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European press review: 'Tunisia ouster is a milestone in Arab history'

The ouster of Tunisia's leader has sent shockwaves around the Arab world as he was the first Arab leader in recent history to be forced out by street protests. European editorial comment is wary of the country's future.

young men setting fire to a picture of Tunesia's president

The Tunisian president's ouster was welcomed by many people

France's daily Liberation considered different scenarios for Tunisia's future. The current state of anarchy could lead to a new dictatorship, the paper said, but should democracy assert itself, the Islamists stand to benefit most of all since they are well-liked by the lower classes. "This is not an unlikely scenario," the paper wrote, speculating that Tunisian opposition politician Rached Ghannuchi, who lives in exile in London, could now return to his country and successfully push his banned party, the Hizb Ennahda, in a free election.

The Neue Zürcher Zeitung warned that the ouster might not be sufficient for a fresh political start. "Ben Ali's supporters still control most state institutions. It doesn't look like they are about to voluntarily give up their positions of power," the Swiss paper commented. The new interim president may have affirmed political pluralism, but his career shows him as supporter of his ousted predecessor, and that, the paper said, raised doubt about Foued Mebazza's willingness to follow up his words with action and hold free elections.

A crowd of people on a Tunisian street

Tunisians - and security forces - spent a tense weekend on the streets

Though Tunisia is one of the smallest countries in the Maghreb in terms of area and population, wrote Britain's Independent, but the spirit of revolt that erupted there last week has the potential to spread across North Africa and beyond. "Almost every country in the region is beset by the same ills: a corrupt and repressive - or unresponsive - government, sharp social and economic divides, high food-price inflation, and a large population that is young and underemployed." The paper warned that it would be premature to conclude that change was finally on the way in North Africa: "Things could get a great deal worse, in terms of violence, disorder, repression and military crackdowns, before they improve."

But Aftenposten from Norway saw hope for Tunisia in its relatively well-educated population and large middle class. "That is cause for cautious optimism once the country has made it through the complicated interim phase."

Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung regarded the Tunisian leader's ouster as a milestone in the history of the Arab world. "It shows that people's rage can unhinge even the iron-clad regimes in the region, despite the fact that they are regarded as set in stone and unreformable." The Arab leaders are now forewarned, the paper wrote, but added that they were not likely to wait until economic crises forced their citizens to the streets: "Instead of considering reforms, they will likely tighten repression and strike even before citizens disgusted with their regime can get organized."

The Salzburger Nachrichten from Austria agreed that, to buy precious time, other Arab leaders might now try to nip any opposition in the bud. And that is where Europe and the US come in, the paper said: "Leaders who resort to brutal force to stay in power do not deserve to be supported."

Europe and the US have regarded secular Arab dictators like Egypt's Mubarak, Tunisia's Ben Ali or Algeria's Bouteflika as "the lesser evil" for too long, Germany's Tageszeitung wrote. They were granted support so long as they promised to keep the Islamists at bay and keep away African refugees from Europe, the Berlin paper said, concluding that it was high time that attitude was dropped.

Compiled by Dagmar Breitenbach
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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