COMMENT: Tunisia —Tammy Swofford - Tuesday, January 25, 2011

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The smoke has not cleared from Tunisia yet. But the national turn of events does present an objective lesson regarding leadership. A man cannot lead without followers. Furthermore, a man cannot lead without the right mix of followers

The romanticised view of the ousting of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from Tunisia provides the dream assignment for news organisation headlines and accompanying commentary. Like trashy flight novels thrown into the nearest plastic-lined receptacle on arrival at destination, the synoptic blurts of news have little to do with reality. The angle of perception quickly moves from applauding changes in power to more generic “Who is in charge?” stories. This historic moment holds a peculiar allure and Cinderella qualities for the photographers and journalists who seek to observe and document a political reincarnation.

Mere days earlier a Tunisian set himself ablaze when bullied by the police because he did not have a permit to sell his produce. People took to the streets and a groundswell of restrained rage was the result. The presidential spouse worked feverishly to pack suitcases of cash and it was rumoured the president cross-dressed as a veiled woman to make his escape. Images alternate between men bowed in public prayer to thousands of bodies pressed together in a manner, which probably resembles a cluster of grapes on a Google map. These are the tales from the Tunisian revolution news crypt.

Egypt was the first to be rocked by proxy sentiment for the collapse of the Tunisian government. A cluster of protesters emerged with chants against President Hosni Mubarak and signs sporting his picture. The echo has moved from Egypt into Jordan, Lebanon and Syria in a domino manner, which has not been totally unexpected. “You are next!” It is the voice of new champions and it is moving across social networking sites.

One thing is certain. When a large populist movement suddenly springs to life from a womb of gestational dissatisfaction, there is little any of us can do. Government representatives merely line up to shake the next round of hands and cut a few new deals after the smoke clears. The smoke has not cleared from Tunisia yet. But the national turn of events does present an objective lesson regarding leadership. A man cannot lead without followers. Furthermore, a man cannot lead without the right mix of followers.

Nations are made up of three classes of followers. The ‘love and duty’ crowd are the primary variable, which determines stability. These are citizens who have an investment in government, believe in the current government and seek to continue the present order as a workable design. A nation, which hosts a large percentage of citizens who see themselves as contributors to and also servants of governance, has the greatest chance of success. The US has the strength of a vibrant primary variable. Our working model is good and we intend to keep it.

It is the two independent variables that are the current cause for concern among Arab nations. These variables are citizens suffering from disaffection and the smaller hidden class of citizens who are in the shadows and actually fear the government. A steady growth in the disaffected class creates thin political bookends of the loyalists and the fearful and provides the perfect dynamic for what happened in Tunisia. The fearful locked their doors as quickly as the primary leadership forged their escape plans from the mob. Large numbers of Tunisian citizens in search of legal and proper representation hit the streets and they found their voice. The situation still remains politically fluid.

The government has both maintenance and preventive functions, which are necessary for survival of the political organ. The maintenance function is the daily grind of governance to cover the basic needs of citizens for security and accessible political and commercial space. It was indeed the small demonstration of governmental denial of space for commerce, which brought Tunisians to the streets. In simple terms, a man was not allowed to sell his melons. He chose to be a human torch. Enough is enough.

Within the poorer societal rims the maintenance function can at times prove a near impossible task. Hence, it falls on the government to move innovatively with the preventive function to keep societal alienation at bay. Preventive function is all about creating goodwill. Preventive function exhibits as the smaller project-oriented government presence that reminds the citizens that they fall under a shadow of care. Projects that give access to education with labour chutes into the workforce are the most needful. The construction of a new school that opens with much fanfare can serve the preventive function. The repair of a local bridge or assistance with a modest irrigation project can put the stamp of ‘citizen’ on the man.

The manner in which Tunisians accomplished a fairly seamless removal from power of their president and his stagnant political core has sparked the imagination of idealists and realists in the neighbouring states, which face tough challenges. The sudden change of political fortune in Tunisia showed the ability of the mass to move in effective and what appeared almost effortless manner against the state apparatus. Imaginations remain fired today. But if sentimentality moves forward, which is devoid of a plan, many will be swept up into the herd and the current danger is that of a restive population ready to spark but unable to create political warmth. The horns of government may be the temporary requirement for stability. Networking spaces may require a temporary darkening for the good of all.

What is the immediate need for governments wary of the ‘Tunisia Effect’? It is the need of the hour to maintain a calm political landscape. May level heads prevail in dealing with the echoes moving through the canyons of thought at this sensitive time.

What is the greater long-term need? It is the need for a steady move toward greater access to the political space and promulgation of policies, which create a favourable profile for the individual-as-citizen. Populations who view themselves as irrelevant to the political process can be the most unpredictable when it comes to turning on their masters.

The writer is a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy Reserves. She is a Nurse Corps officer who resides in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. She has written articles and book reviews for the Marine Corps Gazette, and Op-Ed commentary for the Dallas Morning News

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