A Year of Revolt: In memory of Mohammed Bouazizi

Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book The End of History and The Last Man was misinterpreted as a triumph for democracy in the wake of the fall of western communism. It was easy to laugh at him being hopelessly wrong when the New World Order collapsed in the late 1990s and new enemies appeared to replace old bugbears. Yet the “end of history” Fukuyama spoke about was the foremost importance of dignity in life not the success of democracy. This thesis was right then and remains true today. Democracy has massive failings but it offers the dignity of revenge against oppressive or incompetent rulers in the promise of a future ballot box.

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 corrupt. It took someone to strike a match to bring people power out on the street. That someone was Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi and his search for dignity 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. While Bouazizi lay dying in hospital, an impotent rage exploded across Tunisia. Hundreds of thousands suffered similar pettinesses at the hands of Abidine Ben Ali’s 23-year regime and rose in protest at Bouazizi’s 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.In the west it is called 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.

Labour unions quickly got on board. The country’s largest trade union, the normally pliant General Tunisian Workers’ Union mobilised its half million members in favour of the revolution. Top officials loyal to Ben Ali changed their tune under pressure from members and a vibrant youth movement.

The tremors from Sidi Bouzid quickly spread across the region once Ben Ali was overthrown. Eleven days later, there were massive protests in Cairo against the regime of Hosni Mubarak in power for 30 years and about to effect a handover to his son Gemal. After three weeks of mass protest, Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman announced Mubarak was handing over power to the military 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.

In Libya Muammar Gaddafi held on to power for 40 years despite often being public enemy number one in the West. His own people dislodged him after a bitter and long-lasting war. Riots 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 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 arrested dozens more. 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 slogans heard in Tunisia and Egypt: the people want to bring down the regime.

A third regime was about to topple but Gaddafi had no intention of quitting gracefully. He threw the full force of his armies on the rebels. Their majority support was endangered by Gaddafi guns purchased from Western countries.

Perhaps inspired by guilt – or 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. Mohammed Bouazizi’s loss of dignity and death sacrifice was a pivotal “end of history” moment across the planet.


Dances with democracy: Tunisia at the crossroads

Tunisia’s leaders resist change. It has had only two leaders in the 55 years since independence (though two more in the last 12 days). Colonial master France left its language and its culture and also imparted the doggedness of its political elites. It was a lesson well absorbed by Habib Bourguiba. Bourguiba spent 11 years in French and Nazi custody for sedition where he picked up western ideas about power. The Rassemblement Constitutionel Démocratique party was the vehicle for Bourguiba to seize power in 1956. The RCD became synonymous with Tunisian politics and The Supreme Warrior was voted the honour of president for life in 1975. He lasted another 12 years.
(photo of Tunisian protests courtesy AP)
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 and 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 them in the powerful positions they had during the Bourguiba era. He won five elections, all 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 became an elder statesman of the region. The US rewarded him 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 this, the Obama administration continued to distribute largesse. Last year the US sold Tunisia 12 Sirkorsky military helicopters worth $282m. 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.”

Whatever about military progress, it is 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’s rage 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 spread through amateur video which 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 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 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 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.

Libya’s 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 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 what they wish for.

Fatma Riahi on frontline of Tunisia’s war on bloggers and journalists

Blogger Fatma Arabicca has resumed blogging two months after authorities arrested her but the blog remains censored. Fatma joins another high profile Tunisian blogger journalist Sofiene Chourabi on the censorship list. Fatma’s original blog was deleted in November before she attracted the unwelcome notice of authorities but a new version (in Arabic) has been posting since 17 January.

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 home to Monastir 160 km from Tunis, to confiscate her PC and conduct a search for evidence. A day later, they took her passwords and accessed 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 up to three years in prison. A Free Arabicca campaign blog was 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.

Riahi’s perceived offence 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 for 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.

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 for “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 hours after he gave an interview to the BBC. RSF said the behaviour was “befitting of a mafia regime.”

The regime is showing no signs of changing hostile attitude to journalists. Ben Ali has ruled Tunisia since 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. RSF says Ben Ali is treated leniently by international organisation 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.