Monday, January 17, 2011

Tunisia: Is It A Beginning Or A Bird Singing Outside The Flock?

By George Semaan
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 17/01/2011

They are all conveying their respect of the “choice” of the Tunisian people, i.e. both Tunisia’s close and distant neighbors, although they did not express such respect when the regime was defining this choice without going back to the will of the people. They were all surprised by the uprising. France was surprised and tried during the first days to enumerate the economic and modernization accomplishments of the regime. However, it soon recanted its position when it appeared that the anger of the street was proceeding till the end. As for Washington, which offered a lot in terms of support to the regime, it preceded France in expressing its discontent toward the policy of President Bin Ali, reprimanded his ambassador in the US and objected to the control imposed over the websites. As for the Arab capitals, all of which suffer problems and situations which are not that far from Tunisia’s, they watched silently until President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali left on his final trip from the country around which he erected an iron fence.

When Ben Ali assumed power on November 7, 1987 the regime was engaged in a conflict with the Islamic, liberal and left wing movements and facing troubles pleasing the syndicates on the economic and social levels. But the “successor” soon resorted to the easiest of solutions, i.e. an open confrontation with all the political movements, without any exception, and the recognition of a roadmap drawn up by the World Bank and the other international institutions to fully integrate the market economy and its requirements. He also linked Tunisian economy to the economies of the North Mediterranean states at the level of touristic industry among other industries, while carrying out a wide modernization movement which added to the accomplishments of the Bourguiba era.

On the other hand, the regime knew how to benefit from the crises that affected the neighboring states, from the civil war which kept Algeria preoccupied throughout the 1990s, to the blockade imposed on the Libyan Jamahiriya for over ten years, after the Pan Am plane was brought down over Lockerbie on December 21, 1988. In light of this situation, Tunisia appeared to be the “Economic Tiger” in North Africa and witnessed a growth rate which rendered it the first throughout the Dark Continent. For their part, the European states and the United States helped this “tiger” and provided it with the required cover on the local and regional levels. They perceived it as being an archetype of economic rise and the elimination of the extremist Islamic movements in the context of its open war on “fundamentalist terrorism” of Al-Qaeda and its sisters.

However, the blessings of this “economic miracle” did not affect the Tunisians, and what was produced by these growth rates and this economic partnership with Europe was not equally allocated by the regime to include the widest factions and all the cities, and to allow the populations living in the countryside and the remote areas to feel their impact. This generated great developmental discrepancies and widened the gap between the social classes, the cities and the villages, the regions and the provinces. Indeed, was the first spark not firstly seen outside of the capital Tunis and in the most deprived areas which crawled toward the different cities and then to the capital to eradicate the regime and its symbols? The sides which benefitted from this economic activity were a group inside the regime and the family of the president. Even the large middle class that flourished throughout half a century following the independence of the country, suffered from a blocked horizon at the level of growth and development and the absence of job opportunities. This reached a point where many businessmen and families who had a long history in commerce, trade and industry were excluded from the market… and the competition.

As for the owners of capitals and foreign investments whose came to this country, they were forced to pay double the taxes with one tax paid to the government in accordance with the law and another to the regime and some members of the president’s family, who did not hesitate to “take over the properties of the people and impose partnerships by force on domestic and foreign investments.” This is what the Tunisians are accusing them of doing today, and this is how their practices were described by an American diplomatic cable exposed by Wikileaks and saying they were similar to a mafia.

Still, this organic link between Tunisia’s economy and Europe’s economies made this country more exposed and more prone to turmoil and social tensions. Therefore, it was not possible to separate its economic crisis from what was witnessed by the European Union states as a result of the financial crisis seen around the world at the end of 2008, and in light of the current food crisis which is likely to escalate with the floods in Australia and other wheat – i.e. loaf of bread - exporting countries. These crises in the North Mediterranean states led to the retreat of investment, tourism and other economic and industrial sectors which are directly linked to the European market in Tunisia. They also reduced the work opportunities of the immigrants from North Africa and the ratification of stringent laws to deal with the incoming labor, whether it is legitimate or illegitimate.

What hastened the fall of this regime was the presence of massive numbers of graduates and university-degree holders roaming the streets of the capital and the major cities in search of rare-to-find job opportunities (as unemployment ranges between 15% and 20% based on the regions). In the meantime, the security regime, which had dismantled all forms of true opposition to establish an opposition in form that was part of the image of the tyrannical regime, was the object of campaigns launched by human rights associations, which classified it as being the worst in this area and the number one enemy of the media and the freedom of the press. The paradox was that the media outlets, whether the Internet, the satellite channels or the websites, constituted the main weapon in fueling the uprising and securing the toppling of the regime!

Once again, the “image” through Facebook, YouTube and mobile phones among other means, proved to be the weapon of the simple people and stronger than any party or movement in activating, mobilizing and impacting the public opinion and its inclinations. The “image” circulated online – among other means – mobilized the Tunisians in all the provinces and the cities and contributed to shifting the social and economic direction of the action toward a political one allowing the people to express their restlessness toward this regime, before rising against it and toppling it.

It would be hard to predict the turn which the Tunisian crisis will take, while the urgent question today in light of this fogginess and the terrifying security mayhem is the following: Will the army be able to contain the political process which will witness fierce competition over the inheritance of the regime? There seems to be no names seeking positions within the army command and capable of managing the process, although the military institution played a major role in eventually getting Ben Ali to leave. Indeed, the army never played a role in political life in the past, unlike the police and the security apparatuses on whose backs President Ben Ali reached the rule. Therefore, the transitory phase could be difficult, and what is important is for the military to play its role, not only in protecting the Tunisian border and soil, but also in maintaining the constitution and getting the partisan entities and civil society forces that all led this unified national uprising to organize democratic elections from which a new regime would stem.

Still, the army’s mission will not be enough as the main task will be up to the parties, powers and unions. True, throughout one quarter of a century, the totalitarian police regime did not allow the rise of young leaders and eliminated by use of force, imprisonment, exile and intimidation any partisan frameworks or cultural entities that could have contributed to the development of pluralism and democracy, except maybe for certain unionist structures. Moreover, the conditions and the opportunity for the formation of a civil society capable of producing cadres that could lead the political process during the current stage were not made available. However, these different political parties and forces – which greatly suffered throughout decades – should not be preoccupied with their illnesses, divisions and the settling of scores or the engagement in a policy of vengeance and retaliation, especially since some of the faces of the previous regime are still in the picture, as though it was half a coup against Ben Ali’s rule or a “corrective movement”!

It is imperative for these powers to prove their ability to manage this crisis and its repercussions, and to come up with the ways and means to help impose a minimum level of calm and stability. This is due to the fact that the race over power and the competition between cadres who were subjected to the regime’s oppression and violations on the domestic arena, and cadres who lived in exile and were pursued abroad, could lead to the escalation of the crisis and annihilate the people’s hopes of seeing change. The beginning of the convergence between these parties and powers over the joint statement they signed in Paris is not enough to spread optimism, unless this convergence hastens political reconciliation and the facilitates the exit from a transitory phase to real elections that are based on freedom and can guarantee pluralism and the peaceful rotation of power. This would allow a smooth transition toward the building of a new system, instead of drowning in competition and fighting over power.

The political formula in Tunisia will undoubtedly change and the uprising which proved the failure of the national Arab state and its political elite established on the “glories” of the ousting of the colonialist, will become a lesson for many Arab countries, some of which are going through similar political, security and economic conditions and are suffering from a resident importance. So, will Tunisia mark the beginning of the disintegration of the contract of Arab regimes which were baffled by this rapid and spontaneous rage, or will it just be a bird singing outside the flock? By looking at the Arab map, it would be very easy to see the fires, both the burning ones and the ones lying beneath the ashes!

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