Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tunisia 'Spark' Underestimated

By Ahmed al-Jarallah
This commentary was published in The Arab Times on 17/01/2011

The current turn of events in Tunisia demand that we take time off to recall and reflect on the lessons of the past before it becomes too late to benefit from lost opportunities, and in order to forestall the reoccurrence of tragic scenes that were witnessed in some countries in the past.

Everyone testifies that former Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba  was very popular among his people and in the Arab world. He maintained constant contact with his people, but that didn’t prevent the emergence of spoilers within his circle. It was even said that his wife was one of those who dominated and controlled the economy and all national sectors, and that this group was able to isolate him from people during his final years of reign when he was bedridden.

In those days, the people surrounding Bourguiba dominated everything in the country, and we can vividly recall the fate of a country whose leader relied on the reports of his kinsmen and intelligence agents. These reports were not just safety reports. This is the situation in Tunisia after the removal or resignation of Bourguiba, and the reigns of power were transferred to President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali who relies on written reports -according to people close to him — and not on direct connection with his people. This led to his isolation from his people and their problems until issues reached the present state.  

Many nations went through similar experiences, and we all remember what happened to Shah of Iran who followed the same path in isolating himself from his people, despite advice from neighboring kings and heads of states, including King Hussein Bin Talal. These people called on him months before the collapse of his reign to open up to his people and completely abandon his over — reliance on reports of the secret police. These reports, as we said, are not related to security and are subject to the whims and caprices of their writers. He was called to cool down the overheated polity in Iran so that it wouldn’t escalate into a revolution, but Shah refused to listen to that advice and it subsequently led to the downfall of his government. His fall was a loss to his people and the region as a whole.

There is no doubt that the worst things faced by countries are the isolation of government and reliance on reports of secret patrols, instead of the open door policy where the true situation of things becomes apparent and the truth stays. This is the type of policy currently needed by the Tunisian leadership; it has to open up to its people, improve the freedom of expression and stop relying on reports of kinsmen and secret agents, who most often compile them based on their wishes and to serve power brokers, and rarely convey the truth to the ruler.

The Tunisian government was able to achieve numerous great achievements during the earlier stages of Ben Ali’s reign. It was able to end the economic, social and political problems suffered by the people of Tunisia in the last days of Bourguiba. This is why it is imperative now to keep up on those achievements provided the leadership opens up to its people and to the outside world, in order to close the doors on those trying to exploit the situation, whether they are terrorists, gangs or any other, as claimed by the president. 

The openness of the leadership to its people also requires opening up to the Arab circle and neighboring Arab and non-Arab countries. The world is no longer a closed place and Tunisia alone is not affected by the events taking place there. Nations are affected by what goes on nearby and what happens on planet earth. To continue on the same path will spell doom, and the sparks of protest will increase, so it is very important to understand that fire starts with a little spark.

- Ahmed al-Jarallah is the editor-in-chief of The Arab Times

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