Turmoil in Tunisia

Earlier turmoil began in 2000, the first protests since 1984 bread riots, including a three-day professional drivers strike in Tunis. Demonstrations followed in over a dozen cities by students, unemployed youths and others. Protestors attacked government symbols, including public buildings. Poverty, rising food and energy prices, high unemployment, and political repression were proximate causes. Le Monde, at the time, called the turmoil “the first warning shots aimed at President (Zine al-Abidine) Ben Ali.”

Protests then erupted in mid-December after Mohammed Bouazizi, an unemployed graduate working as a vegetable seller set himself on fire in front of government offices in Sidi Bouzid, protesting police confiscation of his merchandise for operating without a permit. At his January 4 funeral, marchers chanted, “Farewell, Mohammed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today. We will make those who caused your death weep.”

His uncle, Mehdi Horchani, told AFP, he “gave his life to draw attention to his condition and that of his brothers.” Tunisia, like Algeria and other regional countries have high unemployment, especially affecting youths, because economic conditions and structural market mandates forced cuts. Moreover, in Tunisia like elsewhere in the region, it’s impossible to get decent jobs without connections or greasing palms.

Unprecedented December protests continued and spread, including in Tunis. As expected, police reacted harshly, opening fire on demonstrators, killing 18-year old Mohammed Amari in Sidi Bou Zid. At the time, Ben Ali warned on television that law and order would “be applied in all firmness to punish a minority of extremists and mercenaries who resort to violence and disorder.”

In 1987, he succeeded President Habib Bourguiba, who ruled Tunisia after independence from France in 1956. A BBC obituary called him the “father of Tunisia” who led its fight against “colonial master, France.” Writer Dirk Vandewalle described “Bourguibism” as a “curious mixture of political ideology and personal domination (as well as) pragmatic, opportunistic,” pro-Western one-party rule. During his tenure, Tunisia was mostly peaceful.

That changed under Ben Ali, a harsh despot who tolerated no dissent. In late December, London-based Asharq Alawsat writer, Abdulrahman al Rashed, warned protests showed his loss of credibility, saying:

“The demonstrations in Tunisia are refusing to stop; these have spread throughout the cities and even reached the nation’s capital, in a clear challenge to the state.” Despite economic hard times, he said, “Tunisia’s problem is more political than economic and goes beyond the anger of the unemployed masses. This is a problem of a lack of trust in the government, and loss (of its) credibility” after 23 years of harsh rule. Economic duress lit a fuse, erupting in mass street protests against very unpopular rule.

Al Rashad observed that despite hard times, Tunisia is one of the most prosperous Arab nations based on per capital income. It’s also one of the best educated. As a result, he asked, “If (Tunisians are) dissatisfied, what can we say about the citizens of other Arab nations” suffering much worse? How long will take before more eruptions?

Arab Street Rage

Today, in Tunisia, the Maghreb, and across the region, public anger rages (mostly beneath the surface) over economic hardships, corruption, and repressive rule. Trying to placate it on January 13, Ben Ali told a national television audience he’d step down when his term ends in 2014.

It didn’t help. On January 14, New York Times writer, David Kirkpatrick, headlined, “Tunisia Leader Flees and Prime Minister (Mohammed Ghannouchi) Claims Power,” saying:

Ben Ali fled Friday night, “capitulating after a month of mounting protests calling for an end to his 23 years of authoritarian rule. The official Saudi Arabian news agency said he arrived in the country early Saturday.”

A state of emergency was declared. A curfew was imposed. The army banned street gatherings of more than three people, saying violators would be shot.

Long associated with torture, Tunisia’s interior ministry is reviled. It’s believed there’s one policeman for every 40 Tunisians, two-thirds in plain clothes operating covertly. Prior to Ben Ali’s departure, police attacked street protesters violently with tear gas grenades, live fire, and beatings while some lay on the ground,

Shortly afterwards, state news said Ben Ali sacked his government, declared a state of emergency, saying new elections would be held in six months, and Prime Minister Mohammed Ghanouchi would form an interim government.

After Ben Ali fled, talk of new elections subsided, Ghannouchi saying he’d meet with other political parties on January 15, calling it a “decisive day.”

A former finance minister and prime minister since 1999, he’s a close Ben Ali ally who took over under a constitutional provision letting the second in command assume power if presidents can’t fulfill their duties. Tunisia was never ruled democratically. Suggesting a people-friendly national unity government defies credibility, especially with hardline former regime officials in charge.

Major reforms are needed, what Ghannouchi, his cronies, and army commanders won’t countenance so repressive rule will continue unless people power intervenes.

Washington and French pressure, in fact, forced Ben Ali out to prevent Tunisian protests from spreading. On January 14, Jordanian demonstrators held a “day of rage” against high food prices and unemployment, demanding Prime Minister Samir Rifai resign. Eruptions, killing five people, occurred in Algeria for the same reasons, and could explode anywhere in undemocratic Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Qatar, Bahrain, Libya, UAE, Yemen, Oman, occupied Iraq, and Palestine under repressive Israeli rule.

Libya was struck against poor housing. Is Egypt next, repressively ruled for nearly 30 years by Hosni Mubarak? Outside Tunisia’s Cairo embassy, protesters shouted, “Down, down with Hosni Mubarak!” “Ben Ali, you fraud! Mubarak, you fraud! Gadhaffi, you fraud!” Placards read, “Revolution in Tunis, tomorrow in Egypt.” However, replacing despots with propertied elitists assures business as usual with new faces.

Business As Usual in Tunisia

Although Ghannouchi’s power play failed, parliament speaker Fouad Mebazaa, another Ben Ali ally, replaced him. A curfew remains in force. Tunisia’s army and police have full control to protect entrenched power from disruptive protests. The entire Tunis city center is sealed and guarded. Nothing’s changed. Repression continues with softer rhetoric.

On January 17, Beirut-based London Independent journalist, Robert Fisk, headlined, “The Brutal truth about Tunisia: Bloodshed, tears, but no democracy. Bloody turmoil won’t necessarily presage the dawn of democracy,” saying:

Nonetheless, regional despots “are shaking in their boots (because) Tunisia wasn’t meant to happen.” Food price riots struck Algeria and Jordan, “(n)ot to mention scores more dead in Tunisia….” If protests erupted there, they “can happen anywhere….Arabs used to say that two-thirds of the entire Tunisian population – seven million out of 10 million, virtually the whole adult population – worked in one way or another for Mr. Ben Ali’s secret police. They must have been on the streets too, then, protesting at the man we loved until last week. But don’t get too excited.” Expect “safe hands” to rule, serving entrenched power, not popular interests.

The Arab League urged calm, and for “all political forces, representatives of Tunisian society and officials to stand together and unite to maintain the achievements of the Tunisian people and realize national peace.”

According to Germany’s Deutsche Welle:

What happened in Tunisia is a historic event and a strong signal to the entire Arab world. It shows that populations can successfully rise against authoritarian and corrupt rulers, and that ‘regime change’ is possible on its own – without internal or external military intervention, even without leadership from opposition politicians or civilian players” All Tunisian figures, pro and con, “have a responsibility to initiate a transparent and orderly transfer of power.

Fisk, however, is right. Unless popular eruptions prevent it, regime hard-liners will continue old policies with more bloodshed and repression to follow. Make no mistake, however. Removing an Arab despot, no matter how achieved, was historic, showing doing it may be easier than imagined.

Except for Sudan’s short-lived Ja ‘far Numayri ouster, aborted after ‘Umar Bashir seized power a few years later, it was a first time ever regional event. It’s for Tunisians and Arab street believers to shift energy to the next level, using sustained grassroots pressure for real change. With enough people power behind it, why shouldn’t one success inspire others, including in Tunisia unresolved in limbo.

A Final Comment

On January 17, the Ghannouchi-announced National Unity Government took shape, including elitist factions against popular rule alone. Ben Ali’s governing party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RDC) heads it. Key ministers keep their posts, including chamber of councillors president, Abdallah Kallel, a former interior minister wanted by a Swiss court for human rights violations. Lesser officials also stay on. Ghannouchi remains prime minister. Change is rhetoric, not reality, democracy nowhere in sight.

On Tunis streets, demonstrators near RDC headquarters protested, shouting:

With our blood and our soul, we are ready to sacrifice ourselves for the martyrs. Out with the RDC! Out with the party of the dictatorship!

Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse them. The military swore loyalty to the new government and gave police carte blanche authority to quell protests.

A January 16 US State Department press release said:

Secretary Clinton called Tunisian Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane today to express support for the people of Tunisia as they and their government go through a period of significant transition.

Translation: Washington, like France, Britain, other Western countries and regional despots support power, not popular interests they disdain. Tunisia and other regional countries remain politically unstable as people power perhaps thinks the unthinkable – democratic revolutionary change. Why not with enough inspiration behind it!

Stephen Lendman wrote How Wall Street Fleeces America: Privatized Banking, Government Collusion and Class War. Contact him at: lendmanstephen@sbcglobal.net. Also visit his blog site and listen to The Global Research News Hour on RepublicBroadcasting.org Mondays from 11AM-1PM US Central time for cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests. All programs are archived for easy listening. Read other articles by Stephen.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. MichaelKenny said on January 19th, 2011 at 8:03am #

    Don’t forget that the Tunisian dictatorship was one of the many pseudo-communistic one-party regimes that were fashionable in the 1950s and, indeed, were even regarded as “progressive”. But, as with the communist dictatorships on which they were modelled, the lack of even a minimum of democratic accountability lead to the twin evils that have now exploded in Tunisia: the party became a corrupt, self-enriching clan and the only means the people had to obtain change was to rise in revolt. Tunisia 2011 is thus the logical follow-on to what happened in eastern Europe in 1989 – 1991 and even to what happened in Portugal in 1974, for example.

  2. Rehmat said on January 19th, 2011 at 5:42pm #

    All the fingerprints point to Israel’s apparatus in Washington and Zionist networks in North Africa.


  3. Luis Cayetano said on January 20th, 2011 at 6:08am #

    ”All the fingerprints point to Israel’s apparatus in Washington and Zionist networks in North Africa.”

    So this uprising is now a crime (implied by your use of the word ”fingerprints”?). Apparently Arabs can’t even overthrow their dictator leaders without being accomplices in Zionism.

  4. Luis Cayetano said on January 20th, 2011 at 6:29am #

    I read your article, Rehmat. It’s a tortuous, convoluted mish-mash of contradictions so extreme that the space-time continuum will probably collapse around it. I can point them out to you if you’re interested. I can’t do it on your blog because I need a password.

    But tell me something in the meantime: do you think that the unemployed man who set himself on fire in Tunisia was a Zionist agent? Is it conceivable to you that the Arab masses might hate their ruling cliques for reasons other than collusion with Zionism, or is everything that happens in the Middle East that supposedly benefits Israel necessarily the result of its machinations? If so, then you must have an exceedingly poor opinion of the Arab masses, for you see them as having no initiative or agency of their own. They are mere things to be manipulated, with extraordinary ease if your ”thesis” is to be seriously contemplated.

  5. shabnam said on January 20th, 2011 at 9:04am #

    Israel is destabilizing the entire region including North Africa. Israel using her fifth column in the US, Jewish Lobby, to install a puppet, this time a black slave to the ‘thrown’, to wage war in Iraq and elsewhere. Partition of Sudan and Iraq is a ZIONIST GOAL according to Oded Yinon Strategy and a clean break written later. According to this plan, Arab states and other Muslim countries in the region should be patitioned through destabilization, divide and conquer. The partition of Iraq was written by a Zionist Jew, Dennis Gelb, to fulfill the Zionist plan in the region. Partition of the southern Sudan started long time ago and intensified during the Clinton administration, a Zionist puppet, by waging war against Sudan, forming different campaign based on LIES, by Zionist in the leadership, for example Charles Jacobs a judeofascist using reactionary Black stooges, Eugene Rivers, and later ‘save Darfur’ based on ‘genocide, a HOAX to split Sudan.
    Now, the Zionist pawns, trained as terrorist by mossad, are trying to steal more land from the indigenous population using the Zionist experience, killing and stealing. People are fighting back.

    By Marwan al-Aani

    Azzaman, January 19, 2011

    Iraqi ethnic Turks, known locally as Turkmen, have asked U.S. ambassador to Iraq, James F. Jeffrey, to stop meddling in Iraqi internal affairs.

    A statement by the Turkmen Front, a political umbrella for ethnic Turks in Iraq, accused Jeffrey of heightening ethnic and sectarian tensions in the disputed oil-rich province of Kirkuk.

    Kirkuk is a mixed province where Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen all claim it to themselves. But the Kurds have deployed their militias in the city and currently hold joint patrols with U.S. invasion troops there.

    “We call on the U.S. ambassador to put an end to his meddling in internal issues. We do not want him to become a factor deepening Kirkuk’s problems,” the statement, a copy of which was faxed to the newspaper, said.

    The statement was particularly critical of Jeffrey’s call for the implementation of a paragraph in the constitution which if translated into action may lead to full Kurdish control of the province with its massive oil riches.

    Both Turkmen and Arabs, who together form the majority in both the provincial capital and the province at large, dispute the paragraph and call for its amendment, describing it as part of ‘an agenda’ to help Kurds wrest control of Kirkuk.
    “The continuation of meddling by certain parties in (the country’s) internal affairs is a continuation of instability,” the statement said.

  6. Luis Cayetano said on January 20th, 2011 at 9:46am #

    ”Israel using her fifth column in the US, Jewish Lobby, to install a puppet, this time a black slave to the ‘thrown’, to wage war in Iraq and elsewhere. ”

    Obama didn’t invade Iraq. He did what any president was destined to do: continue Bush’s folly, and not for Israel’s sole benefit. You don’t need to ”install” a Zionist puppet to do the lobby’s bidding; the logic of imperialism and world order will automatically guarantee a continuation of the war. Obama has, however, expanded the war into Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and increased the war in Afghanistan. Again, not for Israel’s sole benefit.

    ”Israel is destabilizing the entire region including North Africa”

    The people of Tunisia can’t help it that their desire to throw off oppression coincides with an Israeli desire to install a completely cooperative regime. The Tunisians are fully within their rights to overthrow these tyrannies, as are the Sudanese and the Algerians, and they don’t need any permission from us fence sitters. As omnipotent as you might imagine Israel to be, it can’t invent oppression in these countries, it can only exploit what’s already there for its own ends. When a man sets himself on fire out of despair over his prospects and the society he is living in, that has precisely zero to do with Zionist meddling (except in so far as Zionists helped to prop up Ben Ali and set up the conditions that compelled that unemployed man to do what he did). Anyway, I’ll look into your statements.

  7. hayate said on January 20th, 2011 at 11:36am #

    The ziofascist “color revolutionaries” are belatedly “throwing their support” behind the protests in Tunisia:

    We Support the Democratic Revolution in Tunisia
    By Campaign for Peace and Democracy


    I guess those ziofascists realised that if their portfolio shows only support for mossad/cia engineered coups, their credibility will suffer. The comment after that piece of zionist co-optation says it all:

    “they waited till 16 to support the real and not “made in CIA” revolution. Even Obama waited less..

    Sometimes the timing means a lot. I would not give a damn about their support, were I a Tunisian.”