I am neither a historian, decent author or a journalist and the chances are, unless there is a link or reference to somewhere else, the perpetrator is your's truly-Renaud Sarda.
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Thursday, 20 January 2011
Ali Baba gone, but what about the 40 thieves?
The flight of Tunisia’s longtime president leaves the small country he ruled and robbed in upheaval. Its Arab neighbours wonder whether it’s the start of a trend
“TUNISIA now lives in fear,” Libya’s ruler, Muammar Qaddafi, told his people. “Families could be raided and slaughtered in their bedrooms and the citizens in the street killed as if it was the Bolshevik or the American revolution.”
Others seem less sure what caused Tunisia’s upheaval, where it will go or even what to call it. Some have labelled it the jasmine revolution. Close at hand, however, the continuing unrest in Tunisia, for long the most politically neutered of Arab countries, does not bring to mind the sweet-smelling flowers that men here tuck jauntily behind an ear. What’s happening reeks more of sweat, tear gas and burning rubber, and has brought Tunisians as much anguish as pride or pleasure.
It cannot quite be termed a revolution, at least yet. The main instruments of control for the past 50 years, the police and the ever-ruling RCD party (a French abbreviation of Constitutional Democratic Rally) are battered and wobbly but still standing. They face no strong, cohesive opposition, no charismatic leader waiting in the wings, armed with a mission or an ideology. Yet with 78 civilians dead by official count and with street protests continuing into a sixth week, it is certainly bigger than a revolt.
Everyone knows what started it: the self-immolation on December 17th of a despairing, jobless youth named Muhammad Bouazizi in the main square of Sidi Bouzid, a town in Tunisia’s hardscrabble interior. Yet there is a fierce dispute about what has sustained the revolt, encouraging furious protesters to the streets of prosperous coastal cities, galvanising near-moribund trade unions and opposition groups into action, and bringing about the dramatic scuttle into exile on January 14th of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, president for the past 23 years. And nobody is sure what Tunisia’s troubles will lead to: a transition to multiparty democracy, a military coup or a prolonged period of turmoil.
What is sure is that the Tunisian uprising has not only put an end to one of the more insidiously oppressive and comically rapacious strongman regimes in a region inured to them. It has also put Mr Ben Ali’s fellow rulers-for-life on notice that they, too, may suddenly find themselves without friends or a country. Mr Bouazizi’s public suicide has spread a grisly rash of copycat self-torchings across north Africa, from Mauritania to Egypt. Their acts of self-sacrifice hope to incite a spiral of events similar to Tunisia’s.
Perhaps they will. Given the extreme social stresses shared by many Arab societies, and particularly the anger of soaring numbers of jobless, jeans-clad youths against the ageing cynics in suits and uniforms that have for so long denied them a role or a voice, it is not too far-fetched to conjure a sweeping wave of change, much as in Europe in 1989.
Yet Tunisia’s circumstances are in some respects unique. With a population that is ethnically and religiously homogenous, recognised borders that are centuries old, and a tradition of centralised government that predates colonisation by France in 1881, Tunisia has more solid foundations than many Arab states. Despite the country’s paucity of natural resources, its 10.6m people enjoy relatively good standards of health, education and other public services. It has a high level of home ownership and reasonably solid national accounts. Its economy, integrated with the outside world as a magnet for investment in manufacturing, offshore services and tourism, has grown at an annual average of 5% for the past two decades.
That modest record of success, contrasting starkly with the messy dysfunction of Algeria and Libya, the oil-rich countries Tunisia is squeezed between, goes a long way to explaining why Tunisians have put up with their stifling political order. Mr Ben Ali did not invent this system. His predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, a passionately Francophone lawyer who led Tunisia to independence in 1956, created a paternalistic, monopolistic ruling party and a cult of personality during three decades of rule. Like Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk, Mr Bourguiba tried single-handedly to yank his country out of old ways, championing women’s rights and enforcing strict secularism.
When Mr Ben Ali, newly installed as interior minister, ousted the ageing but respected president in a palace coup in 1987, he was greeted as a needed breath of fresh air. Secularists and even liberals at first applauded his hounding of the Ennahda party, a mild Islamist movement, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, that had flowered in the chaotic waning years of Mr Bourguiba’s rule. On largely spurious charges of terrorism its leaders were either jailed or forced into exile, and the movement essentially eradicated.
Sadly, rather than subsequently broadening freedoms, the ex-policeman crushed them, infiltrating watchful RCD party hacks into trade unions, university faculties and other once-independent institutions. Benalisme, as Tunisians sometimes dubbed his style of rule, brought with it increasingly farcical elections, an absurdly adulatory press and dread of the pervasive, petty and vindictive security services. During Algeria’s bloody civil strife in the 1990s, Tunisians joked of a plump, sleek Tunisian dog fleeing across the border and meeting a ragged, starving Algerian one. “What on earth are you doing here?” asked the Algerian dog. “I came here to bark,” was the forlorn reply.
Tunisia came to have more police than France, a country with six times more people. With few real threats to the state to combat, Mr Ben Ali’s bloated security service specialised in such tactics as planting evidence in order to blackmail suspects. Taxi drivers commonly sought protection by joining the RCD or working as police informants. “Going too often to the mosque could mean a summons to State Security,” says one. “They could lift your licence, and put you through hell to get it back.”