(Pictured: President Ben Ali visiting immolation victim Mohammed Bouazizi .)
More or less the same promises were made after the people in Tunisia’s phosphate mining district, centered around the town of Redeyef, erupted in a six month ongoing social protest marathon against unemployment and deteriorating social conditions in 2008. That resulted in massive government repression and promises of economic development which did not materialize.
More and more it appears that the Tunisian government’s response this time is ‘too little too late’. The image of young, educated Tunisians preferring death by fire seems to have shattered what little credibility Zine Ben Ali’s government had left. A small country – both in terms of geography and population – cannot sustain this kind of anger from its population for very long. And a week of protests, even violent ones, might not sound like much to outsiders, but it could easily be the blow that brings down the regime.
Tunisia’s ‘economic miracle’ has long been somewhat inflated. Even in the best of times, the coastal cities and the north benefited more than the interior and the south. It is from the latter that, if one looks closely, one will see that wave after wave of protest against unemployment and poverty have emanated. Indeed, the current dyamic, of a social movement emerging from deep in the interior, is nothing new to modern Tunisian history.
Add to this an increasingly corrupt ruling circle in which economic and political power have concentrated more and more in the hands of two families – those of the president, the Ben Alis, and his wife, the Trabelsis — and another important layer of the crisis unfolds. Combine the economic and social disparities, the corruption and excesses of the ruling clans with what has become one of the more repressive regimes politically in the region and the ingredients for a full blown crisis fall into place that only needed a match, lit by a poor soul in Sidi Bouzid, sole supporter of his family, to ignite the desert fire.
Before these protests, Tunisians were wondering who, in the near future would replace Zine Ben Ali as he is ‘eased’from power – his wife, Leina Trabelsi, a son? Some one else from his wife’s side of the family. With this week’s turmoil, the discussion has shifted some: Tunisians are already talking about Zine Ben Ali as if he is already history and debating, theorizing what/who will come next.
Of course it is still quite possible that Ben Ali will unleash his military full force on the entire population and will crush this uprising in blood. There is also the possibility that there is a limit to the Tunisian army firing on their own people and the military itself could ‘snap’and turn on the president. Repression on a broad scale at this point will only hasten Ben Ali’s demise.
My own speculation is that the Ben Ali’s-Trabelsis will follow a path well warn by others – by Marcos, Mobutu, the Shah of Iran and join the Third World Kleptomanic Hall of Fame – and, that they will, after looting Tunisia one last time, make their exist from Tunis to…wherever. Things have gotten too hot for them, the social base supporting the regime has become so razor thin narrow, that even if the families survive the current social uprising, that their days are numbered and they know it. Even dictators need some base of support within the population and one has to be hard pressed to find Ben Ali’s.
And then there are ‘the concerns’ of the major powers – in this case, France, the US, Tunisia’s neighbors to the west and east, Algeria and Libya, and other regional players. More and more there are indications that the US and France are not adverse to abandonning Ben Ali to his fate and padded foreign bank accounts. His lack of credibility makes him no longer useful. But there are fears about ‘the transition’. And a transition to ‘what,’ to ‘whom’? Wouldn’t it be better to ease him out, to try to soften the national anger, so that the changes that seem inevitable are also modest in terms of more far reaching socio-economic directions? How would a new administration ‘cooperate’ with Washington in its ‘war on terrorism’, plans to expand Africom, etc.?
In retrospect, the match that Mohammed Bouazizi lit not only ignited his poor and now tortured body (he is still clinging to life in a hospital in Sousse) but it seems to have, in its own way, burnt the house that Zine Ben Ali built in Tunisia to the ground, leaving a few unanswered questions:
Will Ben Ali go from power gracefully or gracelessly? Will the Ben Alis wander aimlessly as did the Shah of Iran after the latter’s fall? Will Tunisia ever recoup what are described as the billions which it is widely alleged the Ben Alis and Trabelsis have plundered and privatized? Graceless ends are messy and can have long term consequences not only for Tunisia, but for ‘regional security.’
And what will follow for Tunisia, a country that 64 years ago gained its independence (from colonialism) but not its freedom?
Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.