Who’s More Delusional? Former Tunisian President Ben Ali or Washington?

Ben Ali's Ferrari(Pictured: Former President Ben Ali’s Ferrari looted via a forklift.)

Zine, on some hallucinogen, already dreams of returning to Tunis

There is a story floating around in the media that from his new vantage point in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, deposed Tunisian president Zine Ben Ali phoned Tunisia’s interim Prime Minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, informing the latter that he was ‘considering’ returning from exile to Tunisia. The news report continues that Ghannouchi diplomatically responded to Ben Ali that ‘it was impossible’.

This story first appeared on YNetNews, an Israeli website. Is this one of the many rumors flying through cyberspace, yet to be substantiated? If true, it suggests the degree to which Ben Ali’s thinking remains, at best, delusional. He doesn’t seem to understand that the world he ruled in Tunisia has just crumbled. Actually perhaps for Zine Ben Ali, denial is the only viable psychological strategy he has left. The alternative is to engage in the kind of self-criticism that tyrants and sociopaths find difficult.

Nowhere to run to,
Nowhere to hide
Got nowhere to run to,
Nowhere to hide
– Martha and the Vandellas

Is this the song that Zine Ben Ali and Leila Trabelsi are singing in Jeddah?

Of course … perhaps something else is at play. There are suggestions that the Saudis are uncomfortable with Ben Ali’s presence in their country. Add to this the fact that Saudi Arabia and Tunisia have an extradition treaty and it suggests that besides longing for his Sidi Bou Said villa, that Ben Ali has nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide. Rejected from Malta, France, Italy and Egypt, now Ben Ali’s welcome in Saudi is also wearing thin.

Still, while it is not clear how far the current Tunisian reforms will ultimately go in changing ‘the system’, still, Ben Ali might do well, following Idi Amin’s example of remaining in Saudi for the long haul. Maybe Leila Trabelsi can return to her earlier life as a hair dresser and open a shop in Jeddah? Returning to Tunisia might not sit well with the 10 million Tunisians who are burning photos of the ‘royal family’ in effigy, taking no small amount of pleasure in stomping on their images and burning their villas and those of their family members to the ground.

Despite the present attempts of his former security force to sow chaos in the country, that Ben Ali could in anyway regain power or credibility in Tunisia is out of the question. Nothing would ignite nor unite the Tunisian opposition more than a Ben Ali return to the scene of his political and economic crimes. Yet someday, he and his wife should return to Tunisia, reimbursing the presently cash starved country, the billions of dollars they have stolen…to stand trial.

It’s not just Tunisia that is boiling with social unrest – a reaction to high unemployment, corruption at the top and state repression, ‘the holy trinity’ of political instability throughout the Arab world. The unprecedented protests in Tunisia that brought the Zine Ben Ali/Leila Trabelsi government to its knees have had echoes far and wide. In Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Mauretania and Algeria – and who knows where else – protests have erupted along lines similar to Tunisia.

Washington’s illusion: That while supporting regional dictators, it has enough credibility to talk of democracy

Fueled by deep structural socio-economic problems that have plagued the region for some time, the protests have struck fear into the geriatric leadership of many Middle Eastern countries. These protests have also sowed confusion in Washington, Paris and Tel Aviv which have long counted on the maintenance of a Middle East balance of power which favored their interests. To what degree will the changes in the Tunisian political landscape reverberate throughout the region?

Of course Monday morning quarterbacking is not so difficult. The ingredients for the social explosion that shook Tunisia have long been known and openly discussed far and wide. The causes of the ‘Tunisian Intifada’ are today being discussed in every major media outlet worldwide and for the most part, at least on a certain shallow and restricted level, the newspaper accounts are accurate. Still, the Tunisian events suggest the degree to which, the political class in core countries – in this case France and the USA – have learned little from history.

What stands out is the degree to which both the Obama Administration and the Sarkozy government in France, appeared to have been taken by surprise by the Tunisian events. Reminds one of Pearl Harbor in a way. Perhaps the clues where there, but those in power did not have the ability or the will to put them together in a coherent manner. No predictability whatsoever.

And in the same way that Iran in 1978 and the collapse of communism (1989-1991) took Washington and Paris by surprise, Tunisia in 2011 is yet another massive intelligence and intelligence interpretation failure, leaving both countries to scramble after the fact, to react to, rather than shape events. Part of this inability, a large part actually, stems from the ideological blinders and narrow self interest which guides the foreign policy of both countries.

While Tunisians continue to debate the shape of their post-Ben Ali/Trabelsi world, the US and France are in a damage control mode, on the one hand, now that all political risks in supporting change have evaporated trying to ally themselves with the winds of change. On the other hand, working frantically behind the scenes to manage and circumscribe the Tunisian changes lest they ‘get out of hand’, meaning that they take a direction that challenge US and French economic and strategic priorities.

Has the United States learned any lessons from all this? It appears not. Has Washington concluded that the risks of supporting geriatric Middle East authoritarian leaders outweigh the benefits, arming them to the teeth while ignoring the socio-economic storm brewing under the surface throughout the region? It appears not.

In Tunisia, US is paying the price for a myopic foreign policy in which ‘strategic considerations,’ i.e., its exaggerated overkill military response to radical Islam, the war on terrorism, trumps human rights and economic development concerns. All that talk about encouraging ‘democracy’ appears little more than verbal pabulum. How else can U.S. support for a kleptomanic dictator like Zine Ben Ali, cut out of the same mold (and for the same reasons) as Mobutu Sese Seku or Ferdinand Marcos, be explained?

Scratch all that rhetoric and a more cynical foreign policy comes to light, predicated upon attempted control of world energy and strategic raw material resources, the main instruments of control being a historically obsolete military alliance, NATO and new forms of global control – AFRICOM – come into focus.

All of the indications suggest that in the future, sooner or later, there will be more Tunisias. And it’s getting more difficult for the United States to pull out the radical Islamic fundamentalist bogeyman out of their bag of tricks to justify a failed foreign policy. A new vision is needed, not just in Tunis, but in Washington too.

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