The departure for exile in Saudi Arabia of President Ben Ali of Tunisia seems to bear out the axiom that all political careers end in failure. Leaving the stage when the audience is asking you to stay is infinitely preferable to an ignominious scuttle to the airport. The longer you leave it – and the more you are seen to dither – the odds of a happy retirement decrease.
Quitting while you are ahead was as true for Roman emperors as it is today for North African republican “monarchs” or European prime ministers. But if the political ecology is ancient, the circumstances surrounding the “Jasmine Revolution” are very modern.
Facebook did not cause the removal of the president but played a key role in giving structure and direction to an otherwise disorganised protest movement. Social media is now a key ingredient in political protest as we have seen recently in Iran, Thailand, Belarus, for instance, as well as in student demonstrations in European capitals.
In the latter case, it can enable a new kind of viral organisation that does not require the managerial control of formal student bodies and trades unions. As such, these protests carry the risk of violence as the lack of central guidance removes the often restraining influence of official bodies, however radical their rhetoric.
Last year we highlighted Tunisia in Riskmap 2010 as a country facing a potentially problematic transition. Nevertheless, the speed with which change came was a surprise not just for the regime and its backers but for the opposition as well. They are in good company. Lenin was not even in Russia when revolution broke out and had to rush home to take control.
But at least he had a leisurely train journey to gather his thoughts and make some plans. Not sure how he would have coped with having to encapsulate the triumph of Bolshevism in 140 characters on Twitter.