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PORTSIDE  January 2011, Week 5

PORTSIDE January 2011, Week 5

Subject:

Carthage under Siege

From:

Portside Moderator <[log in to unmask]>

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Date:

Mon, 31 Jan 2011 01:03:06 -0500

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text/plain (177 lines)

Carthage under Siege
By Feriel Bouhafa
Foreign Policy in Focus
January 26, 2011
http://www.fpif.org/articles/carthage_under_siege

The success of a throng of Tunisian protesters who
toppled Ben Ali, the seemingly unshakable dictator,
caught the world off guard. Events quickly unfolded
after a street vendor in the town of Sidi Bouzid named
Mohamed Bouazizi, disgruntled by a lack of economic
opportunity, committed the ultimate act of self-
immolation that sparked nation-wide protests. These were
met with deadly confrontations as police tried to stifle
the uprising and the government manipulated the media to
allege that the protestors had terrorist motivations.

During the dissolution of the government and parliament,
the military remained the only institution the people
trusted to assert control and provide security. On
January 17, the incumbent Prime Minister Mohammed
Ghannouchi announced a temporary national unity
government. Elections were set for 60 days hence.

Despite concessions made by this interim government, a
crisis of trust continues to reign over the people. The
government's fate remains uncertain as hundreds of
people arrived in Tunis from rural areas on January 24,
calling for the removal of all former government
officials. This sea change in power raises several
questions about the root causes of this extraordinary
protest, the impact it will have on the region as a
whole, and whether the theory that Arab civil societies
are too inept to generate real change within their own
governments has been finally disproved. Defining the
Revolution

Analysts have rushed to make sense of Tunisia's
unforeseen popular revolt. The media have emphasized the
economic discontent caused by unemployment, poverty, and
high food prices. Others have noted the role social
networks have played, characterizing the uprising as an
instance of online activism and hailing it as a "Twitter
revolution."

Elizabeth Dickinson has christened the uprising a
"WikiLeaks revolution," speculating on the catalytic
force of the WikiLeaks cables. These cables discussed
the corruption of the ruling elite, the repression of
journalists and social movements, and the country's
economic crisis.

This extraordinary uprising is being seen as the
possible start of a domino effect in the Arab world. Its
potential resonance has pushed pundits to draw
comparisons with Algeria in the early 1990s, the Iranian
revolution, and Iran's more recent Green Movement. These
speculations have some validity, yet lose sight of the
specificity of the Tunisian context and risk
invalidating its spontaneous and organic nature. An
Endogenous Revolution

The Tunisian uprising is a case of endogenous
revolution, an event that occurred because of the
particularities of the Tunisian situation. The
smoldering discontent that Tunisians felt toward their
authoritarian regime was only awaiting Bouazizi's spark.

Ben Ali, the deposed president who has sought asylum in
Saudi Arabia, came to power in 1987 after a coup against
Habib Bourghuiba, the nationalist leader and first
president who led the modernization of the country.
Under Ali's leadership, the country continued with
economic liberal and social reforms, which fostered a
relatively developed infrastructure and several social
and demographic gains. The Tunisian economy has averaged
five percent GDP growth since the early 1990s. According
to Pascal Boniface, of the Institute for International
and Strategic Relations, the economic development of Ben
Ali's early years in power helped to create a highly
educated middle class.

What Tunisians gained in economic reforms they lost in
political freedom, a trade of civil liberties for a
"system that works" with a sustainable infrastructure,
liberal economic reforms, decentralization, women's
rights, and access to education. Expounding on the
demographic behavior in Tunisia, French anthropologist
Emmanuel Todd has emphasized the role of literacy, low
fertility, and high rates of intermarriage as key to its
democratic transition. While touting his role in
achieving these gains to the nation and the West, Ben
Ali ignored the repercussions on his nation's social
fabric. Moreover, he underestimated the social
consciousness and maturity of his own people

The West's unconditional backing of Tunisia's president,
as an ally in the "war on terrorism" and an alternative
to a potential Islamist threat, gave him more confidence
domestically. This presumptuous attitude furthered his
isolation from the people, as he surrounded himself by a
coterie that recklessly took control. The corruption of
the ruling cliques wrecked the banking and the financial
sectors, curbing foreign investment and causing high
unemployment among the educated youth.

As noted by the U.S. embassy cables from American
diplomats, the kleptocrats within Ben Ali's clan coveted
everything, challenging the economic, moral, and
political values espoused in the people`s slogan,
"employment, liberty, and dignity." This corrupt elite
took over the "Tunisian miracle," as former French
President Jacques Chirac described the socio-economic
policies of Tunisia. Growing discontent against Ben
Ali's mafia and its repressive intelligence apparatus
started undermining the popular consensus around trading
political concessions for "a system that works."

Social dysfunction was obvious. The escalation of the
popular mobilization was catalyzed by the repression of
protesters, the shootings, and the killings, as well as
a distrust of the media, which continued to propagate
the ruling regime's propaganda. Ben Ali clearly had lost
touch with popular sentiments, crossing the line when he
accused protestors of being mere agitators. People
overcame their fears and tapped into a shared memory of
resistance to French colonial rule. Inspired by symbols
of independence, protestors declared Bouazizi a martyr
and the national anthem their slogan. The U.S. Role

During the days of ruthless police suppression, the
United States chose to remain silent. According to
British journalist Yvonne Ridley, "Not one word of
condemnation, not one word of criticism, not one word
urging restraint came from Barack Obama or Hilary
Clinton as live ammunition was fired into crowds of
unarmed men, women, and children in recent weeks."

Only after the popular dethroning of Ben Ali did
President Barack Obama come to applaud "the courage and
dignity of the Tunisian people." He eventually asked the
interim government "to respect human rights and to hold
free and fair elections in the near future that reflect
the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people."
In a similar vein, on January 23, Secretary of State
Hillary Rodham Clinton called the Tunisian Prime
Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi to reiterate U.S. support
for Tunisia's democratic transition.

Going forward, Tunisians will scrutinize the sincerity
of these statements. The Obama administration's initial
hesitation exposed its unease with this transformation.
U.S. policy and its national-security strategy in the
Arab world need reassessment. Tunisia's democratic
impulse, as well as the uprising's reverberations in
other Arab countries, presents challenges for U.S.
policy and that of its authoritarian allies in the
region.

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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