COMMENT: Reflections on Tunisian Revolution —Faheem Khan - Monday, February 07, 2011

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The first lesson from Tunisia is that revolution is possible. This very thought is infectious, and it has rendered Arab leaders nervous. They are having nightmares of their being deposed and exiled as the Shah of Iran or Ben Ali of Tunisia

Since the Second War, the control on Middle East has been a major plank of US foreign policy. Noam Chomsky tells us that the US considers Middle East oil resources as “a stupendous source of strategic power”, “one of the greatest material prizes in world history”, in the most “strategically important area in the world”, borrowing Eisenhower’s words. Control of Middle East oil provides the US with “substantial control of the world”. In another article in ZNET, he says that in order to keep that control intact, the US “supports brutal tyrannies, blocks democracy and development”. For decades, this strategy has worked. Authoritarian regimes were propped up artificially by Washington. And they did a service in return. They allowed national wealth of the Arab people to flow to the west, thereby yielding legions of unemployed youth, underdevelopment, pervasive anomie and disgruntlement.

Dr Eqbal Ahmad argued in his interview with David Barsamian that “the Arabs are at the moment...the true captive peoples. At the same time, they are a people who are showing signs of not wanting to remain captive. Therefore, the US fears that they may rise again or they may learn to resist. When they resist, the US will need a strong policeman to put them down.” An astute analyst, Eqbal Ahmad further continues, “The Arabs are many. They are at the moment weak, disorganised, demoralised, and a bunch of country-sellers are ruling those places. That is not a permanent condition. Someday the Arabs will have to organise themselves. Once they have done that, you will see a different history beginning again, and it will not be a pretty one.”

The recent revolution in Tunisia and subsequent uprisings in several other places recalled the prophetic words of Dr Eqbal Ahmad. Arabs are becoming restive and straining at the leash of authoritarian control. And it is sending shudders down the spines of Arab autocrats and their supporters in Washington.

Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali rose to ascendancy in Tunisia through a palace coup in 1987. Since then he ruled that benighted nation with an iron fist. His rule was marked by severe violations of human rights, gagging the national press, rank nepotism, and crass corruption. It is the latter that really took the cake and helped trigger the revolution that ended in his exile.

Mr Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi, and their respective clans fleeced the national economy with uttermost rapacity. A 2008 US embassy cable reveals that 50 percent of the country’s economy belonged to the first family, that is, relatives of Ben Ali or his wife. An example would suffice. According to The Economist, Leila Ben Ali’s brother successfully launched a new airline Karthago mainly due to the government’s privatisation incentives. “Lucrative charters that state-owned Tunisair had previously operated were transferred to Karthago, which also borrows Tunisair planes when needed.” The state’s most profitable banks, ports, housing schemes and industry changed hands to the members of the first family. According to the Global Financial Integrity, this family mafia stole over $ 1 billion a year between 2000 and 2008 through “bribery, kickbacks, trade mispricing and criminal activity”. For a country with GNP of barely $ 80 billion, this theft was simply debilitating. It is also said that the first lady, Leila Trabelsi spirited away one tonne of gold out of the country.

This remorseless thuggery left the people with no resources to sustain a decent life. A large part of the population is young, under the age of 29. They are mostly educated and politically conscious. In order to keep the people under control, a bloated police force was maintained. In a country of 10 million people, the number of police was six times that of France which has six times the population of Tunisia. In the course of his quotidian life, a Tunisian would find the ubiquitous police at every corner of the street. The police would accost every citizen, stop every vehicle, demand documents, and would extort bribes on false pretexts. If any citizen demurred, the retribution would be public beating and insult. This is exactly what happened to Muhammad Bouazizi.

Mr Bouazizi, a 26-year-old university graduate, was jobless, and had no other means of earning livelihood. He was obliged to peddle vegetables. The local police officer, in their routine way, demanded permit from him, and when he failed to produce it, confiscated his stall. When he resisted, he was publicly slapped in the face by a female officer. Injured, insulted, and cut to the quick, the wretched young man poured petrol on himself and set himself ablaze on December 17, 2010 in front of a government office. This circumstance is symptomatic of the plight of the young who are educated and politically conscious but have nothing to look forward to. According to a conservative estimate 27 percent of this young population is unemployed.

The grisly death of Bouazizi touched a nerve with the already frustrated population. It sparked a series of protests. The police tried to use force to contain it. Violence ensued. More enraged protesters funnelled into the streets of affluent coastal cities. It galvanised trade unions and opposition groups into action. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled the country for 23 years, fled into exile in Saudi Arabia on January 14. Thus came about something undreamt of in the Arab world. Eqbal Ahmad’s above-quoted words resounded in my ears. This occurrence is both seminal and inspirational. Issandr El Amrani, an independent political analyst and writer based in Cairo, says the real significance of the revolution in Tunisia is that it has broken a taboo in the Arab world. The first lesson from Tunisia is that revolution is possible. This very thought is infectious, and it has rendered Arab leaders nervous. They are having nightmares of their being deposed and exiled as the Shah of Iran or Ben Ali of Tunisia.

The spirit of revolution is contagious. However, there is a need to be cautious. The people in Europe were excited after French Revolution and wanted to throw away monarchies in their respective countries. But it happened later and only with the help of the French army. Bolshevik revolution did not spread to Eastern Europe on its own. It only spread after the Second World War with the might of the puissant Red Army. Each country in the Middle East is different and bears little resemblance to Tunisia. Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard University says, “Although most Arab governments are authoritarian, they are also all independent and depend on a slightly different mix of political institutions and measures to keep the rulers in power. The fact that Ben Ali ultimately mismanaged a challenge and was driven from power does not mean that other Arab leaders won’t be able to deflect, deter, or suppress challenges to their rule.”

Nevertheless, the revolution in Tunisia has kindled a zeal for freedom in Arab people. It has kindled a resolve that they will not allow thuggish regimes to control, fleece, and humiliate them any longer. Fierce demonstrations in Cairo point to that effect. The Egyptian political scientist Mustapha Kamel Al Sayyid predicts that now the dam has broken, protests will continue. “The reservoir of discontent is huge,” he says. The cracks have set in the dam. The water is seeping out, undermining its foundation. It is just a matter of time when the puissance of people’s rage will wash away the entire edifice of control, domination and humiliation.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Canada. He can be reached at

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