Demonstrators throw stones at police during clashes in Tunis on Friday. (AP)
There is a great deal of historical irony to recent events in Tunisia, where a popular uprising began December 17, 2010 culminating in the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who was forced to flee the country on January 14, 2011. After speculation that included Montreal and Paris (Sarkozy refused to accept him into the country, and stationed police officers to arrest him should he arrive at an airport), Ben Ali and his family were accepted by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and arrived in Jeddah from Tunis.
Tunisia's current pseudo-democracy is one of the historical ironies behind the "Jasmine Revolution". Tunisia gained its independence from colonial France through a series of revolts in the 1950's, which were less violent than the neighbouring Algerian War, but in the same spirit and with a certain amount of collaboration, just as there was on the other side of Algeria, in Morocco. Both Tunisia and Morocco became independent in 1956, the one following a republican model with lawyer and nationalist Habib Bourguiba its first elected President, the other following the model of a constitutional monarchy, with Sultan Mohamed V, a descendant of the Prophet Mohamed, and a nationalist, as its first ruler.
However, like the other newly independent states of MENA, whether from the French, the British, or the Italians, the initial promise of reforms and benefits to the people descended into autocratic and repressive, "home grown" regimes, whatever their democratic pretensions. All of these countries have had Western support for their puppet regimes, whether from their former colonizers or the USA. All have poor human rights records.
Poster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Photo by Stewart Morris on Flickr
A more recent historical irony subtending the "Jasmine Revolution" is the rise to power of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali 23 years ago. He took over from President for life Habib Bourguiba whose government had a very liberal constitution, though not applied, and had become massively corrupt with all the country's riches going to a band of cronies--the same problems with President Ben Ali's government. Ben Ali has been elected and re-elected with "impressive majorities" of 99% of the vote, and total dominance of "parliament". He recently attempted to overturn the law that set the upper age limit for the President of Tunisia, so that he could win another term. He was forced to desist.
This "Jasmine Revolution" began on December 17, 2010 when Tunisian police confiscated the fruits and vegetables of an unlicensed vendor in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid. The educated but unemployed 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in despair and protestation (he remained in hospital near Tunis until his death from his burns on January 4, 2011). Other young people began to protest the high unemployment in a country with a good economic foundation (despite some recent setbacks) and a high level of repression, including of all social media, despite its ostensible democratic, republican governmental structure. The protests grew to cover most of the country, and all sectors of society. Notably 300 lawyers demonstrated in Tunis.
Riot police officers detain a protester during clashes in Tunis on Friday. (AP)
The protests were met with severe reprisals--the use of live ammunition, beatings, tear gas, arrests, and torture--yet continued, and included at least one completed suicide, and up to 100 deaths, with many more injured. In the last few days, and in an attempt to save his presidency, Ben Ali fired members of his government, promised reform, liberalized media laws including e-media, and promised elections. All in vain--protesters used the opportunity to "aller jusqu'au bout", to see the revolt through to the end, the ouster of Ben Ali. After a period of renewed oppression and the declaration of a state of emergency, Ben Ali was out of the government and out of the country.
Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi addresses the nation to announce that he is assuming power on Friday. (AP)
His Prime Minister Mohamed Ghanouchi is now in charge and has promised elections. However, he is part of the problem, and in any case, constitutionally should be handing over immediately to an interim government with proper elections to be held within 60 days. Partly as a result of his rule and partly as a result of momentum the revolt, violence, and destruction continue in Tunisia.
An ongoing irony, the West, including President Obama, are calling for democracy and free and fair elections. Rather 1956. Hopefully for the Tunisian people, it works out better this time.
Another ongoing irony, the same conditions present in Tunisia--a large population of young, educated, unemployed people, in a pseudo-democracy supported by the West--are present in a number of MENA countries, notably nearby Morocco and Egypt. Neighbouring Algeria and Libya make no sustained pretense of democracy. Morocco's King Mohamed VI took the precaution early of prohibiting demonstrations in support of the Tunisian demonstrators. The BBC seems most worried about Egypt. Demonstrations against unemployment occurred in Amman, Jordan.
There is now excellent coverage of the events of the month of the "Jasmine Revolution" in a number of mainstream venues, whereas social media have been the main form of communication and support throughout. Those venues include: Aljazeera English, BBC. Le Monde, Libération, le Nouvel Observateur, and others. Aljazeera English has an excellent, and regularly updated time line.
Regular updating is important, as this is only the beginning of the Jasmine Revolution, and Tunisia is currently on lock down, but erupting.
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