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The popular uprising that drove Tunisia’s aging, autocratic president from power Friday was an earthquake not just for that North African nation of 10 million people but for the Arab world as a whole. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, 74, ruled his country in much the same way as the strongmen who govern neighboring Algeria and Libya, as well as key U.S. allies such as Egypt and Jordan - by jailing or exiling opponents, censoring the media and stifling civil society. Corruption flourished in his 23-year-old administration even as a burgeoning under-30 population despaired over the lack of economic opportunity and political freedom.

The street protests that overturned the regime also demolished one of the Arab world’s certitudes: that its kings, emirs and presidents-for-life are invulnerable to the people power that has ended dictatorships in Asia, Eastern Europe and elsewhere for three decades. The “Jasmine Revolution,” as Tunisians are calling it, should serve as a stark warning to Arab leaders - beginning with Egypt’s 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak - that their refusal to allow more economic and political opportunity is dangerous and untenable.

Tunisia also offers urgent lessons for the Obama administration, which has downplayed reform in the Arab world and muted U.S. support for democracy and human rights. As late as last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told an Arab satellite television audience that the United States was “not taking sides” in the Tunisian crisis. Later, however, there were encouraging signs of change. Clinton delivered a strong speech denouncing “corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order” in the Middle East and calling for reform, though she did not use the word “democracy.” Both Clinton and President Barack Obama issued statements Friday praising the Tunisian uprising and calling for free and fair elections.

A historic opportunity beckons in Tunisia, both for its political class and for the United States. Though the revolution has no clear leaders and organized opposition parties are weak, the country is in other respects ready for a democratic transition. Its population is relatively well educated and its middle class substantial, and its women are emancipated by regional standards; Islamic fundamentalist forces are not as strong as they are in Algeria or Egypt.