Saturday, January 15, 2011

(E-)Revolution in Tunisia

Holly Pickett/NY Times
So the Tunisian people have driven out their corrupt, authoritarian president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, in office since 1987. Mohamed Ghannouchi, the prime minister, has stepped into the breach on his ouster, to form a coalition government and work with the former Speaker of the Parliament, Fouad Mebazaa (below, at left), who has now temporarily assumed the presidency according to the Tunisian Constitution. Mebazaa has promised elections within 60 days, but it remains unclear what sort of government will be formed, and by whom, especially given how harshly Ben Ali and his allies, many of whom presumably are still in the country, had restricted the opposition parties, especially those on the left and of a religious cast. In fact, Al Nahda, the Islamist Party, had been completely outlawed. Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally Party (Rassemblement Constitutionnel Democratique) or RCD, so long in control and so dominant, is now, it appears, thoroughly discredited.

What provoked this "Jasmine" revolution, which is reverberating throughout the Middle East, has been the frustration, building over a series of years but erupting a month ago, of millions of people, especially the young, the middle and working-classes and the poor, who faced a lack of jobs, rising costs for staples, constant repression in a police state, and no representation in and by a government that was robbing the country blind. Ben Ali's stage-managed elections were a sign of the problems; his family's steady enrichment a symptom of all that had been going wrong in Tunisia.  The specific spark seems to have been the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, an unemployed university graduate, who made his mortal protest after police stopped him from earning a subsistence living selling fruits and vegetables, because he lacked a permit.  News of his death spread via Facebook, engendering protests by unemployed university graduates like Bouazizi, and then, according to The New York Times, by workers and young professionals, which the Ben Ali government met with brutal, repressive responses.

Thus far, gun battles between the military and militias loyal to Ben Ali are continuing in and around key sites in the capital, Tunis and its suburb, the historical city of Carthage, with the military apparently backing the nascent government. Though he also may have aided Ben Ali's flight from Tunisia, the country's military's chief, General Rachid Ammar, had earlier made the dramatic and crucial decision to cease firing live ammunition against the protesters (initially labeled by the Western media as "rioters" and "looters"--sound famliar), which enabled Ben Ali's overthrow.  Military authorities have arrested Ben Ali's former Security Chief, Ali Seriati, who is alleged to have been promoting chaos, "murder and pillage," along with other leading figures in Ben Ali's government, including the former Interior Minister, Rafik Belhaj Kacem. (Is he any relation to the French philosopher, critic and novelist Mehdi Belhaj Kacem? Do any J's Theater readers know?)

One point much discussed in recent days is the role that Twitter and Facebook may be playing in spreading news about and helping to organize the protests, and in serving as means of communication and information dissemination; according to several reports I've read, these platforms were integral to the sustained anti-government action that culminated in Ben Ali's ouster.  This counters some arguments out there that these platforms are basically impotent in this regard, and confirms, to some degree, predictions by figures like NYU's Clay Shirky. Also noteworthy is a US cable, released by WikiLeaks, detailing Ben Ali's corruption and the US's lack of confidence in his rule, leading some to call this a "WikiLeaks Revolution." To quote The Huffington Post:

Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks had discussed the high levels of nepotism and corruption displayed by [former Tunisian First Lady Leila] Trabelsi's clan. But U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley rejected any notion that WikiLeaks disclosures led to the revolution in Tunisia, saying Sunday that Tunisians were already well aware of the graft, nepotism and lavish lifestyles of the former president and his relatives.
If I read New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick's January 13 article correctly, the cables released by WikiLeaks may have played a role, however, in specific uprisings that occurred in the resort town of Hammamet, on the Mediterranean coast. Here, in the "St.-Tropez" of Tunisia, was where many members of Ben Ali's and Trabelsi's extended clans had built mansions and chosen to luxuriate, and here was where protesters had their say, in violent response, flooding the streets as they chanted and denounced the soon-to-depart president, and eventually ransacking, stripping and then burning the house of one of Ben Ali's relatives.
Holly Pickett for The New York Times
Looters took furniture from a home belonging to a relative of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Hammamet, Tunisia, on Thursday.
One final point is that neighboring authoritarian governments must be a bit nervous, Egypt especially, which is tighly ruled by its octogenarian president, Hosni Mubarak. Tunisia's revolution also presents challenges for the US, which has traditionally backed governments like Ben Ali's with money and political support, most recently as part of the "Global War on Terror," while unironically and simultaneously calling for increased democratization. So what is it going to be, and if it turns out that the Islamic Party is a big winner in Tunisia, what then for the US and its chess-playing in this country and across the region? Most importantly, though, what now for Tunisia and its people?

Scenes from the streets

Al Jazeera's report on the Tunisia protests, from last Friday

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