Will Tunisia Be the First Domino?

In Egypt, too, protestors are laying waste to the mistaken notion that Arabs and Muslims are politically passive.

The fundamental lesson is clear: The U.S. must stop supporting tyrants and autocrats whether in the Middle East, Pakistan or Southeast Asia. Let this be a new dawn for democracy in the Arab and Muslim world.

By ANWAR IBRAHIM, The Wall Street Journal

Tunisians earlier this month forced their president out of office, marking the first popular revolution in an Arab country in modern history. The swiftness with which it came about should send a clear message to other autocracies and dictatorships in the Muslim world.

The longevity of such regimes comes from their ability to suppress dissent with state-controlled organs, particularly the military. What Tunisia’s example demonstrates is that when one of these organs malfunctions—as the security forces did when they failed to mobilize effectively—others, like the media and the judiciary, can fall rapidly as well.

Could this be a Berlin Wall moment for the Middle East? Will other Arab states that employ the same modus operandi of political oppression also fall?

In a 2005 address at the U.S.- Islamic World Forum in Doha, I argued that democratization would come to the Middle East sooner than most projected, and I criticized what I consider to be the U.S.’s “policy of selective ambivalence.” While the Bush administration extolled the virtue of freedom in waging its war on terror, the U.S. remained closely allied with various countries that use blatantly repressive policies to stamp out civil society and subvert democracy.

This ambivalence has not dissipated under the Obama administration. Despite Mr. Obama’s historic speech in Cairo, where he specifically extolled representative government, this White House continues to work closely with a range of Middle Eastern autocrats. From the perspective of democrats in the region, this is because democratization will likely yield governments that tend to be less responsive to U.S. demands—particularly those governments regarded as Islamist.

Consider Tunisia. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali would not have remained in power for 25 years had it not been for American support. The fact that this kleptocratic regime finally fell is a stark reminder that government built on the suppression of its citizens is temporary. We saw this in Iran in 1979 with the dramatic downfall of the Shah, and also in 1998 when Indonesians peacefully transitioned to democracy after three decades of military rule.

The problems that plague the Arab world remain overwhelming: the concentration of wealth and power by the few over the many, poor infrastructure, primitive education systems, minimal health care, and decreasing incomes in the face of rising food prices and cost of living. Corruption and nepotism reign in the complete absence of accountability and transparency.

It is a perfect recipe for political upheaval: political marginalization and economic impoverishment for the people and ill-gotten wealth for the ruling elite. It’s a reality that can’t be cloaked by propaganda—citizens can see the reality on YouTube and Facebook—though the leaders certainly try. Indeed, no Arab leader has owned up to any of these evils, other than by offering pious platitudes about improving the economic lot of their people.

It would be foolhardy for governments in the region to regard Tunisia as an isolated case. The economic and political grievances that spawned the revolution are not unique to that country. One need only walk the streets of Cairo and Karachi, or roam the back lands in Algeria and Afghanistan, to see how grinding poverty and oppression can crush a person’s dignity.

Autocratic rulers accustomed to permanent sovereignty might consider changing their mindset. The Tunisian uprising was driven by a desire for freedom and justice, not by any particular ideology. The bogeyman of Islamism, the oft-cited scapegoat of Middle Eastern dictators to justify their tyranny, must therefore be reconsidered or junked altogether. The U.S., too, should learn a lesson about the myth that secular tyrants and dictators are its best bet against Islamists. Revolutions, be they secular or religious, are born of a universal desire for autonomy. The common thread that binds the Iranian revolution and the Tunisian upheaval is the rising discontent of the people after years of suffering under oppressive rule.

Could Tunisia’s revolution turn this winter of Arab discontent into a spring for Middle Eastern freedom? As Tunisia moves into the league of Middle Eastern democracies along with countries such as Turkey, for much of the rest of the Muslim world democracy remains elusive. Opposition groups in countries like Egypt have found a beacon of hope in Tunisians’ struggle. Demonstrations in Cairo and throughout the region lay waste to the mistaken notion that Arab and Muslims are politically passive and prone to authoritarianism. But will they be given a fair chance? The Palestinians chose their own leaders through the ballot box, but the West changed the rules of engagement midway through the game.

The fundamental lesson is clear: The U.S. must stop supporting tyrants and autocrats whether in the Middle East, Pakistan or Southeast Asia. Let this be a new dawn for democracy in the Arab and Muslim world.

Mr. Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, is a member of parliament for the Justice Party and leader of the opposition.