FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Generalizing Tunisia

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.”

Clich?d 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 editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His work has been published in many newspapers and journals worldwide. His latest book is The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle (Pluto Press, London). His newbook is, “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story” (Pluto Press, London).

 

 

 

More articles by:

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). He earned a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, UCSB.

December 11, 2018
Eric Draitser
AFRICOM: A Neocolonial Occupation Force?
Sheldon Richman
War Over Ukraine?
Louis Proyect
Why World War II, Not the New Deal, Ended the Great Depression
Howard Lisnoff
Police Violence and Mass Policing in the U.S.
Mark Ashwill
A “Patriotic” Education Study Abroad Program in Viet Nam: God Bless America, Right or Wrong!
Laura Flanders
HUD Official to Move into Public Housing?
Nino Pagliccia
Resistance is Not Terrorism
Matthew Johnson
See No Evil, See No Good: The Truth Is Not Black and White
Maria Paez Victor
How Reuters Slandered Venezuela’s Social Benefits Card
December 10, 2018
Jacques R. Pauwels
Foreign Interventions in Revolutionary Russia
Richard Klin
The Disasters of War
Katie Fite
Rebranding Bundy
Gary Olson
A Few Thoughts on Politics and Personal Identity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit Britain’s Crisis of Self-Confidence Will Only End in Tears and Rising Nationalism
Andrew Moss
Undocumented Citizen
Dean Baker
Trump and China: Going With Patent Holders Against Workers
Lawrence Wittner
Reviving the Nuclear Disarmament Movement: a Practical Proposal
Dan Siegel
Thoughts on the 2018 Elections and Beyond
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: I Can Smell the Dumpster Fires Already
Weekend Edition
December 07, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Steve Hendricks
What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity
Jeffrey St. Clair
Cancer as Weapon: Poppy Bush’s Radioactive War on Iraq
Paul Street
The McCain and Bush Death Tours: Establishment Rituals in How to be a Proper Ruler
Jason Hirthler
Laws of the Jungle: The Free Market and the Continuity of Change
Ajamu Baraka
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Time to De-Colonize Human Rights!
Andrew Levine
Thoughts on Strategy for a Left Opposition
Jennifer Matsui
Dead of Night Redux: A Zombie Rises, A Spook Falls
Rob Urie
Degrowth: Toward a Green Revolution
Binoy Kampmark
The Bomb that Did Not Detonate: Julian Assange, Manafort and The Guardian
Robert Hunziker
The Deathly Insect Dilemma
Robert Fisk
Spare Me the American Tears for the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi
Joseph Natoli
Tribal Justice
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Macdonald Stainsby
Unist’ot’en Camp is Under Threat in Northern Canada
Senator Tom Harkin
Questions for Vice-President Bush on Posada Carriles
W. T. Whitney
Two Years and Colombia’s Peace Agreement is in Shreds
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Ramzy Baroud
The Conspiracy Against Refugees
David Rosen
The Swamp Stinks: Trump & Washington’s Rot
Raouf Halaby
Wall-to-Wall Whitewashing
Daniel Falcone
Noam Chomsky Turns 90
Dean Baker
An Inverted Bond Yield Curve: Is a Recession Coming?
Nick Pemberton
The Case For Chuck Mertz (Not Noam Chomsky) as America’s Leading Intellectual
Ralph Nader
New Book about Ethics and Whistleblowing for Engineers Affects Us All!
Dan Kovalik
The Return of the Nicaraguan Contras, and the Rise of the Pro-Contra Left
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Exposing the Crimes of the CIAs Fair-Haired Boy, Paul Kagame, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail