I shall either find a way or make one.
On December 17th, 2010 a street vendor selling produce was stopped and his cart confiscated by police ostensibly for not having a permit. Mohamed Bouazizi was a 26 year old university graduate, who like an estimated 25% of Tunisia was unemployed. After lodging a futile complaint he doused himself with gasoline and immolated himself, like Queen Dido, in front of a government building. His death in hospital on January 4th sparked countrywide protests which has forced the President of 23 years, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, into exile as of January 14th, 2011. Here’s a helpful timeline of events.
For many in the West, including myself, Tunisia, the ancient land of Carthage, is not familiar. Wresting control of the country in a 1987 political coup, Ben Ali’s presidency was an authoritarian and corrupt one (as this WikiLeaks cable demonstrates), ranked 144th out of 167 on The Economist‘s 2010 Democracy index, and typical of those types of regimes, his giant posters were ubiquitous on the sides of buildings and billboards across Tunisia. He was also, like Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, a valued secular American ally in the region. Its next door Maghrebi neighbor to the west, Algeria itself witnessed riots over a sharp spike in prices on foodstuffs from January 5th to the 9th, resulting in capitulation from Algiers along with a brutal crackdown.
The so-called “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia has led to a flurry of speculations (another example here, and another here, and so on…) for its ramifications of a possible domino effect towards other Arab autocracies throughout North Africa and the Arab Middle East. Regimes as far away as Syria are heavily censoring coverage of the Tunisian uprising, and Jordan has experienced its own protests over similar ailments affecting the rest of the region. Even the Palestinians are inspired.
But it appears the Tunisian model is also relatively unique, in that it was led not by Islamists, but by the youth, the unemployed, labor unions, artists and educated sectors of the population such as students and lawyers, the latter of whom 95% went on strike. Egyptian media is confident it will not be duplicated there, even after a transparently fraudulent election in early December 2010 was met with outcry and limited unrest, or after sectarian upheaval resulting from the Alexandria bombing of a Coptic Church on January 1st. Given the repression and strategically crucial massive economic backing of the United States, they are probably right. Hosni Mubarak will survive, and the true test will be the predicted handover to son Gamal Mubarak in coming years.
But the question remains, why was Tunisia so off the radar of the American media? To observers familiar with the nexus between a nation’s official foreign policy and its media (whether state run or corporate), it will be no surprise why Iran got so much attention, and Tunisia didn’t. Nor is that to suggest they are equal. Even so, Josh Shahryar registered his disgust with the neglect of coverage and noted the impact of much maligned social networking in the Tunisian uprising (18.6% of Tunisia uses Facebook). Indeed, for anyone following, as I was, new YouTube videos came out nearly every day.
Rapper El Général’s protest song with the line “President, Your People are Dying”, got him detained a week ago:
This is from Thursday, the day before the regime collapsed (it’s almost comedic, too):
The writing was on the wall. These were uploaded the day before from Sfax:
There is no official report on the death toll sustained during violent clashes but they could easily exceed 50. At numerous protests gunfire was recorded, and while the body of the Ben Ali regime is still too warm for an autopsy and the future of Tunisia uncertain as I write this, it was not without its martyrs – even allegedly including children.
On the 14th, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, a Ben Ali appointee dissolved parliament under his final orders and claimed interim powers after Saudi Arabia acknowledged Ben Ali was there. Tunisia’s Constitutional Council met the day after on the 15th to declare Ben Ali’s departure permanent, and has instead appointed the erstwhile president of the lower chamber of the Tunisian parliament, Fouad Mebazaa, to be the rightful interim executive. Elections were promised in six months’ time, and now in two. The last presidential election was in 2009 with Ben Ali garnering 89.62% of the vote, and legislative elections were last held in 2004.
Ghannouchi issued a stiff warning to continuing protests and the crackdown stays in force. A video of the army arresting a police chief also makes me question the military’s role to come. Tunisian expert Dr. Hakim Darbouche is optimistic, but I’m not sure this is the end of the story for the Jasmine Revolution just yet. And domino effect or no, the Arab world’s “most stable nation” being toppled in only a few weeks time can’t help but send powerful shock waves throughout the Arab world, even if they be only psychological.
As for the US government’s role in this? Aside from the appropriate steps of summoning the Tunisian ambassador over concerns of violence against protesters and free assembly, a travel warning, and President Barack Obama’s statement, it has been best to keep a hand’s off approach to this, in my view, whether or not it was done out of cynically tacit support for the departed Tunisian dictator, measured caution and support for the grass roots movement — or as happens in Washington, a calibrated combination thereof from a myriad of analysts’ opinions. Bottom line, it’s not always about us and sometimes the best way to help countries like this democratize is to stay out of the way (as opposed to Gaddafi giving his bizarre opinions of hallucinating animal rioters, WikiLeaks’ “lies” and bemoaning the loss of his friend Ben Ali on Libyan TV, via Al Arabiya).
Let us talk mostly of what this means for Tunisia and the region. Mohamed Bouazizi didn’t set himself and his nation on fire for America. It was for Tunisia. And, perhaps, that is the final answer to why the American media couldn’t have cared less.
Protesters sing the Tunisian national anthem, “Humat al-Hima“:
ولا بد لليل أن ينجلي
ولا بد للقيد أن ينكسر
When the people want to live, destiny must surely respond
Darkness will disappear, chains will certainly break!
Photo by marcovdz, taken in Marseille, of expats celebrating Ben Ali’s departure, Jan 15th, 2011.