The trouble with Tunisia - Mahir Ali - January 19, 2011

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THE manner of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s departure from Tunisia last week has set many hearts a-beating — some with the joy of expectancy, others with fear. Such a development, after all, is unprecedented in the modern Arab world.

And, the prospect of a domino effect has been widely trumpeted, particularly in the context of Tunisia’s North African neighbours: Egypt and Libya, for instance, both boast immovable heads of state who have been in situ longer than Ben Ali.

Considerably longer in the case of Muammar Qadhafi, who at the weekend crudely castigated Tunisians for their impatience. It was out of fear that Qadhafi relinquished Libya’s nuclear ambitions on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, and now he again sounds very afraid — not least because the economic conditions that precipitated Ben Ali’s downfall are, to a considerable extent, replicated in Libya.

True to form, Hosni Mubarak has been much less forthcoming, even though — or perhaps because — his situation is even more analogous. He has been in power since Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981, but his declining popularity has not been reflected in election results, which enables him to claim legitimacy on the basis of support in the region of 90 per cent. Nobody with an ounce of common sense takes such results seriously, but that hasn’t prevented Mubarak from grooming one of his sons as heir apparent.

Then there’s Algeria, from where there have been reports of suicides akin to the one that sparked the fury of Tunisians last month. And Syria, not to mention Morocco. There can equally be little question that events in Tunisia are being closely watched in more distant Arab lands, too. The region consists more or less exclusively of dictatorial police states and effete monarchies — and it was one of the latter that provided refuge to Ben Ali last week, just as it once had to Uganda’s Idi Amin.

Reports suggest Ben Ali would have preferred to find a haven in France — Tunisia’s former colonial master — rather than in Saudi Arabia (who in his right mind wouldn’t?), but President Nicolas Sarkozy said no. The Guardian branded this an example of prize-winning “brazen hypocrisy”, editorialising on Monday: “Do, please, forget the speech [Sarkozy’s] foreign minister Michele Alliot-Marie made in the National Assembly, shortly after the authorities in Tunis announced the deaths of 21 civilians killed by police bullets. The one in which she offered Tunisia the help of French riot police.”

One cannot but be equally sceptical of the hectoring tone US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton adopted in Doha last week, calling for democratic reforms in the Arab world. Let’s not forget that a wave of democratisation was supposed to be one of the primary consequences of the war in Iraq, which she supported.

Let us also not forget that most of the Middle Eastern regimes the United States supports and helps sustain — Egypt is the second-largest recipient of American aid in the region, second only to Israel — are allergic to democracy. Their political lexicon also excludes human rights in any meaningful sense. Perhaps the most egregious offender in this regard is Saudi Arabia. But that’s all right, of course, as long as the oil keeps flowing.

One of the more obvious reasons for Washington’s ambivalence about the prospect of democratic transformations in the Middle East has been the fear that political freedom would empower Islamists. The concern, understandable as it may be, does not extend to reflecting on the conditions that enabled religious fundamentalists, who were once viewed in the US as a viable bulwark against communist influence, to establish themselves as a viable political force.

It has been relatively easy to demand democratic reforms in Tunisia, where Islamists were effectively sidelined in the early 1990s. And neither they nor the communists were in contention amid the efforts in recent days to form a so-called government of national unity.

Such a government finally emerged on Monday, but key posts remained under the control of some of Ben Ali’s closest collaborators. It wasn’t clear at the time of writing whether this would qualify as an acceptable alternative for those who have put their lives on the line over the past four weeks — with 78 deaths, by official count, as of Monday. It’s certainly possible, though, that the protesters and their sympathisers will be more or less satisfied by the prospect of presidential and parliamentary elections later in the year.

The protests, evidently spontaneous, were unleashed by the self-immolation last month of a young graduate who, unable to find a job, began selling vegetables in order to earn a living, and decided he could take it no longer when the police accosted him for plying an unlicensed trade. Tunisia’s nearly 15 per cent unemployment isn’t unusual for the region, but it has inevitably spawned a residue of ill will, particularly in view of the wealth in which the elite luxuriates. The Ben Ali family’s reputation for corruption — much of it associated with his second wife, Leila Trabelsi, and her relatives — provided an obvious focus for popular discontent.

But beyond that, it’s hard to tell how many Tunisians were contemplating with despair the system that has been in place since independence 55 years ago. After all, there was considerable rejoicing when the doggedly pro-Western Habib Bourguiba, after 30 years of absolute power, was declared senile by a panel of doctors in 1987, at the instigation of his recently installed prime minister. That prime minister was Ben Ali, who promised multi-party democracy. Bourguiba had been made president for life in 1975. Ben Ali pretended to represent discontinuity but in effect bore out the old adage that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

He presided over a police state that controlled the press, censored the Internet and pounced on potential dissidents. Some Tunisians rejoiced last week when he offered the concession that he wouldn’t seek to renew his mandate in 2014. But for most of them it wasn’t enough. When the army refused to shoot protesters, Ben Ali felt compelled to make good his escape.

Most Tunisians consider it good riddance. But will they be prepared to countenance much of the same under a different name? Let’s hope not. There are signs of emerging turmoil across the Maghreb and elsewhere in the Arab world, but there are also indications that the discontented masses don’t know where to look for salvation. In a column in Monday’s The Independent, Robert Fisk sounds a timely warning in an appropriate quotation from Khalil Gibran: “Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpetings and farewells him with hooting, only to welcome another with trumpetings again.” That rings true well beyond the confines of Tunisia.

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