THE 'EVENEMENTS' IN TUNISIA: POPULAR UPRISING OR REGIME MUSICAL CHAIRS?
"A month-long wave of violent protests has swept Tunisia’s president from power, bringing an extraordinary end to the 23-year rule of one of the Arab world’s most autocratic leaders. Tunisians were astounded by the speed of developments after the televised announcement by Mohamad Ghannouchi, prime minister, that he had taken over from Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali, the 74-year-old president, who was thought to have fled the country....But the end of the Ben Ali era marks a rare case of an Arab leader brought down by popular revolt. It will alarm the region’s autocratic leaders but give hope to younger people that change is possible. Riots started a month ago with protests by unemployed graduates but quickly spread from town to town, reaching Tunis earlier this week and threatening the survival of the Ben Ali regime. Although the ex-president rolled out one concession after another, the demands of Tunisians coalesced around one issue: that Mr Ben Ali had to leave.
A population that has been silenced by restrictions on free speech suddenly found a voice. Much of the fury was directed at Mr Ben Ali’s family, whose tales of corruption and attempts to monopolise economic power have been feeding resentment for years. “Hearts were so filled with anger,” said one Tunisian analyst. “Once the fear was gone, all the elements of civil society emerged to protest.” The month-long unrest in the country of 10m people left dozens dead, as police fired on protesters. The army, more respected than the police, was deployed across the country over the past week, but for the most part stayed outside towns. Earlier on Friday, Mr Ben Ali was still desperately clinging to power, announcing that he was dismissing his government and holding legislative elections in six months, having promised the night before that he would not stand in the presidential poll in 2014. But the thousands of Tunisians, mostly from the middle classes, who took to the streets of the capital were not satisfied. “Go, go, go ... game over,” they chanted.
The spontaneous protests were not organised by any opposition because political parties have been weakened by decades of repression. However, this also raised concern about what comes next. Mr Ghannouchi, the prime minister, has been a close aide of Mr Ben Ali and politics have been dominated by the ruling RCD party".
Roula Khalaf, "Tunisian President swept from power," The Financial Times, 14 January 2011, in www.ft.com.
"North Africa is notable for the remarkable stability of its political systems despite the increasingly hostile social and economic environment in which they operate. In part this results from their current security engagement with Europe but more important, perhaps, is the shared political culture that informs them. This is, in part, typified by the very similar mechanisms they have each developed to ensure political continuity, based either on monarchical succession or dynastic republicanism. It is less clear, however, that they will be able to resist the most recent challenges arising from Islamist social movements, although any new political dispensations that emerge may not be so very different from their predecessors....Even Algeria and Tunisia, both post-colonial states in their present forms, can justifiably trace their origins back beyond the dates when they achieved independence, Algeria through war in 1962 and Tunisia by negotiations with France some six years earlier. This is a remarkable record of apparent political stability in the Middle Eastern and North African region, without parallel outside of the monarchies of the Gulf and Jordan."
George Joffe, "Political dynamics in North Africa," International Affairs (September 2009), p. 931.
"It is not always going from bad to worse that a society falls into revolution...The social order destroyed by a revolution is almost always better than that which immediately preceded it, and experience shows that the most dangerous moment for a bad government is generally that in which it sets about reform."
Alexis de Tocqueville, L'Ancien Regime et la Revolution (1856).
The political evenements in Tunisia in the past four weeks, seems to belie the survey of the Maghreb made by George Joffe fifteen months ago. With of course the caveat that we still do not quite know how genuine is the overthrow of the ex-regime of Monsieur Ben-Ali. Is what took place a genuine 'popular uprising', `a la what took place in Persia circa 1978-1979, or merely another game of regime musical chairs? While on the surface what seems to have occurred would indicate that what happened was the overthrow of the former Ben-Ali regime by a popular movement, the quickness of events seem (to my mind at any rate) belie this rather straightforward proposition. The fact of the matter is that prior instances of street riots, the authorities either quickly crush and disperse those involve or in a few instances, use the mere fact of happenings on the street to play 'insider politics'. That the Prime Minister, has not followed the ex-President into exile seems to follow prior examples whereby regime insiders utilize popular protests for purposes of making changes at the top 1. The Prime Minister being a potential beneficiary of the fact that with Ben-Ali in exile, the likelihood of the latter's son-in-law 'inheriting' power `a la Assad Fils in Syria is one assumes completely void. With both Tunisia in 1987 and Algeria in 1988-1989 very much following this particular script of regime musical chairs. The fact that the protests seem to have been singularly without any overtly 'political' message or without any political baggage, is odd, considering that most political analysts were until recently of the opinion that the only political opposition worthy of the name in Tunisia (and elsewhere in the Maghreb) was supposed to be Islamist 2. Which is not to ignore the fact that the underlying socioeconomic dynamics of both Tunisia and the entire Maghreb are the very opposite of optimistic, with as Claire Spencer noting in the same issue of Chatham House's International Affairs, that up to seventy-five percent (75%) of the population under the age of thirty. And with youth un-employment being more than rife 3. Given the fact that Tunisia was widely regarded prior to the events of the past month, as the most economically dynamic of all the North African regimes, one can indeed only hope that my surmise is in fact true and what occurred in Tunisia is merely another case of plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose 4. Or as the late, great Fernand Braudel would have labeled it: 'une evenement', AKA, a mere event.
1. On this see: Joffe, op. cit., pp. 937-945, and passim; Alison Pargeter, "Localism and radicalism in North Africa: local factors and the development of political Islam in Morocco, Tunisia and Libya," International Affairs (September 2009), pp. 1033-1035, and passim.
2. Lise Storm, "The persistence of authoritarianism as a source of radicalization in North Africa," International Affairs (September 2009), pp. 1000-1007.
3. Claire Spencer, "Introduction: North Africa and Britain," International Affairs (September 2009), p. 924.
4. As per one report: "Tunisia under Mr Ben Ali has often been touted as a model of stability and prudent economic management. The country opened up to foreign investment and Mr Ben Ali encouraged the development of a diversified industrial base supplying European markets". See: "Heba Saleh, "Street anger smashes authoritarian rule," Financial Times, 14 January 2011, in www.ft.com