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The Fall of the West’s Little Dictator


When people choose life (with freedom)
Destiny will respond and take action
Darkness will surely fade away
And the chains will certainly be broken

Tunisian poet Abul Qasim Al-Shabbi (1909-1934)

On New Year’s Eve 1977, former President Jimmy Carter was toasting Shah Reza Pahlavi in Tehran, calling the Western-backed monarchy “an island of stability” in the Middle East. But for the next 13 months, Iran was anything but stable. The Iranian people were daily protesting the brutality of their dictator, holding mass demonstrations from one end of the country to the other.

Initially, the Shah described the popular protests as part of a conspiracy by communists and Islamic extremists, and employed an iron fist policy relying on the brutal use of force by his security apparatus and secret police. When this did not work, the Shah had to concede some of the popular demands, dismissing some of his generals, and promising to crack down on corruption and allow more freedom, before eventually succumbing to the main demand of the revolution by fleeing the country on Jan. 16, 1979.

But days before leaving, he installed a puppet prime minister in the hope that he could quell the protests allowing him to return. As he hopped from country to country, he discovered that he was unwelcome in most parts of the world. Western countries that had hailed his regime for decades were now abandoning him in droves in the face of popular revolution.

Fast forward to Tunisia 32 years later.

What took 54 weeks to accomplish in Iran was achieved in Tunisia in less than four. The regime of President Zein-al-Abidin Ben Ali represented in the eyes of his people not only the features of a suffocating dictatorship, but also the characteristics of a mafia-controlled society riddled with massive corruption and human rights abuses.

On December 17, Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old unemployed graduate in the central town of Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire in an attempt to commit suicide. Earlier in the day, police officers took away his stand and confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling because he lacked a permit. When he tried to complain to government officials that he was unemployed and that this was his only means of survival, he was mocked, insulted and beaten by the police. He died 19 days later in the midst of the uprising.

Bouazizi’s act of desperation set off the public’s boiling frustration over living standards, corruption and lack of political freedom and human rights. For the next four weeks, his self-immolation sparked demonstrations in which protesters burned tires and chanted slogans demanding jobs and freedom. Protests soon spread all over the country including its capital, Tunis.

The first reaction by the regime was to clamp down and use brutal force including beatings, tear gas, and live ammunition. The more ruthless tactics the security forces employed, the more people got angry and took to the streets. On Dec. 28 the president gave his first speech claiming that the protests were organized by a “minority of extremists and terrorists” and that the law would be applied “in all firmness” to punish protesters.

However, by the start of the New Year tens of thousands of people, joined by labor unions, students, lawyers, professional syndicates, and other opposition groups, were demonstrating in over a dozen cities. By the end of the week, labor unions called for commercial strikes across the country, while 8,000 lawyers went on strike, bringing the entire judiciary system to an immediate halt.

Meanwhile, the regime started cracking down on bloggers, journalists, artists and political activists. It restricted all means of dissent, including social media. But following nearly 80 deaths by the security forces, the regime started to back down.

On Jan. 13, Ben Ali gave his third televised address, dismissing his interior minister and announcing unprecedented concessions while vowing not to seek re-election in 2014. He also pledged to introduce more freedoms into society, and to investigate the killings of protesters during the demonstrations. When this move only emboldened the protestors, he then addressed his people in desperation, promising fresh legislative elections within six months in an attempt to quell mass dissent.

When this ploy also did not work, he imposed a state of emergency, dismissing the entire cabinet and promising to deploy the army on a shoot to kill order. However, as the head of the army Gen. Rachid Ben Ammar refused to order his troops to kill the demonstrators in the streets, Ben Ali found no alternative but to flee the country and the rage of his people.

On Jan. 14 his entourage flew in four choppers to the Mediterranean island of Malta. When Malta refused to accept them, he boarded a plane heading to France. While in mid air he was told by the French that he would be denied entry. The plane then turned back to the gulf region until he was finally admitted and welcomed by Saudi Arabia. The Saudi regime has a long history of accepting despots including Idi Amin of Uganda and Parvez Musharraf of Pakistan.

But a few days before the deposed president left Tunis, his wife Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser known for her compulsive shopping, took over a ton and a half of pure gold from the central bank and left for Dubai along with her children. The first lady and the Trabelsi family are despised by the public for their corrupt lifestyle and financial scandals.

As chaos engulfed the political elites, the presidential security apparatus started a campaign of violence and property destruction in a last ditch attempt to saw discord and confusion. But the army, aided by popular committees, moved quickly to arrest them and stop the destruction campaign by imposing a night curfew throughout the country.

A handful of high-profile security officials such as the head of presidential security and the former interior minister, as well as business oligarchs including Ben Ali’s relatives and Trabelsi family members, were either killed by crowds or arrested by the army as they attempted to flee the country.

Meanwhile, after initially declaring himself a temporary president, the prime minister had to back down from that decision within 20 hours in order to assure the public that Ben Ali was gone forever. The following day, the speaker of parliament was sworn in as president, promising a national unity government and elections within 60 days.

Most Western countries, including the U.S. and France, were slow in recognizing the fast-paced events. President Barack Obama did not say a word as the events were unfolding. But once Ben Ali was deposed, he declared: “the U.S. stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold.” He continued: “We will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard. I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people.”

Similarly, the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, not only abandoned his Tunisian ally by refusing to admit him in the country while his flight was en route, but he even ordered Ben Ali’s relatives staying in expensive apartments and luxury hotels in Paris to leave the country.

The following day the French government announced that it would freeze all accounts that belonged to the deposed president, his family, or in-laws, in a direct admission that the French government was already aware that such assets were the product of corruption and ill-gotten money.

The nature of Ben Ali’s regime: Corruption, Repression and Western Backing

A recently published report from Global Financial Integrity (GFI), titled: “Illicit Financial Flows from Developing Countries: 2000-2009,” estimates Tunisia was losing billions of dollars to illicit financial activities and official government corruption, in a state budget that is less than $10 billion and GDP less than $40 billion per year.

Economist and co-author of the study, Karly Curcio, notes: “Political unrest is perpetuated, in part, by corrupt and criminal activity in the country. GFI estimates that the amount of illegal money lost from Tunisia due to corruption, bribery, kickbacks, trade mispricing, and criminal activity between 2000 and 2008 was, on average, over one billion dollars per year, specifically $1.16 billion per annum.”

A 2008 Amnesty International study, titled: “In the Name of Security: Routine Abuses in Tunisia,” reported that “serious human rights violations were being committed in connection with the government’s security and counterterrorism policies.” Reporters Without Borders also issued a report that stated Ben Ali’s regime was “obsessive in its control of news and information. Journalists and human rights activists are the target of bureaucratic harassment, police violence and constant surveillance by the intelligence services.”

The former U.S. Ambassador in Tunis, Robert Godec, has admitted as much. In a cable to his bosses in Washington, dated July 17, 2009, recently made public by Wikileaks, he stated with regard to the political elites: “they rely on the police for control and focus on preserving power. And, corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising.”

Even when the U.S. Congress approved millions of dollars in military aid for Tunisia last year, it noted “restrictions on political freedom, the use of torture, imprisonment of dissidents, and persecution of journalists and human rights defenders.”

Yet, ever since he seized power in 1987, Ben Ali counted on the support of the West to maintain his grip on the country. Indeed, Gen. Ben Ali was the product of the French Military Academy and the U.S. Army School at Ft. Bliss, TX. He also completed his intelligence and military security training at Ft. Holabird, MD.

Since he had spent most of his career as a military intelligence and security officer, he developed, over the years, close relationships with western intelligence agencies, especially the CIA, as well as the French and other NATO intelligence services.

Based on a European intelligence source, Al-Jazeera recently reported that when Ben Ali served as his country’s ambassador to Poland between 1980-1984 (a strange post for a military and intelligence officer), he was actually serving NATO’s interests by acting as the main contact between the CIA and NATO’s intelligence services and the Polish opposition in order to undermine the Soviet-backed regime.

In 1999 Fulvio Martini, former head of Italian military secret service SISMI, declared to a parliamentary committee that “In 1985-1987, we (in NATO) organized a kind of golpe (i.e. coup d’etat) in Tunisia, putting president Ben Ali as head of state, replacing Burghuiba,” in reference to the first president of Tunisia.

During his confirmation hearing in July 2009 as U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia, Gordon Gray reiterated the West’s support for the regime as he told the Senate Foreign Relations committee, “We’ve had a long-standing military relationship with the government and with the military. It’s very positive. Tunisian military equipment is of U.S. origin, so we have a long-standing assistance program there.”

Tunisia’s strategic importance to the U.S. is also recognized by the fact that its policy is determined by the National Security Council rather than the State Department. Furthermore, since Ben Ali became president, the U.S. military delivered $350 million in military hardware to his regime.

As recently as last year, the Obama administration asked Congress to approve a $282 million sale of more military equipment to help the security agencies maintain control over the population. In his letter to Congress, the President said: “This proposed sale will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a friendly country.”

During the Bush administration the U.S. defined its relationship with other countries not based on its grandiose rhetoric on freedom and democracy, but rather on how each country would embrace its counter-terrorism campaign and pro-Israel policies in the region. On both accounts Tunisia scored highly.

For instance, a Wikileaks cable from Tunis, dated Feb. 28, 2008, reported a meeting between Assistant Secretary of State David Welch and Ben Ali in which the Tunisian president offered his country’s intelligence cooperation “without reservation” including FBI access to “Tunisian detainees” inside Tunisian prisons.

In his first trip to the region in April 2009, President Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, stopped first in Tunisia and declared that his talks with its officials “were excellent.” He hailed the “strong ties” between both governments, as well as Tunisia’s support of U.S. efforts in the Middle East. He stressed President Obama’s “high consideration” of Ben Ali.

Throughout his 23 year rule, hundreds of Tunisian human rights activists and critics such as opposition leaders Sihem Ben Sedrine and Moncef Marzouki, were arrested, detained, and sometimes tortured after they spoke out against the human rights abuses and massive corruption sanctioned by his regime. Meanwhile, thousands of members of the Islamic movement were arrested, tortured and tried in sham trials.

In its Aug. 2009 report, titled: “Tunisia, Continuing Abuses in the Name of Security,” Amnesty International said: “The Tunisian authorities continue to carry out arbitrary arrests and detentions, allow torture and use unfair trials, all in the name of the fight against terrorism. This is the harsh reality behind the official rhetoric.”

Western governments were quite aware of the nature of this regime. But they decided to overlook the regime’s corruption and repression to secure their short-term interests. The State Department’s own 2008 Human Rights Report detailed many cases of “torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” including rapes of female political prisoners by the regime. Without elaboration or condemnation, the report coldly concluded: “Police assaulted human rights and opposition activists throughout the year.”

What next?

“The dictator has fallen but not the dictatorship,” declared Rachid Ghannouchi, the Islamic leader of the opposition party, al-Nahdha or Renaissance, who has been in exile in the U.K. for the past 22 years. During the reign of Ben Ali, his group was banned and thousands of its members were either tortured, imprisoned or exiled. He himself was tried and sentenced to death in absentia. He has announced his return to the country soon.

This statement by al-Nahdha’s leader has reflected the popular sentiment cautioning that both the new president, Fouad Al-Mubazaa’, and prime minister Mohammad Ghannouchi have been members of Ben Ali’s party: The Constitutional Democratic Party. And thus their credibility is suspect. They have helped in implementing the deposed dictator’s policies for over a decade.

Nevertheless, the Prime Minister promised, on the day Ben Ali fled the country, a government of national unity. Within days he announced a government that retained most of the former ministers (including the most important posts of defense, foreign , interior and finance), while including three ministers from the opposition and some independents close to the labor and lawyers unions. Many other opposition parties were either ignored or refused to join based on principle protesting the ruling party’s past.

In less than 24 hours, huge demonstrations took place all over the country on Jan. 18 in protest of the inclusion of the ruling party. Immediately four ministers representing the labor union and an opposition party resigned from the new government until a true national unity government is formed. Another opposition party suspended its participation until the ruling party ministers are either dismissed or resign their position.

Within hours the president and the prime minister resigned from the ruling party and declared themselves as independents. Still, most opposition parties are demanding their removal and their replacement with reputable and national leaders who are truly “independent” and have “clean hands.” They question how the same interior minister who organized the fraudulent elections of Ben Ali less than 15 months ago, could supervise free and fair elections now.

It’s not clear if the new government would even survive the rage of the street. But perhaps its most significant announcement was issuing a general amnesty and promising a release of all political prisoners in detentions and in exile. It also established three national commissions.

The first commission is headed by one of the most respected constitutional scholars, Prof. ‘Ayyadh Ben Ashour, to address political and constitutional reforms. The other two are headed by former human rights advocates; one to investigate official corruption, while the other to investigate the killing of the demonstrators during the popular uprising. All three commissions were appointed in response to the main demands by the demonstrators and opposition parties.

January 14, 2011 has indeed become a watershed date in the modern history of the Arab World. Already, about a dozen would-be martyrs have attempted suicide by setting themselves ablaze in public protest of political repression and economic corruption, in Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania. Opposition movements have already led protests praising the Tunisian uprising and protesting their governments’ repressive policies and corruption in many Arab countries, including Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Libya, Yemen, and the Sudan.

The verdict on the ultimate success of the Tunisian revolution is still out. Will it be aborted by either infighting or the introduction of illusory changes to absorb the public’s anger? Or will real and lasting change be established, enshrined in a new constitution that is based on democratic principles, political freedom, freedoms of press and assembly, independence of the judiciary, respect of human rights, and end of foreign interference?

As the answers to these questions unfold in the next few months, the larger question of whether there is a domino effect on the rest of the Arab world will become clearer.

But perhaps the ultimate lesson to Western policymakers is this: Real change is the product of popular will and sacrifice, not imposed by foreign interference or invasions.

To topple the Iraqi dictator, it cost the U.S. over 4,500 dead soldiers, 32,000 injured, a trillion dollars, a sinking economy, at least 150,000 dead Iraqis, a half-million injured, and the devastation of their country, as well as the enmity of billions of Muslims and other people around the world.

Meanwhile, the people of Tunisia toppled another brutal dictator with less than 100 dead who will forever be remembered and honored by their countrymen and women as heroes who paid the ultimate price for freedom.

ESAM AL-AMIN can be reached at


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