Inspiring Story of Tunisian Protests Ignored by Washington

Ben Ali, Sarkozy(Pictured: Tunisian President Ben Ali and French President Sarkozy.)

1. They Just Don’t Stop Protesting
Not even torture, which is rampant, or live bullets, which the Tunisian authorities are using with greater frequency, stop them.

It is more than two weeks since a distraught and unemployed young university graduate, Mohammed Bouazizi, sat down in front of the town hall in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, poured gasoline on himself and lit a match. Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation and protest against Tunisia’s high unemployment, rampant corruption and decades of repression by the government of Zine Ben Ali triggered a protest movement, first in the country’s center and south, but now virtually everywhere, including the capital, Tunis.

Unwilling to admit how his own regime has contributed to the crisis, Ben Ali, predictably blames the protests on ‘radical elements,’ ‘chaos mongers’ ( an interesting and empty phrase) and ‘a minority of mercenaries’ rather than on the policies Tunisia has implemented during his 23 years in power.

Neither the intervention of the Tunisian security forces and army using live ammunition nor Zine Ben Ali’s sacking of 4 members of his cabinet combined with promises of a $5 billion state jobs program has stopped the wave of anger and protest, which at the time of this writing (January 2, 2011) continues and is more and more taking the form of a national uprising. While some property has been destroyed, the overwhelming amount of violence has come from the state and the security forces. Virtually all of the demonstrations have been peaceful to date. That said, the economic grievances which fueled the initial outbursts now have a more political aspect to them as more and more voices within Tunisia outside of the ruling party, the Rassemblement Constitutionelle Democratique (RCD), are calling for Ben Ali and his increasingly influential wife, Leila Trabelsi, to step down and relinquish power.

Ben Ali is giving no indication of stepping down. He has combined increased repression on the one hand with a media campaign and promises of economic and social reform on the other. Ben Ali is gambling that the protests, which seem to be led mostly by unemployed youth as well as some elements of Tunisian’s student and labor movement, are a spontaneous expression of frustration that will fizzle sooner rather than later. While this might be the case, it appears that broad sectors of Tunisian society are more supportive of the protestors than the government and that Ben Ali’s promised reforms are too little too late. Even if he is able to maintain his grip on power for the moment, his social base support has narrowed to the military, police and security apparatus, along with the support of a few key European governments, France key among them.

2. The United States Remains Silent
The United States State Department remains silent in face of the Tunisian protests. Since the protests began on December 17, 2010, there has been little media coverage in the mainstream US media, virtually nothing on mainstream television, nothing in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, or for that matter even Democracy Now! This is in sharp contrast with the European, North African and Middle Eastern media where theTunisian protests have become big news. In two articles in the British Guardian, columnist Brian Whitaker calls the Tunisian protests the ‘most important and most inspiring story from the Middle East this year’. In another story a few days earlier, he wrote a scathing critique of the Tunisian government commenting at the end that Ben Ali’s days in power are probably numbered.

The Obama Administration’s failure to comment on the Tunisian events is another indication of its more general hypocrisy when it comes to supporting human rights in Middle East countries. It is not that the administration is unaware of the situation in the country. The WikiLeaks cables concerning Tunisia, from a former US ambassador to the State Department, contained very explicit and damning information, detailing the repressive environment in the country and the rampant corruption, most especially of the families of President Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi, at one point labeling the regime as a ‘kleptocracy’.

So why the measured silence by the Nobel Peace Prize winner?

A number of factors come into place, central among them, the Obama Administration is wary about opening up another front of social unrest with Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia on its hands. If Washington has no particular love for Ben Ali, still they worry about a replacement, wanting one that would, like Ben Ali and Bourguiba before him, support US strategic policy in the Middle East and Africa, who will cooperate with NATO and AFRICOM as Ben Ali has. It would not be the first time that the Obama Administration has thrown a U.S. commitment to human rights concerns to the winds to maintain strategic support for this or that tyrant.

There are also economic considerations. Tunisia has been played up as an IMF-World Bank poster child, an example of how following ‘the Washington Consensus’, — i.e., the IMF structural adjustment program — leads to success. Except it didn’t. Take for example Tunisia’s rush to privatization, one of the IMF’s sacred cows — you know, that line of reasoning made popular by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, that somehow the private sector sector can conduct business better than the state. According to the dogma, privatization is supposed to lead to increased competitiveness and greater efficiencies. Perhaps under certain (increasingly rare) circumstances the logic works.

But in Tunisia – as in many other places, privatization became a means of the two ruling families, the Ben Alis and Trabelsis, to buy up state property at bargain basement prices and make a financial killing. It did not lead to a growth of Tunisian entrepreneurship, but simply to a greater concentration of economic power in the hands of the two families, and the corruption involved was so bad that even the U.S. ambassador (in a WikiLeaks cable) was embarrassed.

Yet despite the current economic crisis, which these structural adjustment programs only exacerbated, the IMF continues to pressure Tunisia to ‘stay the course’…cut remaining subsidies on basic food stuffs and fuel, privatize its social security system and open up its financial sector even further. And once again, the IMF is oblivious to how those policies have only deepened the socio-economic crisis in the country and that an entirely different economic strategy is in order.

3. ‘Most Inspiring Story Coming Out Of The Middle East This Year’
There is another reason for Washington’s hesitancy, call it ‘revolutionary contagion’ …what starts in one place, as in the strategically not particularly important Tunisia, could spread to…Egypt, Saudi Arabia and who knows where else. Signs abound. Just to the west, Algerians are protesting inadequate housing that they have been promised for years. Although current turmoil in Egypt appears to center around the bombing of a Coptic Church, with accusations of the hand of al Qaeda in the attack, under the surface, for all its differences with Tunisia, Egypt too is facing serious socio-economic problems.

And throughout the Middle East, governments are nervous. The Iranian and Syrian press have commented on Tunisia’s unemployment and corruption problems, as if they too don’t have to deal with similar drawbacks. Saudi commentators (of all people) are lecturing Ben Ali on the need for democracy, etc. Throughout the region among the ruling elites there is the growing concern that the Tunisian protests could spread to their countries. And they have reason for concern, for despite many differences, unemployment, corruption and dictatorship are by no means limited to Tunisia.

So already, ‘the Tunisian example’ in two short weeks has spread beyond the country’s borders and governments are taking the events seriously. If Ben Ali will not relinquish power (yet), still, he reshuffled his cabinet firing four ministers and promised a $5 billion jobs program. He also was careful to visit Mohammed Bouazizi (the young man who set himself aflame) as well as meet with the families of those killed by the security forces. As the protests grew in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarek, speaking to the ruling political party in Egypt, seemingly ‘out of nowhere’, announced that Egypt too would launch a $3.5 billion jobs program to deal with Egyptian unemployment. Coincidence? In a gesture to help Ben Ali, Muhammar Khadaffi in nearby Libya announced that Libya would not limit entry to Tunisians seeking jobs. Khadaffi also announced a major government financed housing project not long ago.

Nesrine Malik, like Brian Whitaker, writing in the Guardian on New Year’s Eve, calls the Tunisian protests ‘one of the most inspiring episodes of indigenous revolt against a repressive regime.’ Referring to the Tunisian protests she comments: ‘Change is sometimes more likely to happen when people know what it looks like, when the first person dares to point to the emperor and say that he is naked.’

And if events continue in Tunisia, what does it mean for the other ‘geriatric regimes’ of the Middle East, many of which themselves are on the verge of transitions of power? For if the Tunisian people can stand up to power and oppression, why not the others?

Meanwhile the protests in Tunisia continue…La Lutta Continua.

Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.