Left at the Crossroads: Tunisia and the quality of Arab despair

The political opposition to Ben Ali was weakened by decades of repression and torn by intestine wars. During recent weeks, the initiative was seized by spontaneous eruptions of protest and informal networks that galvanized the spirit of the crowd, but might not be able to handle the transition.

Once in the 1990s, I was visiting the ancient Arab fortress of Sousse, in Tunisia, with a local friend. As we were strolling back to the car park, my Tunisian host showed me a man coming out of his vehicle. It was one of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s brothers, he explained in a hushed voice.

Since Ben Ali has ten siblings, I don’t remember the name and the exact position of this man walking the avenues of Tunisia’s third biggest city, apparently without security guards. I just thought it was a small country indeed where a French tourist staying for only a few days could pass one of the president’s brothers on the street.

Tunisia has only ten millions inhabitants, and it probably mattered somehow in the uprising that toppled Ben Ali’s 23 year-long awkwardly disguised dictatorship. U.S. ambassador Robert F. Godec wrote in a cable two years ago that “seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage, and many of these relations are reported to have made the most of their lineage.” The first lady’s extended family – the Trabelsis – was particularly hated for its corrupt mores and its arrogance.

This kind of familiarity does breed contempt. If you have to be governed by a brutal nepotistic clan, the local demographics might help at the moment of getting rid of it. In the last few days, the opulent mansions of powerful members of the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clique in prized seaside locations like Hamammet and Sidi Bou Said have been systematically looted and destroyed –without any damage to the neighboring villas of unrelated prosperous citizens.

It has been said that the one-month Tunisian civic insurrection was the first Facebook revolution. In a country with a ferocious censorship and about one in 100 inhabitants working for the regime’s security apparatus, the electronic social networks were certainly one of the main outlets of the citizenship’s frustration. But foreign observers in search of sound bites and trendy novelties tend to overlook some less fashionable realities, such as labor unrest and the role of the trade unions.

In 2008, a huge protest movement had already erupted in the mining area of Gafsa, far from the cosmopolitan capital and the glamorous tourist hot spots of the Tunisian seaboard. Asking for jobs, minimal social benefits and political freedom, the local population heroically defied the regime’s security forces for five months, while the grassroots members of the official trade union, the UGTT, joined the pacific insurgency.

The present uprising also began in neglected hinterland towns. The UGTT cautious cadres, organically connected to the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), were rapidly overwhelmed by the militancy of their base, making of this 500,000-strong organization a key actor in the expanding protests.

The political opposition to Ben Ali was weakened by decades of repression and torn by intestine wars. During recent weeks, the initiative was seized by spontaneous eruptions of protest and informal networks that galvanized the spirit of the crowd, but might not be able to handle the transition.

Some analysts fear that the whole process might be kidnapped by opportunist elements of the old establishment allied with the most docile representatives of the opposition. For French political scientist Jean-François Bayart, the massive character of the street protests and the courage of the protesters are admirable, but “the fall of Ben Ali was too swift to be honest. Ben Ali was toppled by a palace revolution rather than by the crowd itself.”

Bayart suggests that the most probable culprits are bigwigs of the ruling party, who got rid of the dictator for their own political survival, and the army, who wanted to avoid a bloodbath that could have damaged its future legitimacy: “Tunis in January 2011 evokes Bucharest in December 1989 rather than a real revolution.” But the people in the streets of Tunis seem to be perfectly aware of this danger and actively claim that they won’t be satisfied with cosmetic changes.

A lot has been written on the vexed question of the possible impact of Tunisian events on other Arab countries. Harvard scholar Stephen Walt observes that though most Arab governments are amply discredited authoritarian regimes, they are not submitted to a single imperial center and all depend on a slightly different mix of political institutions and measures to keep the rulers in power: “The fact that Ben Ali ultimately mismanaged a challenge and was driven from power does not mean that other Arab leaders won't be able to deflect, deter, or suppress challenges to their rule,” he said,

One shouldn’t expect a cascade of successful velvet revolutions, but there is a very specific quality of despair common to the whole Arab world.

Everywhere, stultifying tyranny compounded by mediocrity meet the rising expectations of an educated but underemployed youth and the humiliation of the impoverished masses. Everywhere, internet and Al Jazeera short-circuit the efforts of the censors. A fragrance of Tunisian jasmine might make this powerful mix even more intoxicating.


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Globalization might already sound like a stale catchword, but the new interconnected reality it describes still has surprising tricks up its sleeves. So what do you do when you’re a leftish French writer born in Africa and living in South America, with a background in Slavic Studies, a worried fascination for emerging Asian powers, and interests ranging from classical political philosophy to Bollywood film music? Read, travel, wonder. And send scattered dispatches from modernity’s frontlines.

Marc Saint-Upéry is a French journalist and political analyst living in Ecuador since 1998. He writes about political philosophy, international relations and development issues for various French and Latin American publications and in the international magazines Le Monde Diplomatique and Nueva Sociedad. He is the author of El Sueño de Bolívar: El Desafío de las izquierdas Sudamericanas (Bolivar’s Dream: the Left’s challenge in South America).

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