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The Tunisian Intifada…

January 2, 2011

1. They Just Don’t Stop Protesting…

Not even torture, which is rampant or live bullets which the Tunisian authorities are using with greater frequency, stop them..

It is more than two weeks since a distraught and unemployed young university graduate, Mohammed Bouazizi, sat down in front of the town hall in the central Tunisian town of  Sidi Bouzid, poured gasoline on himself and lit a match. Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation and protest against Tunisia’s high unemployment, rampant corruption and decades of repression by the government of Zine Ben Ali triggered a protest movement, first in the country’s center and south, but now virtually everywhere, including the capital, Tunis.

Unwilling to admit how his own regime has contributed to the crisis, Ben Ali, predictably blames the protests on `radical elements,’ `chaos mongers’ ( an interesting and empty phrase) and `a minority of mercenaries’ rather than on the policies Tunisia has implemented during his 23 years in power.

The intervention of the Tunisian security forces and army using live ammunition has not stopped the wave demonstrations. Nor has Ben Ali’s sacking of 4 members of his cabinet combined with promises of a $5 billion state jobs program softened the opposition. At the time of

Demonstration Sites in Tunisia: It's Not Just Sidi Bouzid Anymore

this writing (January 2, 2011) the Tunisian protest wave continues and is more and more taking the form of a national uprising. While some property has been destroyed, the overwhelming amount of violence has come from the state and the security forces. Virtually all of the demonstrations have been peaceful to date.  That said, the economic grievances which fueled the initial outbursts now have a more political aspect to them as more voices outside of the ruling party, the Rassemblement Constitutionelle Democratique (RCD) are calling for Ben Ali and his increasingly influential wife, Leila Trabelsi, to step down and relinquish power.

Ben Ali is giving no indication of stepping down. He is combined increased repression on the one hand, with a media campaign and promises of economic and social reform on the other. Ben Ali is gambling that the protests, which seem to led mostly by unemployed youth as well as some elements of Tunisian’s student and labor movement is a spontaneous expression of frustration that will fizzle sooner rather than later.

While this might be the case, it appears that broad sectors of Tunisian society are more supportive of the protestors than the government and that Ben Ali’s promised reforms are too little too late. Ben Ali has made such promises in the past and failed to deliver, as happened after the 2008 protests for jobs and against corruption that centered around Redeyef, the Tunisian phosphate mining town in the Gafsa region.

Even if he is able to maintain his grip on power for the moment, Been Ali’s social base support has narrowed to the military, police and security apparatus, along with the support of a few key European governments, France key among them. Other than members of the two ruling families and the thinnest base of support atop Tunisia’s economic pyramid, there is little enthusiasm either for his continued rule or for the plans now set in motion to make his wife, Leila Trabelsi vice president of the country

2. The United States Remains Silent

The United States State Department remains silent in face of the Tunisian protests. Since the protests began on December 17, 2010, there has been little media coverage in the mainstream US media, virtually nothing on mainstream television, nothing in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, or for that matter even Democracy Now! This is in sharp contrast with the European, North African and Middle Eastern media where the

Sarkozy and Ben Ali...birds of a feather

Tunisian protests have become big news. In two articles in the British Guardian, columnist Brian Whitaker calls the Tunisian protests the `most important and most inspiring story from the Middle East this year’. In another story a few days earlier, he wrote a scathing critique of the Tunisian government commenting at the end that Ben Ali’s days in power are probably numbered.

The Obama Administration’s failure to comment on the Tunisian events is another indication of its more general hypocrisy when it comes to supporting human rights in Middle East countries. The administration is well aware of the situation in the country. The WikiLeaks cables concerning Tunisia, from a former US ambassador to the State Department, contained very explicit and damning information, detailing the repressive environment in the country, the rampant corruption most especially of the families of President Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi, at one point labelling the regime as a `kleptocracy’.

So why the measured silence for the Nobel Peace Prize winner?

A number of factors come into place, central among them:

  • the Obama Administration is wary about opening up another front of social unrest with Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia on its hands.
  • If Washington has no particular love for Ben Ali, still they worry about a replacement, wanting one that would, like Ben Ali and Bourguiba before him, support US strategic policy in the Middle East and Africa, who will cooperate with NATO and AFRICOM as Ben Ali has. It would not be the first time that the Obama Administration has thrown a U.S. commitment to human rights concerns to the winds to maintain strategic support for this or that tyrant.

There are also economic considerations. Tunisia has been played up as an IMF-World Bank poster child, an example of how following `the Washington Consensus’, – ie IMF

IMF: `Tunisia's Economy Is In Good Health'

structural adjustment program leads to success. Except it didn’t. Take for example Tunisia’s rush to privatization, one of the IMF’s sacred cows – you know, that line of reasoning made popular by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher,  that somehow the private sector sector can conduct business better  than the state. According to the dogma, privatization is supposed to lead to increased competitiveness and greater efficiencies. Perhaps under certain (increasingly rare) circumstances the logic works.

But in Tunisia – as in many other places, privatization became a means of the two ruling families, the Ben Alis and Trabelsis to buy up state property at bargain basement prices and make a financial killing. It did not lead to a growth of Tunisian entrepreneurial ship, but simply to a greater concentration of economic power in the hands of the two families, and the corruption involved was so bad that even the U.S. ambassador (in a WikiLeaks cable) was embarrassed.

Yet despite the current economic crisis, which these structural adjustment programs only exacerbated, the IMF continues to pressure Tunisia to `stay the course’…cut remaining subsidies on basic food stuffs and fuel, privatize its social security system and open up its financial sector even further. And once again, the IMF is oblivious to how those policies have only deepened the socio-economic crisis in the country and that an entirely different economic strategy is in order

3. `Most Inspiring Story Coming Out Of The Middle East This Year’

There is another reason for Washington’s hesitancy, call it `revolutionary contagion’ …what starts in one place, as in the strategically not particularly important Tunisia, could spread to…Egypt, Saudi Arabia and who knows where else. Signs abound. Just to the west, Algerians are protesting inadequate housing that they have been promised for years. Although current turmoil in Egypt appears to center around the bombing of a Coptic Church, with accusations of the hand of an al Qaeda like attack, under the surface for all its differences with Tunisia, Egypt too is facing serious socio-economic problems.

Bread and democracy: demands that people in other Middle Eastern countries could easily embrace as Tunisians have

And throughout the Middle East, governments are nervous. The Iranian and Syrian press have commented on Tunisia’s unemployment and corruption problems, as if they too don’t have to deal with similar drawbacks. Saudi commentators (of all people) are lecturing Ben Ali on the need for democracy, etc etc. Throughout the region among the ruling elites there is the growing concern that the Tunisian protests could spread to their countries. And they have reason for concern for despite many differences, unemployment, corruption and dictatorship are by no means limited to Tunisia.

So already, `the Tunisian example’, in two short weeks has spread beyond the country’s borders and governments are taking the events seriously. If Ben Ali will not relinquish power (yet), still, he reshuffled his cabinet firing four ministers and promised a $5 billion jobs program. He also was careful to visit Mohammed Bouazizi (the young man who set himself aflame) as well as meet with the families of those killed by the security forces. As the protests grew in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarek, speaking to the ruling political party in Egypt, seemingly `out of nowhere’, announced that Egypt too would launch a $3.5 billion jobs program to deal with Egyptian unemployment. Coincidence? In a gesture to help Ben Ali, Muhammar Khadaffi in nearby Libya announced that Libya would not limit entry to Tunisians seeking jobs. Khadaffi also announced a major government financed housing project not long ago.

Nesrine Malik, like Brian Whitaker, writing in the Guardian on New Year’s Eve calls the Tunisian protests `one of the most inspiring episodes of indigenous revolt against a repressive regime. Referring to the Tunisian protests she comments: `Change is sometimes more likely to happen when people know what it looks like, when the first person dares to point to the emperor and say that he is naked.’

And if events continue in Tunisia, what does it mean for the other `geriatric regimes’ of the Middle East, many of which themselves are on the verge of transitions of power? For if the Tunisian people can stand up to power and oppression, why not the others?

Meanwhile the protests in Tunisia continue…La Lutta Continua..


Tunisia’s Ben Ali…So Will The End Be Gracious or Graceless?

Basel Saleh: IMF Economic Medicine Has Resulted in Mass Poverty and Unemployment (good piece – deflates the exaggerations, long repeated like a mantra of Tunisia’s so-called economic miracle…which is appearing more and more like another not so unusual IMF economic basket case)

Tunisia’s Protest Wave: Where It Comes From and What It Means – by Christopher Aledxander. Appeared in where I found it. Originally printed on the `Foreign Policy’ website. Careful and thoughtful analysis of the current crisis. Along with Basel Saleh’s piece, it appears serious academics in the USA are starting to probe the current events in Tunisia more seriously

Inspiring Story of Tunisian Protests Ignored By Washington – same article as above appears on `Alternet’ and `Foreign Policy In Focus

Guardian (the British newspaper) – articles on Tunisia

Algeria: Bring Us Sugar! – and now Algeria is also exploded. a 24 minute clip on Algeria

African Challengers – This is a study by what is called the Boston Consulting Group. I thank Basel Saleh (link above) for the reference. It is basically an argument to invest in a number of `emerging’ African based multinationals. Two Tunisian companies, Groupe Ellouni and Poulinan Groupe are included. Study has some interesting facts, trends about some of Africa’s more successful companies. Wonder how the Boston Study Group explains the current unrest in Tunisia, which suggests a somewhat different picture than their study suggests…

IMF Analysis of Tunisian Economy a few months before the crisis broke – From this link you can, if you like read the more detailed IMF report on the Tunisian economy, issues in August, 2010

IMF Selected Reports on Tunisian Economy – These reports from 2009, again interesting information, but something fundamental missing..

11 Comments leave one →
  1. kerym permalink
    January 3, 2011 8:10 am

    Any fight for liberation comes with a price . These are the ultimate consequences of any uprising . But the country must be prepared to pay whatever price, just to put an end to this regime that doesn’t believe in dialogue, and a regime that has gone completely mad and lost credibility on all levels .
    If the price becomes too high in terms of loss of human lives, the regime will always be the only one responsable for letting it happen . Any other material casualties on buildings, on cars etc.. are of less importance because ( unlike human casualty), material casualty is in the end always replaceable, but this oppressive regime thinks just the opposite, and people are considered clearly less important .
    Therefore, we urge all tunisians to forge a solid unity , to resist and to eventually defeat the regime that had turned into a monster, ready to do anything in its power to keep the status-quo in place .
    People’s unity is the only best means at hand, to bring down the regime . The people of SidiBouzid could not do it on their own, but they have showed the way for others to follow .

    I’m still wondering why the National Guard is dangerously venturing to show loyalty to the very regime that they must despise, like the rest of the population does .
    What would the National Guard say to the People, after Ben Ali’s departure ?
    ” Sorry folks.. we were only ordered to slaughter everyone .. ” !?
    Tunisian Justice has a constitutional obligation to record all events and to choose to make the General Interest of the country prevail, above anything else . We all have to agree that dictatorial regimes can never last, and that the longer they stay, the rotten they got and therefore, the tougher it will be to clean up the mess they usually leave behind . On their way out, they always make sure they plunder the cash register .
    No wonder at all, because the regime controls all financial institutions in tunisia .
    So all these individuals who are still loyal to BenAli, must put into their thick heads that they’re shooting their own foot, for he won’t be able to protect them, from the minute he flies off to an unknown destination . His $400 Million new presidential Airbus-Jet will take him to a another continent, while they will face severe prosecutions in the aftermath .
    I don’t think that they haven’t thought about that !!!

    I will tip my hat to those who put themselves in the frontline, by expressing the people’s will and by putting their own lives in jeopardy .
    To those who are paying the heavy price at the hands of the Security Forces, I wish them loads of strength to endure their pain and their agony . But they must be reassured that their sacrifice will not go wasted, and that Justice will be rendered .
    That day which will bring a new dawn, is getting nearer .

  2. kerym permalink
    January 5, 2011 9:12 am

    Sad news of Bouazizi’s death are ciculating . No official confirmation yet, but if he really had passed away, he should go in History as the Hero of Sidi Bouzid, as well a national hero .
    His desperation act is devastating news to his relatives, but it’s a loss to the country .
    These are the hard facts summerizing the pusillanimity of the regime, but foremost its distinctive lack of competence whereby promises of reforms upon promises were made, meant to treat all regions on equal basis and allowing “prosperity” for every region alike and for every citizen alike, failed miserably to keep his word and by doing so, the regime has nothing anymore to hide behind . If we add that the level of popularity of the regime is shrinking fast, even by those who were supportive of the regime –rather by ignorance than by real conviction– are now scratching the back of their heads, and have to live with the fact they have been not only stubborn and naive, but they have been taken for a ride during two decennia long ( three decennia if we include the 2014 elections) !!!!
    It’s thanks to our National Hero Bouazizi ( R.i.P) that these people start to realize the size of the damage the country is about to be faced with, should ben ali remain
    president-of-TUNISIA . That’s where it’s at . The future of the tunisian people depends on their own choice on where to go from here . It has become clear that ben ali ‘s regime is seriously contaminated, loosing popular support all over the place which can never be won again even among those who went to vote for him and believed in the promises he had made .

    • January 5, 2011 9:36 am

      Thank you Kerym, even if it is to announce the sad news of the passing of Mohammed Bouazizi. Let us hope that his death is the beginning of a struggle for a new chapter in Tunisian history,,,where there is more democracy, and greater prosperity more fairly divided for the Tunisian people. rjp

  3. kerym permalink
    January 5, 2011 3:12 pm

    There is a new tactic being imposed by the security forces on the town of Tala, by creating a state of siege and brought even tanks, before they terrorized everyone they came accross . All establishments were forced to close . Shops and stores alike . Schools were kept closed, teachers sent home . Some were even molested when they have only expressed their natural discontent, or when they refused to see some of their pupils being slapped or hit by police sticks .
    It seems that Tala is being really hit hard, and there were no distinctions made , everyone was a target .
    It’s impossible to believe how this can happen . What is the Leitmotive of this Government ? Why does it want to create shock & awe when it knows it ain’t worth a try, knowning in advance it doesn’t stand a chance to avoid being swept away by a heavy current, heading its way . Can’t the regime just spare us from demonstrating another one of his macho turns, admits his incompetence, saves a little bid of decency and civilized manners for the People’s sake, to prevent the country from being sucked into an unnecessary spriral of violence .

  4. kerym permalink
    January 5, 2011 3:52 pm

    A british songwriter once wrote a song about Violence’s tour of duty :

    ” Walking the street with her naked feet,
    So full of rhythm but I can’t find the beat.
    Snapping her heels, clicking her toes,
    Everybody knows just where she goes.

    Fear, Fear, she’s the mother of Violence,
    Making me tense to watch the way she breed.
    Fear, she’s the mother of Violence,
    You know self-defense is all you need.
    It’s getting hard to breathe,
    It’s getting so hard to believe,
    To believe in anything at all. “

  5. kerym permalink
    January 11, 2011 9:49 am

    The number of deaths among civilians has reached 54, according to hospital records, but national tv confirmed that there were only 14 deaths .
    Seemingly, there were snipers who were seen stationed on rooftops, downtown the city of Kasserine and other places, and fired with live ammunition at the protesters at random . Some of the videos contains shocking footage .

    • January 11, 2011 11:19 am

      thanks again heydratonics for the update. snipers in kasserine…wow.

      ok.. question…

      clearly there are `problems’…major ones with Tunisia’s `economic model’ which are all bursting forth into the public undermining `the tunisian miracle’..

      but are there any discussions among Tunisians – intellectuals or otherwise – for new directions for the economy beyond ben ali’s yet to be defined `jobs program’ to create 300,000. where would one begin taking Tunisia in another direction? any thoughts? rjp

  6. kerym permalink
    January 11, 2011 2:22 pm

    Tunisian intellectuals suggest that an emergecy-Government should take over a.s.a.p until elections are held, in the assumption that Ben Ali’s days are numbered .
    The empty promises of creating 300,000 jobs in 2 years, is simply mission impossible . How is he going to do it, is vague and unclear . It’s just the usual rhetoric that these people have been hearing for the last 23 years, and they all wonder how the hell is he going to create so much jobs he couldn’t create during his reign . The people know very well that he’s trying to cool things down, and once the situation returns to normal, he will betray them again….just like he did before . In other words , this people happen to distrust this weird man and his mobster gangs . Therefore quitting the protests now, means more repression and more arrests to be expected, and unemployment will remain an unsolved issue in tunisian society .
    So far, the situation is snafu, but not without hope .


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