End of an Era: Beginning of …something new?

“I’m leaving on a jet plane; don’t know when I’ll be back again…”

Zine and Leina: Next Stop...Nice? Rome? Cairo? Miami? Prison?

The words of John Denver forty years ago in the mouth of Zine Ben Ali today?
Is it all coming to an ignonimous end for Tunisia’s president Zine Ben Ali, and his wife Leila Trabelsi?
`The word on the Tunisian street’ … or on the internet social networks – almost the same thing these days – is that it is

almost over for Tunisia’s first couple, that they are emptying out what is left in Tunisia’s coffers, that an airbus is fueled, ready and waiting to take off, as are the private jets of members of their two extended families… just in case the protests rocking the country cannot be crushed. As the protests spread, Ben Ali’s grip on power appears to be fading. Are we looking at the final hours, days of Ben Ali’s long 23 year `reign’ in which human rights violations have become so commonplace that they have hardly attracted attention until, this last week, it all reached another level.
Perhaps..

Meanwhile, the protests which started nine days ago deep in Tunisia’s interior, continue.

The protests were triggered by a young unemployed university graduate, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself aflame after his unlicensed vegetable and fruit stand was confiscated by authorities in the city of Sidi Bouzid, in central Tunisia. Bouazizi’s fate resembled that of many Tunisian youth, educated but with few job opportunities before them. The dramatic and tragic image of a young man aflame shattered the myth of the `Tunisian economic miracle’ and in its own way, what little legitimacy Zine Ben Ali’s rule seemed to enjoy both domestically and internationally

For a moment it appeared the protests would die down, but instead they re-ignited throughout the Tunisian interior, including in Kairouan, Gafsa, Redeyef, Meknassy, Bouzayane and have been going on for more than a week now. In many places these became violent clashes between what seems to be Tunisia’s youth, much of which is both educated and unemployed and the authorities. Where will the cataclysm of violence the country is experience end?

The casualties are mounting.

* In Menzel Bouzayane, some 35 miles from Sidi Bouzid, more than 2000 people participate, protesting unemployment and poor social conditions. According to Agence France Presse, violent confrontations between protestors and authorities resulted in the death of an 18 year old, Mohamed Ammari, shot in the stomach by the police. Another 10 protestors were wounded, and two policemen were sent to the hospital unconscious. Shortly thereafter, the police station was burnt down

* According to a communiqué issued by the Tunisian Press Agency (TAP) the Tunisian Interior Ministry affirmed that the locomotive of a train and three national guard vehicles were also set on fire and that the national guard headquarters in the same town Menzel Bouzayene was overwhelmed by protestors forcing the defenders to respond with live ammunition.

* Back in Sidi Bouzid, another unemployed university graduate, in an act of solidarity with Mohammed Bouazizi, electrocuted himself by reaching out to a 30,000 volt electric line on top of a lamp post. Below was a large crowd protesting unemployment in front of the offices of the Tunisian trade union federation UGTT.

* In all these cases round ups and arrests have been made, reports of repression, beatings and torture – with photo evidence – mounting daily

* Then starting on December 23 and 24, the protests began to spread beyond the interior with support demonstrations Tunisia’s major coastal cities of Sfax, Sousse and even the capital, Tunis

* As the protests and confrontation spread, the local police and national guard could no longer contain the situation and in several cases, the Tunisian army was brought in an attempt to keep both the news of the protests, and the protests themselves, from spreading nationwide.

News of the disturbances, which began on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, have also spilled into the European media. French media outlets, Agence France Presse, Liberation, Le Monde, Figaro all have run stories as has CNN, Al Jazeera (including in English), with news outlets in Canada as well as the USA (Washington Post, LA Times) running short, but disturbing, articles. This is the kind of publicity the Ben Ali regime hoped to avoid at all costs (and mostly has avoided up until now)

Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia: December 23, 2010. Protestors Clashing With Tunisian Authorities

The speed, the intensity, nay, the violence of the protests, the number of young Tunisians willing to commit suicide or face down the police shooting live ammunition rather than face a bleak future, caught the government of Zine Ben Ali in Tunis off guard. At first there was no response. Then the government claimed the protests were isolated incidents orchestrated by a cynical and unappreciative opposition. But a week into the protests, their tune has changed to a more sober one, trying to sympathize with the victims (at least the unemployed university graduates) and promising economic reform and jobs programs with a government representative sent to Sidi Bouzid to promise such changes in the future.

2.

More or less the same promises were made after the people in Tunisia’s phosphate mining district, centered around the town of Redeyef, erupted in a six month on-going social protest marathon against unemployment and deteriorating social conditions in 2008. That resulted in massive government repression and promises of economic development which did not materialize.

More and more it appears that the Tunisian government’s response this time is `too little too late’. The image of young, educated Tunisians preferring death by fire seems to have shattered what little credibility Zine Ben Ali’s government had left. A small country – both in terms of geography and population – cannot sustain this kind of anger from its population for very long. And a week of protests, even violent ones, might not sound like much to outsiders, but it easily be the blow that brings down the regime.

Tunisia’s `economic miracle’ has long been somewhat inflated. Even in the best of times, the coastal cities and the north benefited more than the interior and the south. It is from the latter that, if one looks closely, one will see that wave after wave of protest against unemployment and poverty have emanated. Indeed, the current dyamic, of a social movement emerging from deep in the interior, is nothing new to modern Tunisian history.

Add to this an increasingly corrupt ruling circle in which economic and political power have concentrated more and more in the hands of two families – those of the president – the Ben Alis, and his wife, the Trabelsis…and another important layer of the crisis unfolds. Combine the economic and social disparities, the corruption and excesses of the ruling clans with what has become one of the more repressive regimes politically in the region and the ingredients for a full blown crisis fall into place that only needed a match, lit by a poor soul in Sidi Bouzid, sole supporter of his family, to ignite the desert fire.

3.

Before these protests, Tunisians were wondering who, in the near future would replace Zine Ben Ali as he is `eased’ from power – his wife, Leina Trabelsi, a son? Some one else from his wife’s side of the family. With this week’s turmoil, the discussion has shifted some: Tunisians are already talking about Zine Ben Ali as if he is already history and debating, theorizing what/who will come next.

Of course it is still quite possible that Ben Ali will unleash his military full force on the entire population and will crush this uprising in blood. There is also the possibility that there is a limit to the Tunisian arm firing on their own people and the military itself could `snap’ and turn on the president. Repression on a broad scale at this point will only hasten Ben Ali’s demise.

My own speculation is that the Ben Ali’s-Trabelsis will follow a path well warn by others – by Marcos, Mobutu, the Shah of Iran and join the Third World Kleptomanic Hall of Fame – and, that they will, after looting Tunisia one last time, make their exist from Tunis to …wherever. Things have gotten too hot for them, the social base supporting the regime has become so razor thin narrow, that even if the families survive the current social uprising, that their days are numbered and they know it. Even dictators need some base of support within the population and one has to be hard pressed to find Ben Ali’s.

And then there are `the concerns’ of the major powers – in this case, France, the USA, Tunisia’s neighbors to the west and east, Algeria and Libya and other regional players. More and more there are indications that the US and France are not adverse to abandonning Ben Ali to his fate and padded foreign bank accounts. His lack of credibility makes him no longer useful. But there are fears about `the transition’. And a transition to `what’ to `whom’? Wouldn’t it be better to ease him out, to try to soften the national anger, so that the changes that seem inevitable are also

modest in terms of more far reaching socio-economic directions? How would a new administration `cooperate’ with Washington in its `war on terrorism’, plans to expand Africom, etc.?

In retrospect, the match that Mohammed Bouazizi lit not only ignited his poor and now tortured body (he is still clinging to life in a hospital in Sousse) but it seems to have, in its own way, burnt the house that Zine Ben Ali built in Tunisia to the ground, leaving a few unanswered questions:

Will Ben Ali go from power gracefully or gracelessly? Will the Ben Alis wander aimlessly as did the Shah of Iran after the latter’s fall?Will Tunisia ever recoup what are described as the billions which it is widely alleged the Ben Alis and Trabelsis have plundered and privatized? Graceless ends are messy and can have long term consequences not only for Tunisia, but for `regional security.’

And what will follow for Tunisia, a country that 64 years ago gained its independence (from colonialism) but not its freedom?

Rob Prince