January 2013, Week 2


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Sat, 12 Jan 2013 13:11:50 -0500
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Tunisia: Two Years On; The Crisis Deepens

By Rob Prine
Colorado Progressive Jewish News
January 11, 2013


The signs are everywhere `Place Janvier 14', `Ave.
Janvier 14' etc. More often than not they replaced
`Place Ben Ali' and did so within hours after the
announcement that his rule had ended.

On January 14, 2011 - a mere two years ago -
Tunisian President Zine Ben Ali, his wife Leila
Trabelsi and other family members boarded a jet
plane that, after being refused landing rights in
Paris and Rome, eventually landed in Saudi Arabia.
The Ben Ali's only found refuge in conservative
Saudi Arabia, that over the years has housed an odd
assortment of other political detritus, deposed
corrupt and repressive overthrown African leaders
from Idi Amin toMengistu Haili Mariam.

Considerable debate continues as to the nature of
Ben Ali's flight, and perhaps more importantly,
where the two extended family clans squirreled away
some $17 billion - we'll never know the exact sum -
of the country's wealth to Swiss, Finnish, Austria,
Channel Islands, the UAE and Canadian banks.
Some speculate that Ben Ali planned only to
accompany is family to safety and to return to Tunis
that night. Others suggest he knew he would never
return and that he was lucky to escape with his life
and a hefty bank account.

Regardless, `it' was over and a new era of modern
Tunisian history - one filled with hope and
frustration was about to unfold. As for the stolen
money, two years on, less than 5% has been
returned. Given the secrecy, complexity of
international banking rules and greed of their
managers, it is highly unlikely that beyond symbolic
amounts, the money will ever be either returned,
most of it forever  unaccounted for. It is claimed that
before leaving, in one last symbolic effort to rob the
country she had milked for billions, Leila Trabelsi
robbed the national treasury of as much gold and
jewels as she and her assistants could carry to the
departing plane, some several hundred million
dollars worth.

The Tunisian Revolution has lost some of its gloss

The `Tunisian Revolution' has lost a good deal of its
gloss. The rhetoric remains `radical', the reality
much less so. That it was a genuine national
uprising engaging virtually the entire population is
beyond doubt - and as such nothing short of a
regional inspiration. That it can be characterized as
`a revolution' is open to question. What has
changed? How many of the institutions of the old
order remain in place, run in many places by the
same people who have simply changed political
affiliations to be a part of the new wave. How many
elements of the old ruling class have been integrated
into the new system? And some of what has
changed, has changed for the worse, not the better.

Some of the headlines of the past few days are
almost surrealistic, others just downright
depressing. "Headquarters of Tunisian Association
in Support of Minorities Attacked' one reads - this
after the association sponsored an event in which a
speaker spoke of the fate of Tunisian Jews, some of
whom, with the collusion of the French Vichy
authorities at the time, were rounded up and sent to
extermination camps in Europe. Another article,
appearing at the award-winning on-line Tunisian
investigative website, Nawaat.org, exposes a plot on
the part of one the Tunisia's ruling parties (the one
that really runs the show), Ennahdha, to establish
some kind of armed paramilitary wing. A third piece
relates how a young couple, no more than twenty
years of age, have been sentenced to two months in
prison for having kissed in public. Tunisian youth
responded by declaring January 13, as "National
Kissing Day", a day of a national `kiss in'.

In themselves these articles don't necessary mean
much. Taken together however, they suggest a
deteriorating national consensus, a nation that has
been in crisis since Ben Ali's departure. True,
Tunisia has not collapsed to the point of civil war as
in Syria and Libya, still the crisis in deepening and
dangerously so.

Rolling Back Bourguiba's Accomplishments

The country has been on a rocky road these past
two years. Besides consolidating its own power for
as long as possible, the goal of the transitional
government in power since October 2011 is to roll
back the achievements of the country's first
president, Habib Bourguiba where it concerns
education, women's rights and the separation of
church (or in this case `mosque) and state while
maintaining essentially the same IMF friendly open
economy that contributed so much to the country's
recent crisis in the first place.

Not particularly important to the United States from
an economic point of view, Tunisia still has strategic
value. The U.S. embassy there is a major
communications gathering center, a kind of
information `lily pad' in an otherwise unstable and
unfriendly neighborhood. Tunisia's transitional
government enjoys strong support, despite its many
blemishes, from the United States.

Washington considers the Tunisian political
changes something of a model for what it hopes to
see develop throughout the region: weak states,
more easily penetrated and run by foreign capital.
That they might have an `Islamic flavor' (run by
Islamic parties) is of no concern to Washington as
long as two golden rules are followed: 1. the country
remains economically open and exploitable to
international capital, which it does 2. That the
country fall in line with the broader U.S. strategic
goals of dominating the region (ie - cooperating with
Israel openly or covertly, maintaining the pressure
on Iran, helping bring down the Assad regime in
Syria by supporting the Saudi and Qatari-backed

Salafist Offensive

These past two years have been rough on the
country economically, socially and politically. A
hitherto virtually unknown Salafist' (militant Islamic
fundamentalist) movement has emerged. It has
enjoyed financial and political support from Saudi
Arabia and Qatar, and there are suggestions that
many of those formally involved in Ben Ali's security
force are involved. While not formally a part of the
government it enjoys encouragement and has very
close ties with the country's leading moderate
Islamic party, Ennahdha, which had, up to the
September storming of the U.S. Embassy, offered the
Salafists shelter and support.

Tunisia's Salafists have openly and increasingly
engaged in brownshirt tactics to impose their
skewed version of Islam on the population. Their
actions have increasingly and unnecessarily
polarized the country's cultural landscape. Self
appointed religious goon squads, similar to those
that exist in Saudi Arabia, abound, encouraged and
protected by those currently in power. They have
been wreaking havoc for more than a year now,
attacking cultural events (art exhibits), tv stations,
journalists, movies with which they disagree. These
elements have also rampaged historic Sufi
monuments, attacked trade unions and Tunisian
universities, with hardly a peek of criticism or police
response from the authorities.

With Ennahdha's acquiescence, the Salafists have
overtaken many of the country's historically
moderate mosques and turned them into bastions of
religious extremism. Attacks on womens rights
abound; attempts to hijack the country's higher
education system and turn it into little more than
fundamentalist mederasas  have not been
challenged by the authorities; growing verbal threats
to the country's tiny - but historically significant -
Jewish Community take place almost daily.

There is opposition to these trends but it remains
generally weak and divided. But it is growing.

Frozen Economy

Two years on, Tunisia' economy remains frozen

The biggest failure of the past two years has been
the new government's failure to address the
economic crisis. The country's post Ben Ali
economic program is no different than the
prescriptions followed in the last two decades of the
dictator's rule. Instead, the ruling coalition, little
more than a cover for an Ennahdha dominated
government, has been more concerned with
consolidating its political power and assuring its
long term control of the country.

It is often forgotten that the conditions which
triggered the national revolt two years past had very
little to do with religion. That the 2010 revolt was
triggered by religious considerations is a Salafist
fabricated fantasy. They were a non-factor. Instead,
it was a socio-economic crisis par excellence: high
rates of unemployment (ridiculously high among
youth and in the rural areas), low, virtually
unlivable wages for those working, a deterioration of
the country's social fabric as a result of IMF
insistence on cutting government spending, the
continued erosion of subsidies on basic food stuffs,
medical possibilities and energy.

These factors combined with a breathtaking level of
corruption -the two ruling Ben Ali and Trabelsi
families controlling more than 50% of the economy
- and a pervasive system of repression, are what
brought down Ben Ali, a favorite in Paris and
Washington for his adherence to the Washington
Consensus and his opposition to Islamic

And so the crisis continues.

A recent IMF report on the economic situation
clearly states that the country's current stagnant
growth will do nothing to stem the country's 17.6%
unemployment rate - 40% for youth - nor address
the great social imbalances between the urban and
more rural areas. Typically, in echange for offering
Tunisia aid, the IMF, frozen in its structural
adjustment mode of the past 30 years, prescribes
`more of the same' - low wages, open capital
markets, greater opening of the financial sector, etc.

As these are the same prescriptions that triggered
the 2010 uprising in the first place, it is highly
unlikely that such policies will turn the economic
situation around.

It is true that Tunisia's economy - so heavily based
upon exporting to France and Italy - are adversely
affected by the global economic slowdown that has
hit Europe especially hard and that there is no easy
immediate solution to the country's economic woes.
Still, the lack of virtually any new economic vision
is worrisome. It suggests that rather being on some
kind of new economic path, the country will
remained mired in the old ways.

If this is the case, it seems highly likely that another
social explosion cannot be that far off.


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