Like virtually the entire Arab world I have spent the morning glued to Al Jazeera, watching the absolutely riveting scenes unfolding. The images of massive crowds in the street, soldiers embracing protesters, and outbursts of violence remind me of nothing more than the demonstrations in Beirut in 2005 which similarly captured the imagination of the entire Arab world -- though in that case, they captured the entire world's attention, whereas Tunisia's protests have received far less attention. But make no mistake: For Arab publics and for Arab regimes, this is a defining moment as powerful as those Beirut moments and, if it succeeds in bringing about change in Tunisia, then likely far more significant in the long run. I can barely stand to leave Al Jazeera and go to my meetings.
Events are moving fast. Ben Ali has reportedly fired his entire government and promised elections within 6 months, after vowing to end media censorship the other day. A State of Emergency has reportedly been declared. It doesn't look like it's going to work -- these crowds do not look likely to dissipate for the promise of elections sometime in the future. The only path forward I can see which doesn't involve significant bloodshed and chaos is a "soft coup," with a caretaker government and promise of rapid move to elections. I hope that somebody -- the Obama administration, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, President Sarkozy -- is ready to make that quiet phone call and tell Ben Ali that his service to his nation has come to an end. This could end well … or it could end bloody.
UPDATE, 2:15 p.m.: Wow. In the time between posting this and coming back from my meetings, it came to a head. Ben Ali out of the country, PM Ghanouchi taking power, presidential elections promised. Amazing.