Posts tagged ‘Tunisia’
The Eastern European revolutions of the 1980s understood this as do today’s democracy-deprived Arab World. Societies dominated by single parties and long-term dictators are almost always intrinsically corrupt. People always privately grumbled about this lack but were too smart or too fearful to do much in public. It took someone to strike a match to bring serious people power out on the street. That someone was Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi and it was his search for dignity that began a worldwide revolution. When authorities took away Bouazizi’s vegetable cart because it was unlicensed and then slapped and humiliated him when he paid the fine, they unleashed consequences that would not just wipe away the certainties of their world, but also of our world.
Because Bouazizi was “humiliated and dejected”, he set fire to himself outside a Sidi Bouzid police station on December 17. The burns were horrific but Bouazizi did not die straight away. After 18 agonising days, he died on 4 January 2011, almost exactly a year ago. But by then the spark had already been lit. While Bouazizi lay dying in hospital, an impotent rage exploded across Tunisia. Hundreds of thousands had been victim to similar pettinesses at the hands of Abidine Ben Ali’s 23-year-old regime and rose in protest at his treatment. An alarmed Ben Ali visited the dying man in hospital but it was too late for both of them. Bouazizi died a week later and Ben Ali was out of power just 10 days after that.
With winter still in full swing, Bouazizi gave birth to the Arab Spring. It is only the west that calls it the Arab Spring, in the affected countries it is the Sidi Bouzid Revolt in honour of his hometown. Bouazizi’s enraged relatives, friends and acquaintances were first to take to the streets in support of his act of mad defiance.
The Labour unions quickly got on board. Inspired by the same need for dignity and respect, the country’s largest trade union, the normally pliant General Tunisian Workers’ Union (UGTT), mobilised its half million members in favour of the revolution. Top level officials previously loyal to Ben Ali changed their tune under pressure from members and a vibrant youth movement.
The tremors from the earthquake epicentre on Sidi Bouzid quickly spread across the region once Ben Ali was overthrown. Just 11 days later, there were massive protests in Cairo against the regime of Hosni Mubarak who had been in power for 30 years and about to effect a handover to his son Gemal. After three weeks of mass protest across the country, Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman announced Mubarak was handing over power to the military much to the joy of the Tahrir Square protesters. But their joy was short-lived with the military junta showing no signs of wanting to share power and the protests continue a year later.
Between Tunisia and Egypt lay Libya, complete with its own long-term dictator. Mad Muammar Gaddafi had clever held on to power for 40 years despite often being public enemy number one in the West. In the end it was his own people that dislodged him after a bitter and long-lasting war. Riots independent of Tunisia’s problems were happening in Benghazi in January over chronic housing shortages but Gaddafi threw Libyan oil money at the problem to quieten the Benghazi protesters.
Those riots were still fresh in the mind at the end of the month when dissident writer Jamal al-Hajji issued an Internet call for demonstrations across Libya “in the Tunisian and Egyptian fashion”. Al-Hajji was arrested in early February and Gaddafi issued a warning to political activists, journalists and media figures to behave.
When Libyan lawyer Fatih Turbel was arrested in Benghazi on 15 February, police broke up protests and made dozens of further arrests. Yet the riots spread quickly through the east and a Day of Rage two days later shook the regime to its core. Within 24 hours, rebel forces controlled Benghazi. In the first week they pushed east to Misrata and Tobruk fell in yet another war. The rebels shouted the same slogans heard in Tunisia and Egypt: the people want to bring down the regime.
It seemed to the watching world a third regime was about to quickly topple but Gaddafi had no intention of quitting gracefully. Those that did not love him deserved to die and he threw the full force of his armies on the rebels. Their majority support among the people was endangered by Gaddafi guns purchased from Western countries.
Perhaps inspired by guilt for this – or more likely for their own political expediency – David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy pushed for intervention to save the revolution. Obama, already stretched by two wars in Islamic states, was harder to convince but eventually NATO airpower swung the pendulum back in the rebels favour. Tripoli fell in August and Gaddafi was butchered in October. Cameron and Sarkozy were heralded as heroes in Libya and Tunisia’s Burning Man had played a small part in overthrowing a third tyrant.
Bouazizi also indirectly or directly inspired protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Palestine and Yemen with varying degrees of success. Bouazizi could well claim two more leaders this year in Saleh in Yemen and Asad in Syria. The Arab Spring template was closely watched by many in the western world and played a symbolic role in the Occupy movement. Time Magazine, with eyes on both phenomena, called the anonymous protester its person of the year. But there is a good case to be made the protester was far from anonymous. Mohammed Bouazizi’s loss of dignity and death sacrifice was a pivotal “end of history” moment across the planet.
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was Bourguiba’s Prime Minister and natural successor. Ben Ali had widespread experience in the military, politics and diplomatic service. With a sluggish economy and the support of the west he took control he used an 1987 medical report and Article 57 of the Tunisian constitution to show his boss should be removed on the grounds of “total incapacity”.
Ben Ali would prove just as tenacious in power as the man he replaced, with the added knowledge of knowing just how vulnerable life at the top could be. He kept Bourguiba under house arrest for the rest of his life and set about cementing his own reputation. He kept the ruling class of the RCD onside by keeping most of them in the powerful positions they had during the Bourguiba era. He won five elections, all of them rigged. After the Soviet era, the West was happy with Ben Ali because he was a strong and stable and secular ruler. Over time, Ben Ali was an elder statesman of the region. The US rewarded the Ben Ali’s regime with an estimated $350million in military aid between 1987 and 2009.
The Americans were not blind to Tunisia’s problems. As a Wikileaked cable said, Tunisia was a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems. “They tolerate no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international,” the cable said. “Increasingly, they rely on the police for control and focus on preserving power. And, corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising.”
Despite knowing all this, the Obama administration continued to distribute largesse. As recently as last year the US sold Tunisia $282 million worth of 12 Sirkorsky military helicopters to Tunisia. Congress approved the deal on the grounds they would “enhance the modernisation of the Tunisian Air Force’s overwater search and rescue capability and enable continued interoperability with US Armed Forces and other coalition partners in the region.” The sale would also improve “the security of a friendly country that has been and continues to be an important force for economic and military progress in North Africa.”
The sale of the helicopters showed the military progress. But it was harder to make the case for economic progress in Tunisia, particularly for the lower classes. There wasn’t much progress in the life of 26-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi. Bouazizi had a computer science degree but sold fruit and vegetables without a licence in Sidi Bouzid because he could not find any other job. On 17 December, police confiscated his produce when he could not produce a permit. When he tried to snatch his apples back, the police officer slapped him in the face. Two other officers then beat him up. Bouazizi walked to the municipal building demanded his property, and was beaten again. Then he walked to the governor’s office, where he was refused an audience. In front of the governor’s gate he drenched himself in paint thinner and set himself alight. The burns covered 90 percent of his body. He died a painful death 18 days later in hospital.
Bouazizi had tapped into something in a repressed national psyche. People protested on the street in Sidi Bouzid where he was arrested. In a country where protesting is rare and the media is oppressed, the word was spread through amateur video which eventually made its way to Al Jazeera. A mass uprising was springing up from a groundswell of long-term grievances with the regime. Ben Ali knew the writing was on the wall and fled to Saudi Arabia on the 14th.
Within 24 hours his longtime ally and prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, assumed power. But the Constitutional Court ruled Fouad Mebazaa, the speaker, should be made president and given 60 days to organise new elections. Both men are heavily associated with the RCD and the protesters want the party removed from power, not just a new name at the top. Another Ghannouchi lies in the wings. Rachid Ghannouchi is the exiled head of Tunisia’s Islamist party who plans to return to the country within weeks.
The likelihood of an Islamist Government if true democracy was restored is what scares the West the most. It also scares the other leaders in the Maghreb. The Algerian elite overturned the 1993 election when it seemed the Islamists were going to win at the ballot box and unleashed a civil war that killed 150,000 and goes on to this day. Other long-term leaders fear copycat immolation suicides such as the one in Mauretania. Egypt has also had copycat suicides and activists in Cairo using social networks are launching a “Day of Wrath” against Mubarak’s 30-year rule later today.
Next door in Libya Gaddafy is also worried. When he told Libyans in a broadcast “Tunisia lives in fear” he was really referring to himself. “Families could be raided and slaughtered in their bedrooms and the citizens in the street killed as if it was the Bolshevik or the American Revolution,” he railed. Gaddafy, in power for 40 years, has strong self interest at work but he does have a point. Nobody is sure what Tunisia’s troubles will lead to: a transition to multiparty democracy, an Islamist Government, a military coup or a prolonged period of turmoil.
Rachid Sfar, a former prime minister, outlined the problem in an editorial he wrote in La Presse yesterday. “We have to make the democratic process real and irreversible and at the same time guard against the violence and anarchy that threaten our country,” he said. Striking unionists have refused to recognise the new government because Mohamed Ghannouchi is there. A democratic vote will be held in six months but what if people suspicious of the West and the elites that serve it award it to the other Ghannouchi? The unions, and the left generally, should be careful about what they wish for.
Arabicca is the nom de blog of college theatre professor, Fatma Riahi. On 2 November, the 34-year-old Riahi was summoned to appear before a Tunis criminal court where she was questioned about her online activities. The authorities wanted to know whether Riahi was hiding behind the pen-name of Blog de Z, a Tunisian cartoonist blogger whose political satire enraged the government. They released her and summoned her again the next day. Three security officers escorted her to her house in Monastir 160 km from Tunis, to confiscate her PC and conduct a search for evidence. A day later, they escorted her again to Monastir to get her passwords and access her facebook account.
Riahi was detained for a week and denied permission to speak to her lawyer for longing than a few minutes. She was charged with criminal libel that potentially carries a prison term to up to three years in prison. A Free Arabicca campaign blog was been launched by fellow Tunisian bloggers in support for Fatma (though it hasn’t posted since mid November), and there is also a Facebook support page.
While it is not clear what Riahi’s perceived offence was, it didn’t need to be much to rile the sensitive Tunisian government. President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s government is one of the most repressive in the world as regards Internet usage. Social networking sites such as YouTube and Facebook are often blocked because of content criticising the president’s policies and the government also filters emails of human rights activists. The 2008 Reporters Without Borders freedom of the press index ranked Tunisia 143rd out of 173 countries. When the Journaliste Tunisien blog posted the index a day after it was issued, it was blocked by authorities.
Just last week the Committee to Protect Journalists reported an appeals court in Nabeul refused to release Tunisian journalist Zuhair Makhlouf despite his completion of a three-month prison term imposed in October. Makhlouf is a contributor to news Web site Assabil Online and the opposition weekly Al-Mawkif. He was sentenced in October on the charge of “harming and disturbing others through the public communication network.” The sentence ended on January 18 but Tunisian penal code provisions say a prisoner cannot be released before all appeals have been considered. The court designated February 3 as the date for Makhlouf’s initial appeals hearing.
The decision came days before an appeal hearing for Taoufik Ben Brik, a journalist sentenced to six months in prison. Last year Reporters Without Borders (RSF) criticised the detention of Ben Brik and a violent attack on another journalist. In October 2009 Ben Brik was detained on a trumped-up charge of harassing a woman on the street. Reporters Without Borders said the arrest was an effort to muzzle him for his fierce criticism of President Ben Ali. Around the same time, independent journalist Slim Boukhdhir was attacked by a group of men just hours after he gave a critical interview to the BBC. RSF said the behaviour was “befitting of a mafia regime.”
The regime is showing no signs of changing its hostile attitude to journalists. Ben Ali has ruled Tunisia since taking over in a bloodless coup in 1987. In 2009 Ben Ali was re-elected for a fifth term with 89 percent of the vote in a rigged election. Although he promised to promote media diversity in 2004, the regime retains a tight control of news and information. According to the RSF, journalists and human rights activists are the target of bureaucratic harassment, police violence and constant surveillance by the intelligence services. The Internet is strictly controlled and foreign journalists are not allowed anywhere without the presence of government officials. But despite a total lack of regard for democratic institutions, RSF says Ben Ali is treated very leniently by international organisation all because he is “an ally of the west in its fight against terrorism.” No one seems to care about the terrorism he inflicts on his own subjects.