North African Dispatches “Ben Ali, c’est fini!”

This week's round-up from North Africa describes how the Tunisian population’s unrelenting pressure throughout the country which saw the end to the Ben Ali system. Mohamed Bouazizi’s passing away, alongside the hundreds of other dead in the repression, Imad Mesdoua argues, will not have been in vain.

New in Ceasefire, North African Dispatches - Posted on Wednesday, January 19, 2011 11:20 - 3 Comments

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      A New Era

On the 17th of December 2010, the young Tunisian vegetable merchant Mohamed Bouazizi, in committing the ultimate act of protest, took his own life through fire and in the process lit up –so to speak- a nation incensed and inspired by his sacrifice. In the culmination of public riots, the Tunisian population’s unrelenting pressure throughout the country saw the end of the Ben Ali system. Bouazizi’s passing away, alongside the hundreds of other dead following blind repression, will not have been in vain.  They have given hope to millions across the region that no regime is unshakable. Almost a month on,  on the 14th of January 2011, mindful of the reality that his reign had come to an end, Ben Ali fled the country alongside family members to the Saudi city of Jeddah. At the helm of the small north African state for 23 years, the Tunisian dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali leaves behind him a nation thirsty for freedom of expression, the liberty to choose its representatives in a democratic setting and more importantly, socio-economic justice for all.  

In the expectation of elections in the coming sixty days, a democratic transition process has been initiated. Many exiled opposition figures, Islamists or Communists, have begun preparing for their return and for the approaching electoral challenge awaiting them. The cynical voices that have already begun their doomsday predictions of the situation ought to be warned. No matter what the outcome of the elections may be, this revolution’s repercussions cannot be underestimated. As Eastern Europe had its democratic spring with the fall of the Berlin wall so too will this region. The fall of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, both in the way it has taken place and its consequences, mark the end of an era where accountability was but a hollow word in the ears of Arab leaders. As one Moroccan blogger fittingly put it, “with this event, Arabs can finally aspire to reform and a candid discussion on the nature of their domestic troubles.”  

The Heroes and Villains of the Jasmine Revolution

In every Revolution, there is a hero and a villain. Though Tunisians were accustomed to the coercive actions of the police and the state’s security arsenal, nothing could have prepared them for the unrestrained repression which followed the past months riots. By using real bullets to disperse crowds, often killing dozens in the process, Ben Ali’s police profoundly shocked Tunisian society at its very roots.  This anxious authoritarianism, perhaps symptomatic of a regime cognizant of its coming end, did little to quell dissent. Rather, and as history has often shown, it exponentially fueled a cross-societal loathing of the police and by extension the regime. The graphic images of the cruelty inflicted on protestors also amplified the mobilization of broader sections of the population.

A man photographs a friend as he kisses a Tunisian soldier

The hero, or the only institution left untarnished by the upheavals of the Tunisian revolution has been the army. In a truly admirable, professional and patriotic manner, its chief of staff refused to obey commands to fire at protestors. When the army was brought in to action, rather than aggravate the situation, it played the role of shock absorber between the police and rioters.  This apolitical stance gained it vast admiration in the eyes of the population. Whilst one cannot help but wonder what the army’s behind-the-scenes role has truly been in the downfall of the Ben Ali regime; it is certain that its role in protecting the population and ensuring stability has made it an actor to look out for in the coming democratic transition.  

International Reactions

In what is possibly one of the biggest gaffes in French diplomatic history, authorities stuck to their blind support of the Ben Ali regime to the very last hour. French Foreign Minister, Michelle Alliot-Marie went so far as to propose sending French police to supervise and assist, at the height of the repression, Tunisia’s brutal police. Ultimately, France’s position, at odds with the core democratic values it so often professes, has greatly undermined its own standing in the eyes of Tunisia and most of the Arab Street. As for America, President Obama’s shy support of the ‘dignified’ Tunisian uprising shows that whilst he was keen to support the movement, American officials remained apprehensive of what could come after (i.e. Islamic government). This manifestly mellowed Obama’s expression of solidarity. Finally, the silence demonstrated by Arab states’ leaders and elites, shows a calculated effort to be cautious and steer clear of exacerbating public antipathy.

What next?

Will there realistically be a domino effect? If one is to scrutinize recent events throughout the region in the days following Ben Ali’s escape to the Gulf, then one can assume that political oppositions in various countries hope to or are aiming to replicate the Tunisian example.  This was perhaps an inevitable and predictable occurrence. Jordan and Egypt for example, immediately witnessed anti-government protests in the aftermath of Ben Ali’s departure. Additionally, a significant but alarming trend which also testifies to the growing desperation of many has been the latest trivialization of self-immolation throughout the region. In an attempt to replicate Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of defiance, dozens of unemployed men in Algeria, Egypt and Mauritania, have been reported to have attempted to set themselves ablaze. As each of these men claim, their acts were desperate responses to socio-economic and political injustices committed against them.

Facebook groups illustrate the extent to which Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution has jolted the entire Arab world.  The social network, as it proved with Tunisia, was able to bring together the reformist generation from across the borders of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). In nations where the freedom of expression is tightly monitored, the internet is a space where young people from Morocco to Iraq were able to publicly express their admiration of the Tunisian people and their valiant pursuit for democracy.  This renewed enthusiasm and the newfound belief that emancipation from the powers that be is now achievable has truly become palpable on the net.

Finally, it would be erroneous to believe that Islamic movements throughout the MENA region have little or no power. They remain popular in the poorer sections of Arab society, particularly in Egypt where they carefully await the regime’s demise. However, it is clear to the West now that their states cannot continue to hide behind unpopular regimes to thwart the threat of the Islamist wave; nor can they go on overlooking-as was the case in Tunisia- the liberticidal, nepotistic and repressive methods of said regimes that only aggravate a vicious cycle of resentment and despair.  

Imad Mesdoua writes weekly on African and Maghreb affairs for Ceasefire. His interests include politics, current affairs and Real Madrid FC.

His column appears every Wednesday.

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3 Comments

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ellen
Jan 23, 2011 11:27

Where are the women of Tunisia?

Ramy
Jan 25, 2011 20:10

Respect !!!
VERY WELL WRITTEN
I smell a promotion 😉

webdesign
May 11, 2011 12:05

We still see keyword stuffing removed to an absurd level. I say to consumers which a web page has got 2 work to do – yes, to appeal to searchers but also critically to ‘retail’ to the human customer. There’s puny direct finding people to the page if you after that put them off you!

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