It seems that the waters of the stagnant Arab swamp may be stirring at last. Tunisia, that small north African country on the Arab world’s western shores, has for the past two weeks been the scene of a social uprising rare in this tightly controlled part of the world. This outburst of popular anger was ignited by an unemployed 26-year-old university graduate setting himself ablaze outside a police station in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid. Soon afterwards another young man electrocuted himself, shouting “No unemployment, no misery!” and more attempted suicides have been reported since. A wave of riots and protests has ensued, sweeping through towns and villages all over the country – even in the capital, Tunis.
As in many Arab nations, political despotism and socioeconomic failure is acute in Tunisia. And this unrest points to the reality hidden behind the facade of tourist brochures and lavish resorts exhibited to the outside world. This is the world of ordinary Tunisians, of a rapidly depleted middle class crushed under the weight of rampant privatisation and a decreasing public sector, of soaring prices, debt, unemployment, social marginalisation and young men boarding “death boats” in the hope of escape to the other side of the Mediterranean. It is a world of the systematic impoverishment of the masses in inner cities and villages by the nouveaux riches, by a wealthy minority linked to the president and his family through a tight web of corruption and theft.
This is the “Tunisian miracle” trumpeted by president Zine Ben Ali’s regime and echoed by its backers in the European Union, particularly France, Italy and Spain. For its sake, Tunisians were told to keep quiet and relinquish all hope of political freedom and democracy. While acknowledging the regime’s flagrant human rights violations, the EU is considering upgrading relations with Tunisia and granting it “advanced-partner status”.
The myth of socioeconomic success is not the only fabrication. The official discourse is borrowed from the latest liberal dictionary, replete with such phrases as civil society, individual freedom and human rights. But these ring hollow in Ben Ali’s police state. He seized power from his predecessor in a coup d’état 23 years ago, and has not budged from his throne since, thanks to a string of falsified elections – in which his share of the votes has ranged from 97% to 99% – and a 150,000-strong police force, the same size as Britain’s, with a population a sixth as large.
The general’s eradication campaign began with a crackdown on an-Nahda, the main opposition party of liberal democratic Islamist tendencies, in 1990, in the name of combating the “fundamentalist threat”. It then moved on to devour all political dissidents, including nationalists, leftists, liberals and student activists. Next came civil society’s turn. Between annexation and dissolution, no association remained autonomous or active, including trade unions, human rights organisations, and cultural, social and even sports associations. Tunisian jails became the sole gathering point for activists.
Journalists have fared no better. No other Arab country has imprisoned more journalists since 2000. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists has declared the regime to be one of the world’s 10 worst enemies of the press. Tellingly, the only images of the current protests have been captured on mobile- phone cameras and released on the web, as no foreign reporters are allowed into the country. Only North Korea can compete with Tunisia in this regard.
Ben Ali may have brought the stability desired by his foreign backers, but it was the stability of the dead, of graves and cemeteries.
Amid the wreckage of political life, Tunisia’s general grapples with two phenomena of his own making. The first is the rise of violent anarchist groups associated with al-Qaida, which have emerged in the vacuum generated by his eradication policy. The second is rage at corruption, unemployment and government repression, which has erupted in the past few weeks.
Events in Tunisia are symptomatic of what lies ahead. Arab rulers have striven to kill politics in all its forms. But as they do away with organised mainstream parties and associations, they will find themselves, like Ben Ali, face to face with a younger generation mobilised by feelings of frustration and humiliation, and yearning for revenge. And when all vessels of movement and expression are shut off, explosions and eruptions become the only possibility left.
First Published inThe Guardian, Tuesday 4 January 2011