- Earlier turmoil began in 2000, the first protests since
1984 bread riots, including a three-day professional drivers strike in
Tunis. Demonstrations followed in over a dozen cities by students, unemployed
youths and others. Protestors attacked government symbols, including public
buildings. Poverty, rising food and energy prices, high unemployment, and
political repression were proximate causes. Le Monde, at the time, called
the turmoil "the first warning shots aimed at President (Zine al-Abidine)
- Protests then erupted in mid-December after Mohammed
Bouazizi, an unemployed graduate working as a vegetable seller set himself
on fire in front of government offices in Sidi Bouzid, protesting police
confiscation of his merchandise for operating without a permit. At his
January 4 funeral, marchers chanted, "Farewell, Mohammed, we will
avenge you. We weep for you today. We will make those who caused your death
- His uncle, Mehdi Horchani, told AFP, he "gave his
life to draw attention to his condition and that of his brothers."
Tunisia, like Algeria and other regional countries have high unemployment,
especially affecting youths, because economic conditions and structural
market mandates forced cuts. Moreover, in Tunisia like elsewhere in the
region, it's impossible to get decent jobs without connections or greasing
- Unprecedented December protests continued and spread,
including in Tunis. As expected, police reacted harshly, opening fire on
demonstrators, killing 18-year old Mohammed Amari in Sidi Bou Zid. At the
time, Ben Ali warned on television that law and order would "be applied
in all firmness to punish a minority of extremists and mercenaries who
resort to violence and disorder."
- In 1987, he succeeded President Habib Bourguiba, who
ruled Tunisia after independence from France in 1956. A BBC obituary called
him the "father of Tunisia" who led its fight against "colonial
master, France." Writer Dirk Vandewalle described "Bourguibism"
as a "curious mixture of political ideology and personal domination
(as well as) pragmatic, opportunistic," pro-Western one-party rule.
During his tenure, Tunisia was mostly peaceful.
- That changed under Ben Ali, a harsh despot who tolerated
no dissent. In late December, London-based Asharq Alawsat writer Abdulrahman
al Rashed warned protests showed his loss of credibility, saying:
- "The demonstrations in Tunisia are refusing to stop;
these have spread throughout the cities and even reached the nation's capital,
in a clear challenge to the state." Despite economic hard times, he
said, "Tunisia's problem is more political than economic and goes
beyond the anger of the unemployed masses. This is a problem of a lack
of trust in the government, and loss (of its) credibility" after 23
years of harsh rule. Economic duress lit a fuse, erupting in mass street
protests against very unpopular rule.
- Al Rashad observed that despite hard times, Tunisia is
one of the most prosperous Arab nations based on per capital income. It's
also one of the best educated. As a result, he asked, "If (Tunisians
are) dissatisfied, what can we say about the citizens of other Arab nations"
suffering much worse? How long will take before more eruptions?
- Arab Street Rage
- Today, in Tunisia, the Maghreb, and across the region,
public anger rages (mostly beneath the surface) over economic hardships,
corruption, and repressive rule. Trying to placate it on January 13, Ben
Ali told a national television audience he'd step down when his term ends
- It didn't help. On January 14, New York Times writer
David Kirkpatrick headlined, "Tunisia Leader Flees and Prime Minister
(Mohammed Ghannouchi) Claims Power," saying:
- Ben Ali fled Friday night, "capitulating after a
month of mounting protests calling for an end to his 23 years of authoritarian
rule. The official Saudi Arabian news agency said he arrived in the country
- A state of emergency was declared. A curfew was imposed.
The army banned street gatherings of more than three people, saying violators
would be shot.
- Long associated with torture, Tunisia's interior ministry
is reviled. It's believed there's one policeman for every 40 Tunisians,
two-thirds in plain clothes operating covertly. Prior to Ben Ali's departure,
police attacked street protesters violently with tear gas grenades, live
fire, and beatings while some lay on the ground,
- Shortly afterwards, state news said Ben Ali sacked his
government, declared a state of emergency, saying new elections would be
held in six months, and Prime Minister Mohammed Ghanouchi would form an
- After Ben Ali fled, talk of new elections subsided, Ghannouchi
saying he'd meet with other political parties on January 15, calling it
a "decisive day."
- A former finance minister and prime minister since 1999,
he's a close Ben Ali ally who took over under a constitutional provision
letting the second in command assume power if presidents can't fulfill
their duties. Tunisia was never ruled democratically. Suggesting a people-friendly
national unity government defies credibility, especially with hardline
former regime officials in charge.
- Major reforms are needed, what Ghannouchi, his cronies,
and army commanders won't countenance so repressive rule will continue
unless people power intervenes.
- Washington and French pressure, in fact, forced Ben Ali
out to prevent Tunisian protests from spreading. On January 14, Jordanian
demonstrators held a "day of rage" against high food prices and
unemployment, demanding Prime Minister Samir Rifai resign. Eruptions, killing
five people, occurred in Algeria for the same reasons, and could explode
anywhere in undemocratic Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Qatar, Bahrain,
Libya, UAE, Yemen, Oman, occupied Iraq, and Palestine under repressive
- Libya was struck against poor housing. Is Egypt next,
repressively ruled for nearly 30 years by Hosni Mubarak? Outside Tunisia's
Cairo embassy, protesters shouted, "Down, down with Hosni Mubarak!"
"Ben Ali, you fraud! Mubarak, you fraud! Gadhaffi, you fraud!"
Placards read, "Revolution in Tunis, tomorrow in Egypt." However,
replacing despots with propertied elitists assures business as usual with
- Business As Usual in Tunisia
- Although Ghannouchi's power play failed, parliament speaker
Fouad Mebazaa, another Ben Ali ally, replaced him. A curfew remains in
force. Tunisia's army and police have full control to protect entrenched
power from disruptive protests. The entire Tunis city center is sealed
and guarded. Nothing's changed. Repression continues with softer rhetoric.
- On January 17, Beirut-based London Independent journalist
Robert Fisk headlined, "The Brutal truth about Tunisia: Bloodshed,
tears, but no democracy. Bloody turmoil won't necessarily presage the dawn
of democracy," saying:
- Nonetheless, regional despots "are shaking in their
boots (because) Tunisia wasn't meant to happen." Food price riots
struck Algeria and Jordan, "(n)ot to mention scores more dead in Tunisia...."
If protests erupted there, they "can happen anywhere....Arabs used
to say that two-thirds of the entire Tunisian population - seven million
out of 10 million, virtually the whole adult population - worked in one
way or another for Mr. Ben Ali's secret police. They must have been on
the streets too, then, protesting at the man we loved until last week.
But don't get too excited." Expect "safe hands" to rule,
serving entrenched power, not popular interests.
- The Arab League urged calm, and for "all political
forces, representatives of Tunisian society and officials to stand together
and unite to maintain the achievements of the Tunisian people and realize
- According to Germany's Deutsche Welle:
- "What happened in Tunisia is a historic event and
a strong signal to the entire Arab world. It shows that populations can
successfully rise against authoritarian and corrupt rulers, and that 'regime
change' is possible on its own - without internal or external military
intervention, even without leadership from opposition politicians or civilian
players" All Tunisian figures, pro and con, "have a responsibility
to initiate a transparent and orderly transfer of power."
- Fisk, however, is right. Unless popular eruptions prevent
it, regime hard-liners will continue old policies with more bloodshed and
repression to follow. Make no mistake, however. Removing an Arab despot,
no matter how achieved, was historic, showing doing it may be easier than
- Except for Sudan's short-lived Ja 'far Numayri ouster,
aborted after 'Umar Bashir seized power a few years later, it was a first
time ever regional event. It's for Tunisians and Arab street believers
to shift energy to the next level, using sustained grassroots pressure
for real change. With enough people power behind it, why shouldn't one
success inspire others, including in Tunisia unresolved in limbo.
- A Final Comment
- On January 17, the Ghannouchi-announced National Unity
Government took shape, including elitist factions against popular rule
alone. Ben Ali's governing party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RDC)
heads it. Key ministers keep their posts, including chamber of councillors
president Abdallah Kallel, a former interior minister wanted by a Swiss
court for human rights violations. Lesser officials also stay on. Ghannouchi
remains prime minister. Change is rhetoric, not reality, democracy nowhere
- On Tunis streets, demonstrators near RDC headquarters
- "With our blood and our soul, we are ready to sacrifice
ourselves for the martyrs. Out with the RDC! Out with the party of the
- Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse them.
The military swore loyalty to the new government and gave police carte
blanche authority to quell protests.
- A January 16 US State Department press release said:
- "Secretary Clinton called Tunisian Foreign Minister
Kamel Morjane today to express support for the people of Tunisia as they
and their government go through a period of significant transition."
- Translation: Washington, like France, Britain, other
Western countries and regional despots support power, not popular interests
they disdain. Tunisia and other regional countries remain politically unstable
as people power perhaps thinks the unthinkable - democratic revolutionary
change. Why not with enough inspiration behind it!
- Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org. Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com
and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the
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