Catrina Stewart: Few anticipated the speed at which the protests would gain momentum

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Unrest is spreading through the Arab world, challenging political dynasties that have held power for decades and raising hopes of a new era of economic and political reform.

The beginnings of the unrest were largely ignored by the world. When a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire in December after his stall was confiscated, few could imagine that his desperate act would bring down a president.

Although it would be nearly three weeks before the street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi died, hundreds of Tunisians immediately demonstrated in a wave of sympathy for the vendor, widely viewed as a blameless victim of rampant police brutality.

Video clips of the protests in his home town of Sidi Bouzid made their way onto Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, and were later picked up by Arab television channel Al Jazeera, which played a key role in disseminating the images to the world.

Within days, the protests were gathering momentum and the police’s brutal methods in dealing with them angered people even more, tapping into their long-suppressed resentment at official corruption and avarice, police violence, unemployment and rising food prices.

As the Tunisian protests took hold of the country – and grabbed international attention – people across the region took inspiration.

In Algeria, a regime tightly controlled by the military, thousands turned out to protest high food prices, and several set themselves on fire in imitation of Mr Bouazizi, a grim reflection of their despair. In neighbouring Libya, where popular disturbances are rare, thousands of young people occupied half-built houses in a show of anger at a lack of affordable housing.

By now, the protests were spreading to Jordan, Yemen and Egypt, countries that shared many of the same issues as Tunisia: unemployment, high food prices and autocratic rulers, who had allowed corruption to prop up the wealthy as economic grievances went unanswered.

Indeed, few anticipated the speed at which the protests would gain momentum after Tunisia’s president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, was swept from power after 23 years. While some were predicting that the despotic regimes in North Africa and the Middle East would fall like a house of cards, others pointed to the differences that made Tunisia an isolated case.

Whichever the case, those on the street had crossed an important threshold. They represented an emboldened citizenry, which could now believe that even in the most repressive of regimes, change is possible.

Whether that will translate into regime change remains to be seen. Already, protesters have signalled that they will no longer accept the seamless shift of power from father to son that has been the accepted norm. In Egypt, Gamal Mubarak, whom Egyptians believe is being groomed for the presidency, is even less popular than his father, President Hosni Mubarak.

Rattled leaders have already moved to cap food prices and increase subsidies, but are slower to embrace political change. The impetus for that may come from Washington, which has backed some of the region’s more repressive regimes as a bulwark against radical Islam. President Barack Obama finally spoke out this week, saying it was “absolutely critical” for Egypt to move towards political reform.