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The International Writers Magazine: Tunisia

Tunisia's startling revolution
Marwan Asmar
It took a flicker to start a revolution that toppled a ruler after 23 years in power. Many are calling it the "Jasmine Revolution" after the nation's national flower, others a "popular revolution" and "Velvet Revolution" in relation to what happened in eastern Europe when the people their overwhelmed their former regimes.

Ben Ali

Others still are comparing it to the 1978 Iranian Revolution when Iranians deposed the Shah through street politics.

What’s happening in Tunisia is a combination of all three. Their month-old popular uprising unexpectedly resulted in the deposing of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali who ruled their country for 23 years through the iron-fist.

It resembled a "velvet revolution" when he swiftly left the country on 14 January through his own accord, calling it quits, and no doubt taking the queue from previous dictators who either left the country in extreme situations or others who decided to stay and fight another day, like the former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.

Ben Ali, as he said read the mood of the street, which has been clamoring for his overthrow since 17 December, 2010 when Mohammad Bu Azizi set himself on fire because the authorities took away his vegetable cart and denied him making a meager living.

This was the spark that lead to what became a mass revolution, creating the domino effect on people raising up in town and cities throughout the country to tourist-laden coastal areas, eventually smacking unto the streets of the capital, Tunis.

Despite references to the police state which had been built up throughout the reign of Ben Ali, security officers were not able to turn the tide of the demonstrators in what observers called a social revolution that have never been witnessed in the modern political history of Tunisia or since the country's independence from the French in 1956.

The latest Tunisian uprising is not being given a specific label. It is not being lead by communists or Islamists, with Ben Ali cracking down on the latter group. In fact, observers argue this is why he was tolerated by the West since he came to power in 1987.

If anything, it was the educated masses that eventually grew frustrated with the economic policies put forward by men like Mohammad Al Ghanoushi who today continues to rule as prime minister in a caretaker government waiting to hold elections within 60 days as specified by the Constitution.

While official statistics put the employment rate at 14 percent, unofficially many say the rate is as much as 25 percent and annually increasing as school leavers and university graduates were being churned out every 12 months unto the unemployment heap in a country of about 9.5 million facing higher commodity prices.

Bu Azizi, (26), was forced to work as a vegetable seller to take care of his family, having been unemployed long after his university graduation. Many such graduates stand unemployed today in Tunisia. Just before Ben Ali left the country he promised he would create 300,000 jobs in the next few years but he didn’t say how.

The regime had already lost its credibility among the masses, it was deemed to be "uncaring" to the masses continuously echoing its own voice and distinct brand of ideology through its Constitutional Democratic Rally Party, presided over by Habib Abu Bourguiba, the country's first president who eventually gave way to Ben Ali in a bloodless coup in 1987.

Initially Ben Ali was seen as a man of reform who wanted political change, however, he soon power consolidated his position through the different security apparatus of state using and abusing his power and changing the Constitution to stand again as president.

At the first multi-candidate presidential election in 1999, he won with a farcical 99.44% of the vote. This earned him the nickname Mr 99%, although he was also known as Ben A Vie (president-for-life). Just before he left the country, he told the street he wouldn't be standing for the next 2014 elections and no longer supported the president-for-life concept put forward by Abu Bourguiba.

But people were already fed up; it was clearly a mood made too little too late, especially when he told them patronizingly in Arabic "I now know what you want".

His quick exit was a bit of a surprise especially since dictators take more than one month to be persuaded to leave the country as was the case with the Shah when it took him months to get out, being only forced by day-in-day-out popular demonstrations, also in the face of a large security regime and after the loss of his American allies.

But once the decision was taken Ben Ali felt he had to rapidly move forward realizing his foreign allies would no longer support him, and even was glad to see the back of him with them playing to the tunes of democracy and the will of the people.

First hovering over the skies of Malta, contacted Sardinia and then Paris where he was fobbed off by non-other than French President Nicolas Sarkozy, his four-plane entourage was finally allowed to land in Jeddah.

By being marooned in the skies, the ex-president was getting a taste of his own medicine and the initial taste of exile. Just like the many Tunisians who were forced into exile under his rule, he was adjusting to his own exile which started when he cryptically left the country that made him billions. His fortune tucked away in overseas banks is estimated anything from $3 billion to $15 billion dollars.  

Accompanied by his wife Laila Al Tarabulsi and others, he was welcomed by the Saudi Arabian authorities as private guest. His wife, 20 years his junior and initially a hairdresser from a modest family background had climbed the greasy pole by skillfully manipulating the politics of the palace. She played a very skillful behind-the-scene role appointing ones she approved of and dismissing others. These were ministers, ambassadors and in the public sector. She, a chic First Lady, was the second wife of Ben Ali, was a former divorcee, and had a mesmerizing grip on the president that one almost thinks she was his shadow. 

Her brother Belhussayn and Imad Al Tarabulsi were given high profile jobs to willy-nilly recoup what they can take at the expense of the state. Belhussayn headed an airline company. She was also the force behind Mohammad Sakher Al Maatri, her son-in-law and husband of her eldest daughter.

Observers say the billionaire businessmen, was a media mogul in Tunis who owned the Islamic Al Zaytouna broadcasting, and bought Al Sabah newspaper, one of Tunisia top dailies in 2009, as well as an Islamic bank. He was reportedly being groomed by Ben Ali (74) to lead the party.

Such as was the blatant political and economic corruption, abusing the system for personal power and family aggrandizement. It was made open by the ruler who had no compunction about the population he was leading through authoritarian and police suppression tactics.

Weaned on western friendship, while courting Europe and the European Union, and standing as a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism, Ben Ali sought to build a yet another era of modern Tunisia based on alliances, foreign investments and opening the country to mass tourism from Europe.

However, he was well-known for stifling free speech, censorship and control of the media with the internet closely monitored.  Many argued this upset his educated population who were exposed to European ideas and thought.

Today, it appears that he also built a very effective 1000-man presidential guard as evidenced by the fact it is fighting the army on the streets of the capital as looting and mayhem continue in an area where law and order is to be restored.

It is yet to be seen whether the popular street, the one which must be congratulated for the removal of Ben Ali, will succumb to the promises of the current political establishment who are still after all, a continuation of the old guard, or will they wait to see if their demands can be met through political means.

Negotiations for a unity government are still being discussed but it is still to be seen whether Tunisia’s mass revolution can be turned into a velvet one. Meanwhile petrol shortages are growing and food is getting scarce. Things are not over by a long way. Many ordinary watchers in the Arab world fear that Tunisia could turn into another Iraq!

© Marwan Asmar 17 Jan 2011

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