There is a powerful constellation of forces in the Middle East that wants to see Tunisia’s current popular uprising fail. This constellation includes: (1) All the other U.S.-supported autocrats in the Arab world, now terrified that Pres. Ben Ali’s hasty departure from the country his family has looted for so long may foretell their own; (2) The U.S. securocracy, which for years now has relied heavily on inserting military “advisers”, “trainers”, etc into the highest levels of all these autocracies to help it pursue some of the most repressive portions of the so-called “Global War on Terror”; and (3) The Israeli establishment, which sees the rule of autocrats in Egypt, Jordan, etc as essential to the continued repression of pro-Palestinian activities in and by these countries.
Last week, we saw so many amazing scenes of the unarmed, intentionally nonviolent Tunisian demonstrators taking to the streets of Tunisia’s cities… and they succeeded in forcing Ben Ali’s departure.
How could the various portions of the region’s anti-democratic constellation respond?
Mainly, they rushed to invoke (and also, perhaps, to help activate) an “Apres lui le deluge” kind of narrative designed to warn the citizens of other Arab countries that: (1) The downfall/departure of Ben Ali would lead only to chaos, instability, and social strife inside Tunisia, and (2) Therefore, the regimes of all the other US-supported countries where a Tunisian-style mass uprising might threaten should immediately be strengthened in their capacities to withstand any repeat of a similar uprising– including by being able to “point” to the Tunisian example as one of strife and chaos, rather than democracy and enhanced national unity, emerging from an autocrat’s overthrow.
The kind of example that Tunisia provides to other countries in the region has broad, regionwide implications…. and the framing of the narrative about Tunisia has already begun.
Exhibit A: This op-ed in today’s WaPo by rightwing columnist Anne Applebaum. (Only occasionally do the WaPo editors remind readers that Applebaum has been married for some years to the rightwing Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski.)
Here is Applebaum, rewriting the (still so fresh!) history of the Tunisian uprising:
- Violent street demonstrations, followed by the toppling of a dictator, are an exhilarating way to bring democracy to an authoritarian society. They are not, however, the best way to bring democracy to an authoritarian society.
Violent street demonstrations??? What on earth is she talking about?
With this one little phrase she sullies the magnificent achievement of the hundreds of thousands of Tunisians who turned out on the streets last Thursday and Friday, still uncertain whether their unarmed bodies would be confronted with the bullets that the regime’s “security” forces had been so happy to rain down onto numerous other unarmed demonstrations around the country since mid-December.
And she stains the memory of the 60-100 demonstrators killed by the (U.S.-backed, U.S.-trained) “security” forces around the country in that time.
Since Ben Ali’s departure from the country on Friday, yes, there has been some violence and looting. Much of it (as the NYT and Al-Jaz, among others, have reported) was apparently committed by “security” men still loyal to the deposed dictator, and/or various members of different “security” forces duking it out on the streets after the collapse of the central authority.
Applebaum also tries to shrug off the degree of responsibility that Washington had for keeping Ben Ali in power– and still has, today, for the behavior and misbehavior of the country’s military and other “security” forces.
She blithely writes: “Americans don’t matter much in Tunisia, where France, the former colonial power and largest investor, has indulged and supported Ben Ali for decades, both materially and ideologically.”
But Ben Ali himself, who came to politics in the 1980s after a long career in the military, received his advanced training at the Senior Intelligence School (in Maryland, USA) and the School for Anti-Aircraft Field Artillery (Texas, USA), after doing his earlier training in France. And last year, the U.S.’s reported military aid to Tunisia was $16.9 million (p. 46 of this PDF.) People who know more than I do about the country say that while the U.S. is the main backer of the military, France has played an important role in supporting the country’s police.
The bottom line here: The U.S. is deeply implicated in both the behavior of the previous Ben Ali regime and the behavior of the “security” forces today.
… My main motive in writing this short post about Tunisia is to warn about the “Apre lui le deluge” narrative about Tunis that is already being heavily pushed by numerous parties very interested in preventing popular empowerment and the spread of real democratic rule in the Arab countries of the Middle East.
It remains true that the decades of (only thinly veiled) autocracy in Tunisia have left a legacy in the country where there are no robust, well-organized political parties of any coloring, that are currently able to exercise and project clear leadership around a unified program, negotiate with other parties in a clear and coherent manner, and– most importantly of all– to defend the country’s popular movement(s) from the plotting and schismatic interventions of various agents provocateurs who may be supported by who knows what forces from outside the country?
The sad fact is that anyone who tried to organize such a party or popular movement throughout the past decades has been subjected to torture, other forms of grave repression, or exiling. Just read the numerous reports that Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have published on the country throughout the past 20 years!
So the popular movement in Tunisia– let us please not infantilize it by giving it a western-style brand-name like the “Jasmine Revolution”!– faces some big challenges.
Al-Jazeera has good coverage. I was watching this short report in English from James Baize, which showed ordinary citizens acting in an orderly, calm, and nonviolent way as they stood in long lines to buy bread, or at makeshift neighborhood watch points. To me, that was good news.
There is something of an infant political process emerging… But yet, the attempts of other media to paint what’s happening in Tunisia as a “deluge” of violence and chaos still continue.
It’s far too early to say yet the real political change the country’s 10 million people need can all happen within the framework of the country’s existing (but long-ignored by Ben Ali) constitution, which mandates the holding of elections within, I think, the next six weeks– or whether some broader form of consultative and constitution-revision process will be needed.
Those calling for early elections may well be jumping the gun, since Ben Ali’s own party is the only one that has an intact nationwide infrastructure at this point and thus has a quite unfair advantage over all others… Also, in a time of rapid political change, elections can be very divisive, rather than fostering a sense of national unity and helping to build nationwide endorsement of agreed rules for the nonviolent, respectful interaction of differing political forces in the democratic system going forward.
So let’s look carefully and supportively at the political activities of all the now-emerging popular political forces in Tunisia. But let’s look, too, at the way the developments there get portrayed or misportrayed by ideologues elsewhere.