Just two months ago I was putting together a crystal ball-gazing article about the main political themes for the Middle East in 2011. I spoke to political analysts and civil society activists around the region and everyone had the same, rather depressing views of the potential for any political change in the region.
“You see cycles of liberalisation and then retrenchment,” said one democracy advocate. “It’s pretty clear we’re in a period of retrenchment. The only question is how long that lasts.”
“It’s pretty clear things are moving in the wrong direction,” said another.
I tended to agree. By the time it was published on 31 December the demonstrations in Tunisia were already underway – had been for two weeks in fact – but even then no-one expected Ben Ali to be forced from office.
In early January I was writing a couple of articles for MEED and This is Africa on the growing protest movement around Tunisia. As I was doing that, people inside Tunisia and outsiders who watched the country closely were telling me that Ben Ali would ride out the storm. I concluded that it might be the beginning of the end for Ben Ali, but probably not the end itself.
In the time between filing the pieces to editors at both magazines and the planned publication dates Ben Ali was unceremoniously booted out of power, creating a rallying cry for the disaffected and the unemployed all over the Arab world (in the end I wrote a new piece for MEED, but the This is Africa piece just got spiked).
And now Egypt is following Tunisia’s lead. At the time of writing it looks more likely that Mubarak will go than stay. Who knows which countries will follow – there’s just too many despotic old tyrants around the region to choose from.
In any case, I’ve never been so happy to be wrong and caught out by events.