Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dances with democracy: Tunisia at the crossroads

Tunisia’s leaders resist change. It has had only two leaders in the 55 years since independence (though two more in the last 12 days). Colonial master France not only left its language and its culture but it also imparted the doggedness of its political elites. It was a lesson well absorbed by Habib Bourguiba. Bourguiba spent 11 years in French and Nazi custody for sedition where he picked up western ways with power. The Rassemblement Constitutionel Démocratique party was the vehicle for Bourguiba to seize power in 1956. The RCD became synonymous with Tunisian politics and The Supreme Warrior was voted the honour of president for life in 1975. He lasted another 12 years. (photo of Tunisian protests courtesy AP)

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was Bourguiba’s Prime Minister and natural successor. Ben Ali had widespread experience in the military, politics and diplomatic service. With a sluggish economy and the support of the west he took control he used an 1987 medical report and Article 57 of the Tunisian constitution to show his boss should be removed on the grounds of “total incapacity”.

Ben Ali would prove just as tenacious in power as the man he replaced, with the added knowledge of knowing just how vulnerable life at the top could be. He kept Bourguiba under house arrest for the rest of his life and set about cementing his own reputation. He kept the ruling class of the RCD onside by keeping most of them in the powerful positions they had during the Bourguiba era. He won five elections, all of them rigged. After the Soviet era, the West was happy with Ben Ali because he was a strong and stable and secular ruler. Over time, Ben Ali was an elder statesman of the region. The US rewarded the Ben Ali’s regime with an estimated $350million in military aid between 1987 and 2009.

The Americans were not blind to Tunisia’s problems. As a Wikileaked cable said, Tunisia was a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems. “They tolerate no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international," the cable said. "Increasingly, they rely on the police for control and focus on preserving power. And, corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising.”

Despite knowing all this, the Obama administration continued to distribute largesse. As recently as last year the US sold Tunisia $282 million worth of 12 Sirkorsky military helicopters to Tunisia. Congress approved the deal on the grounds they would “enhance the modernisation of the Tunisian Air Force's overwater search and rescue capability and enable continued interoperability with US Armed Forces and other coalition partners in the region.” The sale would also improve “the security of a friendly country that has been and continues to be an important force for economic and military progress in North Africa.”

The sale of the helicopters showed the military progress. But it was harder to make the case for economic progress in Tunisia, particularly for the lower classes. There wasn't much progress in the life of 26-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi. Bouazizi had a computer science degree but sold fruit and vegetables without a licence in Sidi Bouzid because he could not find any other job. On 17 December, police confiscated his produce when he could not produce a permit. When he tried to snatch his apples back, the police officer slapped him in the face. Two other officers then beat him up. Bouazizi walked to the municipal building demanded his property, and was beaten again. Then he walked to the governor’s office, where he was refused an audience. In front of the governor’s gate he drenched himself in paint thinner and set himself alight. The burns covered 90 percent of his body. He died a painful death 18 days later in hospital.

Bouazizi had tapped into something in a repressed national psyche. People protested on the street in Sidi Bouzid where he was arrested. In a country where protesting is rare and the media is oppressed, the word was spread through amateur video which eventually made its way to Al Jazeera. A mass uprising was springing up from a groundswell of long-term grievances with the regime. Ben Ali knew the writing was on the wall and fled to Saudi Arabia on the 14th.

Within 24 hours his longtime ally and prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, assumed power. But the Constitutional Court ruled Fouad Mebazaa, the speaker, should be made president and given 60 days to organise new elections. Both men are heavily associated with the RCD and the protesters want the party removed from power, not just a new name at the top. Another Ghannouchi lies in the wings. Rachid Ghannouchi is the exiled head of Tunisia's Islamist party who plans to return to the country within weeks.

The likelihood of an Islamist Government if true democracy was restored is what scares the West the most. It also scares the other leaders in the Maghreb. The Algerian elite overturned the 1993 election when it seemed the Islamists were going to win at the ballot box and unleashed a civil war that killed 150,000 and goes on to this day. Other long-term leaders fear copycat immolation suicides such as the one in Mauretania. Egypt has also had copycat suicides and activists in Cairo using social networks are launching a "Day of Wrath" against Mubarak’s 30-year rule later today.

Next door in Libya Gaddafy is also worried. When he told Libyans in a broadcast “Tunisia lives in fear” he was really referring to himself. “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,” he railed. Gaddafy, in power for 40 years, has strong self interest at work but he does have a point. Nobody is sure what Tunisia’s troubles will lead to: a transition to multiparty democracy, an Islamist Government, a military coup or a prolonged period of turmoil.

Rachid Sfar, a former prime minister, outlined the problem in an editorial he wrote in La Presse yesterday. "We have to make the democratic process real and irreversible and at the same time guard against the violence and anarchy that threaten our country,” he said. Striking unionists have refused to recognise the new government because Mohamed Ghannouchi is there. A democratic vote will be held in six months but what if people suspicious of the West and the elites that serve it award it to the other Ghannouchi? The unions, and the left generally, should be careful about what they wish for.

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