and the simmering sectarian violence between Muslims and the Coptic Christian minority become the factors to force the Pharaonic domino to fall, the effects across the Arab world could be catastrophic – not least because it is one of only two Arab nations to have made peace with Israel.

President Mubarak, who like President Ben Ali is a vain and compulsive hair dyer, has not helped by refusing to appoint a deputy since the day in 1981 when he took over from the assassinated President Sadat, and at the same time encouraged widespread political repression and worked to promote his ex-banker son Gamal as his successor.

Like other blatantly anti-democratic Arab leaders who have Western support (and in Egypt's case, billions of dollars in civil and military aid), Mubarak – in private a surprisingly humorous man who loves to tell scurrilous jokes about neighbouring autocratic ruler, Colonel Gadaffi of Libya – has sealed an unwritten deal with countries like the US, Britain and France, that he will repress Islamic tendencies in his population in exchange for their turning a blind eye to his police-state tactics.

As in Syria, where a minority Alawite sect led by the Assad family holds power, the prospect of a popular revolution in Egypt dismays western powers as it would bring a militant form of Sunni Islam into power.

Jordan, a monarchy sandwiched between Israel and Iraq, has seen its own price riots in recent days, while Bahrain has long experienced fierce but woefully unreported riots in the villages surrounding the capital Manama as the Sunni Muslim Khalifa dynasty rule over a permanently discontented (and largely pro –Iranian) Shia Muslim majority.

All in all, the chances are of the late fruit and veg seller Mohammed Bouazizi leaving a much more potent legacy than he can ever have dreamed of look stronger by the day.

Christopher Walker is a former Middle east and Moscow correspondent of The Times.