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A successful jasmine revolution, but what next for Tunisia?

The toppling of Ben Ali will inspire oppressed people everywhere – but takes Tunisia into new territ

On Friday, the western media finally woke up to the "Jasmine Revolution" unfolding in Tunisia. After weeks of light coverage of events there, I was surprised to hear an in-depth report on Tunisia on BBC Radio 4 early on Friday morning. The New York Times despatched a reporter to the capital on Thursday, and the Guardian has been carrying stories on its home page daily. By the end of the week, people in the UK and US understood the gravity of events in Tunisia that Middle East watchers had been following for the past three weeks.

Despite President Ben Ali's best efforts to dissipate the energy in the protest movement, which began with the suicide of a young man frustrated at the Tunisian state for having confiscated the vegetable stall where he earned his livelihood, Tunisians gradually became more agitated, and the protest moved from distant towns and cities to the capital itself at the start of the week. Promises of huge investments in job-creation programmes and urgent democratic reforms were rejected by the nationwide movement, which brought together young and old, people in urban centres, small towns, working people and the middle classes. Despite the threat of lethal force, thousands of Tunisians took to the streets as the movement's potential became clear.

The focus of the uprising moved swiftly beyond jobs and the price of food to the corrupt and repressive regime that has been running the country since 1987. The Ben Ali dictatorship is seen as one of the most repressive anywhere in the world, having ruthlessly silenced opposition politics and the press since the early days of his presidency. Internet access has been widely available for years, but many foreign websites – for example, YouTube – are banned, permanently. The trade-off for Tunisians was the promise of a job and a good education, but widespread corruption, emanating from Ben Ali's own family, had reached so far and wide that ordinary people could feel its effects and the economic trade-off started to slip.

It became clear when the protest reached Tunis that the ultimate aim of the movement was a revolution, not just economic reform. Tunisians chanted anti-Ben Ali slogans and made their aims clear on the streets of the capital. I've watched Tunisia for years and I was astounded and impressed at the audacity of this uprising, considering the strength of the formal (police, secret service) and informal (neighbours, taxi drivers, etc) networks that worked to repress alternative political views and ensure the continuity of the regime. Tunisia, and particularly Tunis, can be intimidating at times, if you know how to spot the secret police agents posted on every corner of the capital, and it must have taken real courage for Tunisians to show their discontent in this way.

The regime was startled by the speed and voracity of events, and scrambled to hold on to power. Ben Ali announced on Thursday night that he would not run for election again in 2014, and after a general strike on Friday morning reduced his plea to just six more months as leader, promising a summer election for his replacement. It was clear, however, that after the 23-year period of his rule, mixing fear with shrewd economic management, impressive progress on women's rights and a moderate brand of Islam, the president would barely survive the weekend, let alone six months. The question became not if Ben Ali would fall, but what would happen after he fell: would there be a leadership vacuum and what would fill it?

Some western observers feared an extreme Islamist element would take advantage of any vacuum, but a close look at Tunisian society should calm such fears – Tunisia is no Algeria. Ben Ali's actions over decades to squash all opposition and free media comment resulted in the near-disappearance of a political class outside the regime itself, so there are no obvious national politicians ready to take over. The Tunisian constitution states that, in the event of a president losing power unexpectedly, the leader of parliament takes over, for a 45-day period, leading to new elections. The current leader of the Tunisian parliament is too old and frail to run the country; instead Prime Minister Ghannouchi, a senior member of the regime, led a palace coup and is now de facto president, his views on the next steps unclear. Ben Ali has sought refuge in Saudi Arabia, apparently having been refused entry to France.

Tunisia is reliant on tourism and foreign investment for prosperity. French, German, British and Russian tourists are being evacuated this weekend by the thousand, and western companies with a significant presence in the Maghreb economic powerhouse will be watching events carefully. If chaos ensues, the economic and social progress will rapidly become undone; Tunisia will lose its prized position as a beacon of economic success in Africa and the Arab world. It is vital that a period of calm now comes about – though early signs point to sporadic looting and violence. The interim government today announced elections in 60 days – Ghannouchi must make his intentions clear to give Tunisians confidence that they haven't swapped one dictator for another.

This scenario might be the best possible outcome of last week's successful uprising. Things might not turn out so benign. The final act of the dictator Ben Ali had its seeds sown many years ago when all opposition and alternative political leadership was squashed, and it's an act that could have long-term, damaging ramifications. The Jasmine Revolution is an inspiration for oppressed people everywhere, but it is taking Tunisia into unknown territory.

Luke Bozier writes on the Middle East and has run projects for the British Council in Tunisia.

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