Friends and neighbors of Abouzizi’s were so horrified by his suicide that his funeral was turned into a protest rally despite threats from the police.
The month-long uprising (still continuing at Crescent press time) that toppled the Tunisian dictator, General Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali last month has sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East. The assortment of tyrants — kings, emirs, presidents-for-life, generals and colonels — in the Arabian world are trembling in their boots fearing they may lose not only their thrones but also their heads if similar protests erupt in their countries. Demonstrations against rising food prices and endemic corruption occurred in Egypt, Algeria and Jordan following Ben Ali’s overthrow. Together with Syria, they immediately announced huge subsidies for essential items to placate their irate publics.
While Arabian rulers huddled together at the Arab League summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt on January 18 to consider the mounting threats to their misrule, people in Algeria and Egypt copied Mohamed Abouzizi’s self-immolation that had triggered the Tunisian uprising. The copycat actions, however, did not result in similar uprisings elsewhere. Abouzizi, an unemployed university graduate, had started selling vegetables from a push-cart in the Tunisian city of Sidi Abouzid. A female police officer not only insulted him by publicly slapping him for selling vegetables “without a permit” but also confiscated the cart, thereby depriving him of livelihood. Deeply distressed by such insult, Abouzizi doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire in front of the municipal building.
Friends and neighbors of Abouzizi’s were so horrified by his suicide that his funeral was turned into a protest rally despite threats from the police. The funeral procession of December 17 became a trigger for mass uprisings because of the pent-up rage in the country over massive unemployment (it stands at 31%), severe restrictions on press freedom and massive corruption in government ranks, especially by members of Ben Ali’s family led by his wife Leila Trabelsi. She became the conduit for awarding contracts and acquired huge estates through kickbacks and other corrupt practices. The Ben Alis and the Trabelsis also transferred billions of dollars out of the country into Swiss bank accounts while the people languished in misery.
Despite Ben Ali’s removal from power (he sought refuge in Saudi Arabia on January 14 after France, his long-time protector and former colonial master, refused him entry) there is still considerable uncertainty in Tunisia as various political factions jostle for influence. The old guard of the ruling Destourian Party — Interim President Fouad Mabezza (former parliamentary speaker) and Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi — are still in control and exercise considerable influence. On January 18, four newly appointed ministers resigned from the so-called “unity government” as street protests continued. Destourian party members are entrenched in virtually all departments of government as Ben Ali built a police state in which informants infested every corner of the country.
The speed with which General Ben Ali was forced to escape from Tunisia only a month after the protests erupted surprised even seasoned observers. Spearheaded by unemployed students, they were quickly joined by unemployed teachers and workers as well as lawyers. Ben Ali had ruled the country as absolute dictator since 1987 and even prior to that he had served as intelligence chief under Habib Bourguiba, the former president-for-life. He had established a vast network of spies as well as recruited 180,000 policemen. Additionally, Ben Ali had hired Belarusian and Serbian mercenaries as his personal bodyguards that indulged in looting and drive-by shootings even after he fled the country.
It would, however, be wrong to assume that street protests alone caused Ben Ali’s downfall. Protests merely created the environment that triggered a chain of events, the most significant of which was army chief, General Rachid Ammar’s refusal on January 12 to shoot demonstrators when ordered by Ben Ali to do so. Tunisian commentators have praised the military for its professionalism and for remaining above the political fray, a rarity in the Arabian world. General Ammar’s refusal sealed Ben Ali’s fate and also raised the military’s standing among people.
Within the ruling establishment, Ben Ali had become a liability; he also realized that he must flee while he can otherwise the unfolding events may overtake him. Tyrants are cowards; the man who claimed to have won 90% of the vote in the 2009 elections had few people he could rely on for support and protection. He decided to flee, and fast. It seems January is not a propitious month for tyrants. The Shah of Iran had also fled the country in January 1979. Unlike Iran, however, there is no Imam Khomeini in Tunisia to bring about an Islamic revolution.
Many groups and individuals are claiming credit in the aftermath of Ben Ali’s departure. Tunisian opposition parties — the Progressive Democratic Party, the Communist Workers Party and the Conference for the Republic — as well as students, lawyers and trade unionists have claimed they brought about the “revolution.” Even leaders of the long-banned Ennahda Party whose leader Rachid Ghannouchi has lived in exile in London for nearly 25 years, have claimed credit for the uprising. One needs to get the facts straight: the change in Tunisia is no revolution; it is not even a genuine change. Only the much-hated and feared Ben Ali is gone. The old guard of the Destourian Party that has ruled Tunisia since its “independence” from France in 1956 still remains deeply entrenched.
Rachid Ghannounchi (no relation of Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi) was quoted in the Financial Times of London (January 18, 2011) as saying: “Basing this transition on Article 56 or 57 [of the constitution] is a continuation of the old system. The constitution was a tyranny, the state was reduced to one man, who had in his hands the executive, judicial and legislative powers and was not accountable to anyone. How can such a constitution point towards building a democratic system, even as a starting point?”
Ghannouchi called for the establishment of a “democratic constitution” by working through the October 18 movement that was formed in 2005. It brought together political parties and civil society institutions and included the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP). According to the New York Times, the PDP is Tunisia’s largest legally approved political party but its total membership is only 1,000 (January 19, 2011). The October 18 movement had one simple demand, according to Rachid Ghannouchi: “to call for freedom of expression and association for everyone and for recognizing the rights of all parties.” He told the British daily that he was heading home. Other reports said Moncef Marzouqi of the Conference for the Republic had also returned home.
The response of western governments to events in Tunisia was equally revealing. As the 180,000-strong police force and snipers shot and killed protesters, western leaders like US President Barack Obama and his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy merely called for “restraint”. There was no condemnation of the shootings and killings as one of their favorite dictators in North Africa tried to crush the uprising. It was only when Ben Ali fled the country that Obama and others started talking about democracy and freedom.
Even the New York Times noted Washington’s hypocrisy. In an editorial on January 16, the Times wrote: “As late as last week [before Ben Ali fled Tunisia], Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told an Arab satellite television audience that the United States was ‘not taking sides’ in the Tunisian crisis. Later, however, there were encouraging signs of change. Ms. Clinton delivered a strong speech denouncing ‘corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order’ in the Middle East and calling for reform, though she did not use the word ‘democracy.’ Both Ms. Clinton and President Obama issued statements Friday [January 14] praising the Tunisian uprising and calling for free and fair elections.” Dictators in the Middle East, please note: once the human tidal wave erupts, even the west would not want to touch you.
The political situation in Tunisia is still fluid. The next few weeks will show whether real change will be ushered in the country. This will depend on whether elections are held as scheduled within the 60-day period and if the electoral law is reformed to allow all political parties an equal opportunity to participate freely. There were already misgivings when interim Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi said the exiled Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannounchi would be arrested upon return because of pending charges against him. This may be an empty threat since the Tunisian street scene has undergone a sea change from the days of Ben Ali but it points to certain hurdles in the way.
There is also the security situation. Remnants of Ben Ali’s hated secret services are continuing their subversive activities. Banks have been looted and buildings attacked and set ablaze. There are reports that some 700 of these criminals have been arrested by the army. At the other end of the spectrum, all political prisoners have been set free. These are hopeful signs but Tunisia and its people are not out of the woods yet. In any case, Ben Ali’s departure does not mean a change of system; it is only a change of faces.