What The Hell Is Going On In Tunisia?

Andrew Sullivan has a great many posts on Tunisia. Video above is graphic.

Live blogs: The Guardian, Scott Lucas at Enduring America, BBC News

Paul Behringer at National Interest:

“Wildcat protests and rioting” have “shaken” Tunisia’s leader of twenty-three years, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, according to the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. The demonstrations, which the United Nations says have resulted in over sixty deaths, were sparked at least partly by a WikiLeaked document written by the American ambassador (and cleverly titled “Corruption in Tunisia: What’s Yours is Mine”) in which he detailed the ruling family’s extravagent wealth (many Tunisians refer to Ben Ali’s extended relations as “The Family” or “The Mafia”). And what began in mid-December as one small-town street vendor’s self-immolation (after authorities took away his vegetable cart) culminated Thursday in the looting and destruction by protestors of a home owned by the president’s uncle in a wealthy seaside resort.

President Ben Ali, who originally took power in a bloodless coup, then gave a speech in which he promised to halt violent crackdowns on the demonstrators, open up freedom for the press and stop Internet censorship—and “cut prices for sugar, milk and bread.” He also promised to step down as president after his current term runs out in 2014, as required by Tunisia’s constitution. But the Times also reports that his effort to sooth the public’s anger (and save his own neck) have thus far come to naught.

Nick Baumann at Mother Jones:

Want to know what’s happening in Tunisia? Let me explain:

What is Tunisia? Tunisia is a mostly Arab, mostly Muslim country in North Africa. It is on the south side of the Mediterranean sea, east of Algeria and west of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. Its capital is Tunis, and it has been ruled by dictators since it won independence from France in 1956. The current ruler, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (Ben Ali), has ruled since 1987. He is the kind of ruler who gets re-elected with 90 percent of the “vote.”

What’s happening? Violent riots and protests have spread across the country over the past four weeks. Now Ben Ali’s totalitarian government seems to be collapsing. (Elliott Abrams, a former Bush administration official who unfortunately is rarely right about anything, thinks that if democracy can take hold in Tunisia, is could spread elsewhere in the Arab world, too.)

Why are Tunisians unhappy? Well, they don’t have much freedom. But there also just aren’t enough jobs. Official unemployment is 13 percent, but it’s probably actually much higher. The combination of a repressive regime and a faltering economy is often bad news for the regime. Plus, the regime has diverted a lot of the country’s wealth to Ben Ali’s family and friends, so people are really upset about official corruption.

How did it all start? On December 19, authorities in the small, central city of Sidi Bouzid seized the produce cart that 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi was using to make a living. So Bouazizi set himself on fire. Young people in the small, central city of Sidi Bouzid rioted, and police moved to seal the city. In early January, Bouazizi died, becoming an early martyr for the cause. Brian Whitaker, the Middle East editor of the Guardian and a Tunisia expert, has a good article explaining how Bouazizi and Sidi Bouzid got the ball rolling on revolution.

Robert Mackey in NYT:

On Thursday, as protests continued across Tunisia, bloggers and eyewitnesses posted more video of the demonstrations online, including graphic images of protesters who have been gunned down on the streets.

One clip, uploaded by contributors to Nawaat — a group blog using Posterous, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to spread news of the protests — showed a huge banner of the country’s president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, being torn down in Hammamet on Thursday. As my colleague David Kirkpatrick reported from Hammamet, an exclusive Mediterranean beach town, “rioters calling for the ouster of Tunisia’s authoritarian president swarmed the streets, torched bank offices and ransacked a mansion belonging to one of his relatives.”

Despite apparent efforts by the government to keep Tunisians from using social networks to report on the crisis, new video continues to be posted day after day.

As the casualties mount, and the government continues to use violence to suppress the discontent, video of dead protesters has been added to Nawaat’s YouTube channel with disturbing regularity. On Thursday,  one extremely graphic clip, apparently filmed earlier in the day on the streets of Tunis, the capital, showed the body of a man the bloggers said was gunned down by a sniper.

Jillian C. York, on 1/13:

An email from Youssef Gaigi:

Today’s speech shows definitely a major shift in Tunisia’s history.
Ben Ali talked for the third time in the past month to the people. Something unprecedented, we barely knew this guy. Ben Ali talked in the Tunisian dialect instead of Arabic for the first time ever.
He spoke directly to the police forces and ordered them not to shoot, unless in cases of self-defense. On the same line he said a commission will investigate in the murders that occurred.
He also said that people misled him in several areas, and particularly in the areas of politics and freedom. He admited that he didn’t achieve his goals or dreams in these areas.He granted that all liberties will be given to the people of Tunisia. He stated that the right of setting an organization, a political party, or a media will be totally opened. He said all censorship online or on traditional media will be stopped.
People are still cautious and doubt these words. We are talking about billions of $ stolen by his family. A political party, RCD, which is much much stronger than other parties. We are also talking about 150k policemen who acted like a terrorist organization for decades and particularly lately. Turning his words into action will be a very difficult mission.
We will probably start by checking his words tomorrow.

And

I missed another major point in his speech, probably because of the excitement of this moment.
He announced that he would not run for president in 2014.
Again, I am not sure this is sufficient. Yet this is a step forward.

Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy:

Barely a month goes by without a Washington Post editorial bemoaning Egypt’s authoritarian retrenchment and criticizing the Obama administration’s alleged failure to promote Arab democracy. But now Tunisia has erupted as the story of the year for Arab reformers. The spiraling protests and the regime’s heavy-handed, but thus far ineffective, repression have captured the imagination of Arab publics, governments, and political analysts. Despite Tunis’s efforts to censor media coverage, images and video have made it out onto social media and up to Al Jazeera and other satellite TV. The “Tunisia scenario” is now the term of art for activist hopes and government fears of political instability and mass protests from Jordan to Egypt to the Gulf.

But the Post‘s op-ed page has been strikingly silent about the Tunisian protests. Thus far, a month into the massive demonstrations rocking Tunisia, the Washington Post editorial page has published exactly zero editorials about Tunisia. For that matter, the Weekly Standard, another magazine which frequently claims the mantle of Arab democracy and attacks Obama for failing on it, has thus far published exactly zero articles about Tunisia (though, to his credit, frequent Standard contributor and ex-Bush administration official Elliott Abrams has weighed in on it at his new CFR blog). Why are the most prominent media voices on Arab democracy so entirely absent on the Arab reform story of the year?

Perhaps they’ve had nothing to say simply because there has been little coverage of Tunisia in the Western media, and the United States has few interests or leverage in Tunis, making it a marginal issue for U.S. political debate. Tunisia is not generally on the front burner in American thinking about the Middle East. It’s far away from Israel, Iraq, and the Gulf, and plays little role in the headline strategic issues facing the U.S. in the region. Despite being one of the most repressive and authoritarian regimes in the region, Tunisia has generally been seen as a model of economic development and secularism. Its promotion of women’s rights and crushing of Islamist opposition has taken priority in the West over its near-complete censorship of the media and blanket domination of political society. Indeed, the United States has cared so little about Tunisia’s absolute rejection of democracy and world-class censorship that it chose it for the regional office of MEPI, the Bush administration’s signature democracy promotion initiative.

This is understandable, but hardly satisfying. I can understand the hesitation of U.S. officials to take a strong position on the side of either the protesters or the regime at this point, given the strategic complexities and the implications of taking any rhetorical stance. To my ears, at least, the U.S. message has been muddled, with some officials seeming to take the side of the protesters and warning against too-harsh repression and others seeming to avoid taking a stance. For what it’s worth, I told a State Department official in a public forum yesterday that the absence of major U.S. interests in Tunisia and the real prospect of change there make it a good place for the Obama administration to take a principled stand in favor of public freedoms and against repression.

Daniel Larison responds to Lynch:

The easy answer, but possibly also the right one, is that they have nothing to say about it because it is something much more like a genuine, indigenous popular movement that is not working to advance “pro-Western” or “pro-American” policy goals, and it is therefore irrelevant or even unwelcome in their view. Most of the “color” revolutions were directed against governments that were seen as hostile to U.S. and allied interests or at least too closely aligned with Russia and (in Lebanon’s case) Syria, and the “color” revolutionaries were always identified as “pro-Western” reformers regardless of the accuracy of this description, and so advocates of “democracy” responding accordingly with enthusiastic support for the protesters. When a pro-Western secular autocrat faces a popular uprising that is almost certainly not being encouraged and backed from outside, these advocates of “democracy” have nothing to say because democratic reform was simply a means for advancing regime changes in several countries that the advocates wanted to bring into a Western orbit. Ben Ali’s downfall represents quite the opposite. If Lynch looked back at the reactions from most democracy-promoting outlets after the elections of Morales or of Chavez, which came at the expense of pro-American oligarchies, he would likely find a similar silence and indifference to the empowerment of those countries’ poor majorities.

Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy:

UPDATE: The Tunisian government is denying that Morjane has stepped down, according to Al Arabiya. Meanwhile, President Ben Ali just spoke and said he had ordered security forces to stop firing on demonstrators. He also announced a series of measures aimed at mollifying popular anger, including lower prices for bread, milk, and sugar. Most important of all, he promised not to run for re-election in 2014, when his term is due to expire. We’ll see if he lasts that long.

This thing may really be happening. Kamel Morjane — or someone with access to his website — has just announced his resignation*:

Citizens of the Republic of Tunisia, After witnessing the recent event that our country has been enduring since December17th  2010, I declare my inaptitude in pursuing my function in a serene and objective environment as intended.

I declare hereby my official resignation from my function as a minister of foreign affairs at the Tunisian government. In  a last effort to assume my responsabilities, I am asking the families of the tunisian martyrs to accept my sincere condoleances and my deep regret faced to their common tragedy. I assumed the fate of the Tunisian citizens, after marrying the daughter of one of Ben Ali’s first cousins, and was a member of the family and part of their clan. I am not proud of my own family, and in an honest declaration, would be ready to be judged in court at the same time as they will be. This will be my last service to the Tunisian citizens, in hope that with my resignation, citizens of Tunisia will be more graceful towards me and my family.

I make this decision in hope for the return of rest. I relinquish the Tunisian government to express my  deep affliction and my righteous anger toward the dire management of  this crisis, causing hence the death of dozens of young Tunisians. I am  profoundly convinced that these are not terrorist acts, but citizens  exerting their right to strike against a regime who abandoned them for  two decades. For this reason, I do not deem myself a member of this  oppressing and manipulating government. In a last resort to save face with the international media, the government is working hard from within to portray the protesters as mindless terrorists  destroying their country and refusing any peaceful discussion. The  government has hired teams of their own police in civilian attire that  go around ravaging the suburbs in an effort to spread doubt and  disseminate the truth about the tunisian people.

I reiterate my most sincere condolences to the families of victims, not only  to the ones that passed away these four past weeks, but to all the broken families by the injustice and inconveniences caused by this clan as  well.

For a free Tunisia,

Kamel Morjane

This is a fast-moving story. The New York Times reports that protesters overran a mansion owned by one of the president’s relatives. The Twitterverse is aflame with rumors that other members of the ruling family have fled the country. President Ben Ali is said to have three helicopters fueled up and ready for an emergency flight to Malta.

Max Fisher at The Atlantic

Elizabeth Dickson at Foreign Policy:

As I spoke by phone with Taoufik Ben Brik, a Tunisian opposition journalist, just moments ago, the country’s president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, got onto a plane and left the country. “There will be a military coup — we will see. You will see,” Ben Brik told me. “The army has just closed down the airspace in Tunisia, and they are arresting members of the family.”

If Twitter is to be believed, Ben Ali really is gone.

Ben Brik, one of the (now former?) president’s most pronounced critics, described the regime as “the worst kind of tyranny — [running] a police state, a military state, and a surveillance state.” Ben Brik himself has been subject to that as a journalist, having been harassed and imprisoned on numerous occasions. “It wasn’t just that I was arrested — I was harassed, me and my family. Google me and you will see how they arrested my child, just 14 years old.” Ben Brik was most recently released last April and remains in Tunis, where he is watching the situation unfold on the streets.

What brought the protesters to the streets in the first place was the drive for democracy, a place where freedom was possible — and normal. And yes, WikiLeaks helped. “WikiLeaks revealed a truth previously unspeakable about the mafia-like state,” Ben Brik said.

Mahar Arar at The Huffington Post:

To understand why these acts of violence against civilians is rarely condemned by Western governments, we have to understand the political dynamics in the region. Tunisia, despite the private criticisms targeted at the regime by the U.S. ambassador (as was revealed by WikiLeaks), is considered an important Western ally in the so called “war on terror”. Ben Ali, the President of the “Republic”, like the majority of the Arab dictators, have taken advantage of the American government’s strong desire to build relationships with new allies to fight Al-Qaida and related groups. These police states, including Tunisia, exploited this post-9/11 trend in the American foreign policy which allowed them an increased grip on power. As a result, they delegitimized peaceful decent further, put more restrictions on freedom of expression and heavily controlled Internet access. Also, because they have only been concerned about their own well being, and not about the well being of their constituents, these rulers have focused on increasing their own wealth and that of their family members through questionable business dealings and favouritism. It is no secret that the Ben Ali clan acts more like a Mafia putting their hands on the majority of profitable businesses in the country.

Here is my humble prediction for the next decade: unless Arab leaders implement serious political and economical reforms we will see more of this type of popular uprising in other neighbouring countries. It is only a matter of time. The wind of peaceful change in Tunisia has given hope to the oppressed people all over the Arab World. Whether Western countries or their allies in the region like or not, this wind, with the help of the Internet, will eventually affect the all these countries who are thirsty for democracy and justice. Only then, when it is too late, the Western countries will regret that they have all along been on the wrong side of the fence.

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