Sometimes important news occurs in places that aren’t (a) countries I’ve lived in, or (b) countries with which I am inexplicably obsessed. When that happens, I bring in external experts (see, e.g., Ask an Iranian Part I and Part II). Today I’ve asked Anis Allagui, a Tunisian expat living in North America, to fill us in on recent events in Tunisia. (Please note that while Anis is in close contact with friends and family back home, he’s not in Tunisia at the moment, so the information below may not be completely up to date on what is proving to be an incredibly fast-changing situation. Please feel free to post updates or points of disagreement in the comments.)
For those who want the short version: On Friday following weeks of protests, Tunisia’s president of 23 years, Zine El Abidin Ben Ali, fled the country for Saudi Arabia. A unity government was sworn in on Monday, but protests over the inclusion of members of the ruling party have already threatened its stability.
For those who want the long version, read on…
Q. So, what’s been going on? Let’s start at the beginning: Who was out on the streets and why?
A. When the movement began over a month ago, with the attempted suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, it was an act of frustration in the face of bleak employment prospects. Although he held a university degree, like most of the Tunisian youth, Bouazizi was forced to assume a modest profession as a fruit vendor. The chain of events was kicked into motion when Mohamed Bouazizi was harassed by the Police for selling his produce without a proper permit from Sidi Bouzid. Although he proceeded to apply for a permit through the local government, his request was denied. In an act reflecting the sense of helplessness and hopelessness of Tunisia’s youth, he set himself on fire in front of the town hall. A few days later, Mohamed Bouazizi died from his injuries. Bouazizi’s death symbolized a growing youth population whose education far surpassed the economic opportunities available to them.
So initially, it was a youth movement for economic reform and the creation of jobs… However, this was ultimately the straw that broke the camel’s back. Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation ignited the long-suppressed sense of frustration with the senseless harassment and injustice doled out by the government on the Tunisian population. From there, this indignation has grown into a popular revolution that has swept through the whole country, both geographically and demographically. Teachers, lawyers, activists, the unemployed, students, men and women, the young and the elderly have all come out in support of change.
Q. Were any political elites associated with the protest movement?
A. No, there were no political elites in the movement. This movement is led 100% by the people, the poor, the disenfranchised and the oppressed.
Almost all high ranking positions within the Tunisian political system are filled with members of the family known as the Trabelsi/Ben Ali Clan, the Mafia, the Family, and so on. There is no popular faith nor credibility at all in the RCD ruling party, its members, its ideals, its directions, nothing!
Tunisians have never had a real chance to vote. The “elections” have overwhelmingly led to Ben Ali’s victory with, for example, more than 99% of the votes in the 1999 elections, 94% of votes in 2004, and most recently in 2009 he was “elected” with 89% of the votes. It goes without saying that this is f-ing ridiculous.
For years, Ben Ali and his cronies have literally stolen from his people and businesses i.e. stealing money from banks, government reserves, gold, etc. What happened to my uncle is an example of this tendency. He served as an exclusive sales representative of a Canadian Jet Ski and water sport equipment company. He was not wealthy, but he started to earn a bit of money, which attracted the attention of the Family. One day, he was approached by a group of men in suits working for the Trabelsi family. He was told to remain calm, if he wanted to avoid any problems. They then aggressively proceeded to explain that they intended to take his business from him. It was clear that refusal was not an option.
Under Ben Ali, any protest was immediately, and often violently, suppressed. In the end, this movement had the sole objective of using popular momentum to get rid of an evil regime.
Q. How violent have things gotten?
A. There was an intensifying presence of Presidential Police under General Ali Seriati in the streets who are still targeting civilians and looting houses and businesses. The Presidential Police has historically been used as Ben Ali’s attack dog against his people, so they aren’t necessarily the “good guys” we associate with someone in their position.
A few days before Ben Ali left the country was declared under a state of emergency, which is when the army was obliged to intervene. Ben Ali asked for the support of the army to help quell the riots, and even gave the orders to open fire into the crowds to accomplish this end. General Ammar, to whom we will be eternally grateful, didn’t agree with this order, thereby establishing the military as the peaceful protector of the people. The army even clashed with the Presidential Police on numerous occasions before, and since, Ben Ali’s departure. News feeds are filling up with Tunisians expressing their pride and support for their army. (See picture above from Al Jazeera.) Al Jazeera is playing videos of protesters hugging their camo-clad comrades on a loop.
Q. Can you give a little more background on the distinction between the Presidential Police and the military and their relationship to the populace?
A. This is an important distinction to make as major Western media outlets, such as CNN, have already bumbled this topic. Just by looking at this article, the first impression I have is that the photograph doesn’t show an army soldier, but a member of the Presidential Police.
The ranks of the Tunisian Presidential Police were gradually formed, doubled, tripled and quadrupled over the course of Ben Ali’s 23-year dictatorship. This weapon, 160,000 strong, was his iron fist against the Tunisian people. For a point of contrast, the army has only 30,000 soldiers. The Presidential Police operated as a governmental branch and held the responsibility of ensuring the “security” of the regime. Some of the higher-ranking members of the Presidential Police are renowned for their inhuman practice of torture, and even the Minister of the Interior himself, Abdallah Kallel, is wanted internationally for torture and crimes against humanity. Naturally, Ben Ali is the commander of these forces, so he is just as reprehensible and guilty as the drones working on the lowest level. His wife, as well as other family members, also took part in ordering the torture and killing of Tunisians.
Even though Ben Ali was an army man, the army has always been a neutral body in Tunisia, and he has never fully trusted them to carry out his agenda. This neutrality was established by Habib Bourguiba, the first president of post-colonial Tunisia (FYI: Tunisia has only had two presidents since 1956), and it is one of the rare examples existing in the world. The army isn’t aligned with any political party, and their primary responsibility is to protect Tunisia against any foreign attack. The current mission of the army, with the help of a handful of good and respectable members of the police because, yes, in spite of what I said earlier, they do exist, is to restore calm and order to the streets, which often means confronting the renegade members of the RCD and the Presidential Police.
Q. What should we expect now that a coalition government has been formed?
A. Although Ben Ali and most of his family left the country, the old regime is still present in the current “Coalition Government”, formed by long-serving Prime Minister, Mohamed Ganouchi. When he first announced the members of the new government on January 17, many Tunisians were distressed to learn that major ministerial positions (Minister of the Interior, Minister of Finance, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the Minister of Defense), are still being held by members of the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), or in plainer terms, Ben Ali’s men.
In order for things to improve, we expect to see the ruling party members tried for their crimes. This is dependent on the interim government’s willingness to cooperate in punishing the former regime members (this is including some members of the temporary government, Presidential Police, as well as the Family). For the time being, as I mentioned earlier, clashes on the street indicate that the war is far from won, but the Tunisian people with, the help of the army, are taking steps in the right direction.
Q. How optimistic are you feeling about prospects for the future?
A. Tunisians have shown that they don’t want anything to do with the evils of the RCD regime. Umar ibn al-Khattāb said: I will not calm down until I will put one cheek of a tyrant on the ground and the other under my feet, and for the poor and weak, I will put my cheek on the ground.
The whole structure of Tunisian society is sick: education, finance and distribution of wealth, health, women’s position in society, even the freedom to practice religion, were all infected during Ben Ali’s regime and are in severe need of reform. In Islam, there is a concept of distribution of responsibilities; every member in a country or a society has to play a role for the betterment of everyone else. All minorities, social castes, races, and religions have to be represented and respected, which is, at the moment, not the case. The day that all 10.5 million Tunisians without a single exception feel happy and respected, the governmental functions will be approved. Given that the symbolic death of one man has spurred a national movement for reform, I do not believe that this is difficult to do.
Q. What do you make of the Western media coverage of the revolution?
A. I will reformulate the question. What do I make of the non-Tunisian coverage of the revolution? The answer is embarrassingly straightforward. In the U.S., Martha Stewart’s busted lip and the man who was arrested for drunk driving a donkey largely dominated airwaves on January 14, 2011. Statements issued by French diplomats continued to protect Ben Ali until it was clear his position was compromised. They even had the audacity to propose “handling the situation”, as they claimed to have experience in settling protests. Their media was complicit in their silence. In the Arab news, only Al Jazeera consistently and accurately covered the protest from its very beginnings. Arab governments, out of fear of igniting similar movements, tightly controlled their local media.
On several social media sites, I have tried to answer people voicing concern over why the Western media has not yet taken a real interest in what is going on. My response is simple: “Who are they to us, and why do we need them to push forward with our cause?” The West and the rest of the world knew about the corruption and the injustice in Tunisia for decades, and they didn’t do anything but support the regime of Ben Ali. It is telling that Islamic perspectives are not being represented or even talked about in the current events, which leads me to believe that there are external factors playing a hand in the way things are being covered. I sincerely hope that we can over come this obstacle and reconnect with our lost values as we form a new generation in Tunisian politics. I believe that we have a golden opportunity to serve not only as an example to the Arab world, but to the world at large as well.