Some dubbed it the “Jasmine Revolution” out of an apparent need to romanticize all popular uprisings by tagging a color or symbol to it, as with Tunisia’s national flower. Yet it felt decidedly out of place. This was no Western-backed revolt, where an American president issues lively calls for the people’s will to be respected. On the contrary, if the U.S., France or any of the Arab client states could have intervened to preserve the 23-year rule of Tunisian dictator Zain al-Abidine Ben Ali, they would have done so.
Simmering anger at skyrocketing food prices, inflation, unemployment, cronyism and corruption had boiled over and erupted into mass protests. But the Tunisian intifada started with one young man’s despair.
Muhammad Bouazizi was a 26-year-old ex-student who resorted to street vending to support his family. Even in that, Ben Ali’s thugs showed him no mercy. Police confiscated his fruit and vegetable cart on the pretext he had no license. They beat and humiliated him when he had no money for a bribe.
He pled his case to authorities, to be allowed to push his wheelbarrow and eek out a meager existence, but to no avail. On Dec. 17, Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of municipal government headquarters where his case had been heard and dismissed. It was the literal and figurative speak that mobilized the Tunisian masses into waves of demonstrations that swept Ben Ali all the way to Saudi Arabia.
Acts of self-immolation followed in Algeria and Egypt. Protests in Jordan over soaring prices and unemployment mirrored Tunisian grievances and led to calls for the entire government to resign.
Indeed, the question on everyone’s mind is whether the unrest in Tunisia will spread and threaten other Mideast autocracies and oligarchies, specifically Egypt and Algeria.
This is unlikely in the short-term. Tunisia’s insurgency was unique in the way it had mobilized the middle class to join forces with trade unions and the poor to uproot the nepotism and corruption of Ben Ali’s regime. While this particular set of social conditions is not generalizable to other Arab countries, his ouster reaffirmed the security-state’s fragility when confronted with the people’s wrath, as the 1979 Iranian Revolution also proved. It dispelled the myth, however, that all such rebellions come at the behest of Islamists.
Just two days prior to Ben Ali’s hasty exit to Saudi Arabia, another Mideast leader lost power.
Although “toppled” tends to connate violent overthrow, it was nonetheless used to describe the peaceful resignation of 11 opposition ministers from the cabinet of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, causing his government to deservedly collapse. Their resignations ostensibly came after Hariri refused to hold an urgent cabinet meeting to address the country’s response to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is expected to indict high-ranking Hezbollah officials in the February 2005 assassination of the late premier Rafiq Hariri. The sealed indictments were delivered to the pre-trial judge Monday.
Hopes to resolve the impasse on how to deal with them were placed in the so-called Saudi-Syrian initiative. Before it was allowed to bear fruit though, Secretary of State Clinton torpedoed it when she met with Hariri in New York. When he acquiesced and it became clear the deal was dead, the opposition ministers’ resignation was a forgone conclusion.
President Michel Suleiman has temporarily delayed parliamentary consultations to name a new prime minister to give Turkish and Qatari mediation efforts a chance to forestall yet another political crisis. Hezbollah and Michel Aoun’s Change and Reform parliamentary bloc have already said they will not support Hariri’s reappointment.
Further undermining the caretaker prime minister’s credibility, Lebanon’s New TV aired leaked audio tapes of a 2007 meeting between Hariri, pre-STL U.N. investigator Gerhard Lehmann, Internal Security Forces head Col. Wissam al-Hassan (whose conspicuous absence the day of Hariri’s assassination and his flimsy alibi raises troubling questions) and Muhammad Zuhair al-Siddiq.
Al-Siddiq is a known criminal and one of the “false witnesses” who implicated Syria in Hariri’s murder with fabricated testimony thrown out by the U.N. The embarrassing tape shoots holes through Hariri’s claim he had no personal knowledge or dealings with al-Siddiq or other false witnesses.
In a remarkable week, two Arab leaders were deposed.
One was a staunchly secular dictator who fled in disgrace to ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia. He may loathe its religious atmosphere but once envied its security relations with the West. Ben Ali is now relegated to an apolitical life in Jeddah, the same city in which Idi Amin once took refuge.
The other, though not a dictator, sold out a formula for domestic and regional stability at his country’s expense. His political and sectarian agenda, at justice’s expense, will allow the STL’s politicized indictments to foment strife, conflict and enmity between Lebanese.
For making himself a party to that in the capacity as prime minister, the Lebanese should encourage Hariri, who holds Saudi citizenship, to take extended leave in the Kingdom as well.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator.