Generalizing Tunisia: Context Overrides Story

When faced with problems, most authoritarian regimes maintain a policy of rigidity when the appropriate response would be flexibility, political wisdom and concessions. This policy gives authoritarian leaders their ability to control their populations to serve the interests of a few individuals and political and military elites. It can also, however, usher their downfall, for populations can only be oppressed, controlled and punished to a point.

President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, who controlled his population with an iron fist since his arrival to the presidential palace in 1987, must have crossed that point. He was forced to flee the country amid the angry chants of thousands of Tunisians, fed up with growing unemployment, soaring inflation, government corruption, violent crackdowns and lack of political freedom. These mounting frustrations led to relentless protests throughout the country.  The government’s subsequent crackdowns only stirred emotions beyond any crowd control strategy, and eventually Ben Ali’s plane left to seek refuge outside his own country.

The upheaval in Tunisia is certainly worthy of all the headlines, media commentary and official statements it has generated. But many of these reactions contain generalizations that hype expectations, worsen an already terrible situation and provoke misguided policies. Indeed, the current political storm, dubbed both the “Youth Intifada” and the “Jasmine Revolution”, has inspired many interpretations. Some commentators wished to see the popular uprising as a prelude to an essentially anti-Arab regimes phenomenon that will strike elsewhere as well, while others placed it within a non-Arab context, noting that popular uprisings are growing in countries that struggle with rising food prices. Even al-Qaeda had a take on the situation, trying to score points to find a place in the looming political void.

Many commentators have focused on the Arab identity of Tunisia to find correlations elsewhere.  Hadeel al-Shalchi’s Associated Press article “Arab activists hope Tunisia uprising brings change,” presented the uprising within an Arab context. Reporting from Cairo, she wrote of the growing optimism among those whom she dubbed “Arab activists” that other Arab leaders will share the fate of Ben Ali if they don’t ease their grip on power. Hossam Bahgat is one such activist. He told AP, “I feel like we are a giant step closer to our own liberation… What’s significant about Tunisia is that literally days ago the regime seemed unshakeable, and then eventually democracy prevailed without a single Western state lifting a finger.”

True, both Tunisia and Egypt are Arab countries with many similarities, but expecting a repeat of a scenario that was uniquely Tunisian and implicitly suggesting that Western states serve as harbingers of democracy is illusory, to stay the least.

Now that Ben Ali is out of the picture, Western governments are cautiously lining up behind the Tunisian uprising, but hardly with the same enthusiasm of their support of the Iranian riots of June 2009. British Foreign Secretary William Hague merely denounced the unrest, calling for “restraint from all sides.” He stated, “I condemn the violence and call on the Tunisian authorities to do all they can to resolve the situation peacefully.” US President Barack Obama added, “I urge all parties to maintain calm and avoid violence, and call on the Tunisian government to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the near future.”

Clichéd statements aside, both the US and the UK must fear the repercussions of a popular uprising in an area so close to the heart of American-British interests in the Middle East. Both countries are careful not to appear to oppose democratic reforms, even if they are forced to disown their friends in the region. Their response is largely representative of official responses from many Western capitals – the very capitals that lauded Tunisia as a model for how Arab countries can help win the war on terror.

One must not let confusing media headlines sideline the fact that neither the US nor the UK had Tunisia on their radar for circumventing democracy or violating human rights. Ben Ali was celebrated as an icon of moderation, notwithstanding his atypical Arab stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime was not the type that required much chastising. It was the benign kind that allowed a tiny space for secular opposition while cracking down on any Islamic opposition group. For 23 years, such practice was barely problematic, for it served the interests of both Ben Ali and various Western powers. The countless calls for respect of human rights from international and local organizations were mostly unheeded. Washington and London rarely found that irksome.

Now that the Tunisian people’s fight for rights has taken a sharp turn, many of us find it difficult to examine the specific context of this case without delving into dangerous generalizations. Western governments now speak of democracy in the region – as if there were ever a genuine concern; commentators speak of the next regime to fall – as if every Arab country is a duplication of another; and technology bloggers are celebrating another ‘twitter revolution.’

Perhaps generalizations make things more interesting. Tunisia, after all, is a small country, and most people know little about it aside from the fact that it’s a cheap tourist destination – thus the need to place it within a more gripping context. Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is using the opportunity to read the Tunisian uprising in a unique way. The AQIM leader, Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, has called for the overthrowing of the “corrupt, criminal and tyrannical” regimes in both Tunisia and Algeria and the instatement of al-Sharia law. This call has promoted American commentators to warn of the future Islamization of Tunisia and will likely result in Western intervention to ensure that another “moderate” regime succeeds the one that just fled.

There is no harm in expanding a popular experience to understand the world at large and its conflicts. But in the case of Tunisia, it seems that the country is largely understood within a multilayer of contexts, thus becoming devoid of any political, cultural or socio-economic uniqueness. Understanding Tunisia as just another “Arab regime”, another possible podium for al-Qaeda’s violence, is convenient but also unhelpful to any cohesive understanding of the situation there and the events that are likely to follow.

Ramzy Baroud is an author and a journalist. His latest volume is The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People's Struggle (Pluto Press, London). He can be reached at ramzybaroud@hotmail.com. Read other articles by Ramzy.

10 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Rehmat said on January 21st, 2011 at 10:33am #

    Tunisia – Regime-change by and for Israel

    On January 7, 2011, one of the most powerful Jewish-controlled think tank, Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) published its Senior Fellow Elliot Abrams’ (radical Jew Abrams pled guilty in 1991 to two misdemeanors and was sentenced to a year’s probation and 100 hours of community service. A year later, former President Bush, the farher, granted Abrams a full pardon. He was one of the more hawkish pro-Israel Jews in the Reagan Administration’s State Department. He campaigned for the Iraqi illegal war for Israel) – predicted that another US-client government (read pro-Israel) will be emerging in Tunisia – leading to similar regime-changes in Egypt, Libya and Algeria. In other words with the break-up of Sudan being expected in the very near future, most of Africa will be under Israeli influence via the US.

    The Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies made a similar prediction on December 24, 2010.

    Some US foreign policy insiders believe that Washington wants Sakhr El Materi (son-in-law of Ben Ali), Chairman of the Tunisia-US Parliamentary Friendship Group, to head the new government. Sakhr El Materi met the Pentagon and State Department officials before the anti-Ben Ali protests. Israel-CIA authored Wikileaks has claimed that Ben Ali family is the most corrupt in Tunisia after it broke diplomatic relations with Israel in 2000. Wikileaks also says that Sakhar is very much concerned with rising influence of Iran.

    http://rehmat1.wordpress.com/2011/01/20/tunisia-regime-change-by-and-for-israel/

  2. hayate said on January 21st, 2011 at 1:00pm #

    “Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is using the opportunity to read the Tunisian uprising in a unique way. The AQIM leader, Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, has called for the overthrowing of the “corrupt, criminal and tyrannical” regimes in both Tunisia and Algeria and the instatement of al-Sharia law. This call has promoted American commentators to warn of the future Islamization of Tunisia and will likely result in Western intervention to ensure that another “moderate” regime succeeds the one that just fled.”

    Good ole alciada doing exactly what israeloamerican wants them to do. Either they are working to destabilise countries the israeloamericans want destabilised or they are terrorising nations who had the gall to oppose some israeloamerican war crime policy.

  3. lizburbank said on January 21st, 2011 at 4:01pm #

    Investigation reveals US-Soros soft power ‘democracy/human rights activists’ the major force behind the ‘yellow revolution’ and ‘news’ reports!
    Soon there’ll be a digest issue exposing this Ramzy, poor health has slowed it down!

    liz
    http://www.burbankdigest.com/

  4. lichen said on January 21st, 2011 at 4:49pm #

    Of course, many people here support the right wing theocratic dictators in the middle east, and want to quell the idea of popular uprisings leading to economic inequality direct democracy in the region.

  5. shabnam said on January 21st, 2011 at 6:41pm #

    {Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is using the opportunity to read the Tunisian uprising in a unique way.}

    The dictators are installed and supported by the US/Israel. The Kurdish terrorists in North of Iraq are trained and directed by the zinofascists posed as ‘businessmen’. The partition of Sudan, like Iraq, was designed and carried out by Israel/US to expand the interest of Israel. This partition is going to bring nothing but more instability, terrorism, killings and more partition if people of the region do not work together AGAINST THE COMMON ENEMY, Zionism and imperialism.

    THERE IS NO AL-QAEDA in the world. This term has been constructed by the CIA/Mossad to frame Muslims in the world to help them to carry out ‘war on terror’ which is a HOAX. In fact, most of the terrors are designed and carried out by Israel/US in cooperation with MI6 and SAUDI ARABIA in the region.

    Only the gullible people believe the lies of mossad/CIA. Bush was a liar to hold al Qaeda responsible for their own terrorism so Obama. Therefore, this lie is repeated by the embedded journalists that ‘al Qaeda’ is active in the Muslim countries. The CIA/Mossad have fabricated ‘al Qaeda’ to cover their own terrorist activities around the world.

    Please, watch the following VIDEO to realize that Al-Qaeda DOES NOT EXIST. When the Zionist stooges at the White House, State Department, Congress, Senate, and Army hold Al Qaeda responsible for their own terror, in fact they are targeting gullible people around the world. If you want to be considered as one, then go ahead and spread their LIES around to hide their crimes against humanity.

    Al Qaeda does not exist. Al Qaeda does not exist. Al Qaeda does not exist.

    Bin Laden is dead. He was killed in 2001. Ben Laden is dead

    {http://rt.com/news/turabi-sudan/}

  6. bozh said on January 21st, 2011 at 6:51pm #

    just remember! when god tires [allah, yahweh also] torturing u, the devil takes over. and that will go on forever. no, no, don’t just yet commit suicide. wait till i tell u!
    is it any wonder i am an islamo-, mosheo-, christo-phobe. and looks i am the only one in that category.
    of course we cld kill all sacerdotals… tnx

  7. hayate said on January 21st, 2011 at 7:55pm #

    lichen said on January 21st, 2011 at 4:49pm #

    “Of course, many people here support the right wing theocratic dictators in the middle east, and want to quell the idea of popular uprisings leading to economic inequality direct democracy in the region.”

    Oh horrors of horrors, DV commentators are not defending israeli human organ stealing, israeli medical experiments using human guinea pigs, israeli weapons testing using Palestinians, the israeli dominated narcotics “business”, israeli dominated human trafficking, constant israeli sponsored and practiced war crimes of every imaginable sort, the zionist corruption of most western capitalist guvs that benefits the Jewish israeli establishment, and that’s just for starters. Yes, it’s just awful DV commentators don’t roboticly repeat the zionist hasbara/fascist propaganda like good little finger puppets.

    Do you think mossad should start killing DV commentators, lichen, like they do everyone else critical of your sacred 21st century nazis when they think they can get away with it?

  8. mary said on January 22nd, 2011 at 2:37am #

    What tripe. Just name one.

    lichen said on January 21st, 2011 at 4:49pm #

    Of course, many people here support the right wing theocratic dictators in the middle east……

  9. mary said on January 22nd, 2011 at 2:56am #

    You can determine Bliar’s deep Zionazi hatred of Muslim people here. He spoke them with vehemence at the so-called Iraq Inquiry yesterday.
    p 156/7 {http://www.iraqinquiry.org.uk/media/50865/20110121-Blair.pdf}

    One view of the extremism, which I think was fairly

    13 prevalent at the time, was that this extremism was

    14 a kind of alien encrustment on Islam, on the Muslim

    15 countries and so on, that, yes, it was based on

    16 a perversion of Islam but it was really a very small

    17 number of people who were engaged in this, and that view

    18 I think is still shared by many people today.

    19 Now my view is actually different from that.

    20 I think the numbers of people who are engaged in

    21 terrorism or become suicide bombers is very, very

    22 limited, but I think the global ideology that gives rise

    23 to this extremism has far greater roots, and, you know,

    24 I am out in the Middle East a lot of the time now and

    25 it’s the same issue everywhere. It comes up — it

    157

    1 doesn’t always come up in issues to do with terrorism or

    2 violence. It is about modernisation. It is about

    3 attitudes to the west and it is deep. It’s a lot

    4 deeper.

    5 So what happened when you got Al Qaeda coming into

    6 this situation is that it was more than just a few

    7 terrorists. It was backed with the ability to push

    8 an ideology that said the west is fundamentally hostile

    9 to Islam and that’s why we have to wage war against

    10 these people and we have to wage war against them and

    11 against the leaders that deal with them.

    12 Now that ideology in terms of how it results in

    13 violence is very few people. That narrative about Islam

    14 and the west I fear has a far greater reach than we

    15 would like to accept which is why this problem is not

    16 confined to one area in the world today.

  10. Rehmat said on January 22nd, 2011 at 10:27am #

    Al-Qaeda – like the ‘wikileaks’ is a CIA/Mossad creation to divert world attention away from the Zionazi regime in Palestine.

    Interesting, what the western mainstream media is affraid to report is that most of thes Al-Qaeda cell have been working for Israeli Mossad. Foe example, in 2000 Yemeni government accused Israel Al-Qaeda behind the bombing of USS Cole. In 2002, PA captured a Al-Qaeda cell working for Mossad. The Adam Yahiye Gadahan, who have been representing Al-Qaeda tape – is a Mossad agent. Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008 were also engineered by Mossad with the help of CIA and RAW. The latest one is the Nigerian underwear terrorist and the Green Revolution protests in Iran.

    Some of the other Israel’s famous False-Flag operations include attack on USS Liberty, assassination of prsident Joh Kennedy, Pan-Am 103 bombing, 9-11, London 7/7 bombing, Bali bombing, Jordan bombing, Madris train bombing, Paradise Mombassa Hotel bombing, etc. etc. – and the latest Alexandria church bombing.