On Point: Tunisia's Remarkable Revolt


by Austin Bay
January 18, 2011

On Jan. 14, Tunisia's president for life, Zine el AbidineBen Ali, resigned in the face of nationwide protests and fled the country forexile in Saudi Arabia. Media reports indicate his wife brought along a ton anda half of gold bullion.

This is a familiar script for besieged tyrants in SouthAmerica and the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. In 1979, theShah of Iran quit his country in vaguely similar circumstances. In 1986,Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier left Haiti with family and filchedmillions. Duvalier recently returned to that sad land and could face criminalcharges.

Tunisia, however, is a predominantly Arab Muslim country,which make Ben Ali's skedaddle a bit unusual. Middle Eastern wiseguys used toclaim that an Arab dictator departed in only one of two ways: by natural deathor assassination in the wake of a coup d'etat when another faction of theruling class decided to place its own strongman in power.

Tunisia 2011 offers another model. Ben Ali faced a popularnational uprising spurred by mass anger at his two decades of misrule. He triedto suppress the revolt, and several dozen demonstrators were killed. Instead ofdispersing in fear, however, the courageous crowds swelled. In an echo ofEastern Europe 1989, security forces were reluctant to fire on thedemonstrators. Tunisian street police and soldiers identified with theirgrievances: contempt for Ben Ali, his brutal secret police and his regime'ssystemic corruption.

The regime also failed to suppress the demonstrators'political and operational communications. Credit digital technology. Thedemonstrators used the Internet to promote their cause and cell phones tocoordinate their protests.

Tunisia's North African neighbors are worried. The strongmenand monarchs running Egypt, Algeria, Libya and Morocco fear that discontent mayspread. Why? StrategyPage.com noted in a report issued after Ben Ali's exitthat, "In most Arab countries, a group of able politicians makes dealswith the wealthier families and agrees to run the place for their mutualbenefit ... with the rest of the population considered ignorant peasants, to bemanipulated and taxed indefinitely." With the Internet, however, themanipulated classes are no longer so ignorant. The authoritarians know theyconfront a social and political time bomb.

Tunisia's social and historical circumstances differ fromits neighbors, which is why some commentators argue its bottom-up revolt isunique and domino revolutions in the region are unlikely. The Tunisian militaryis considered politically neutral. The country has a comparativelywell-educated populace with rising economic expectations. The people understandhow the corrupt system stunts their own ability to create wealth.

Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi's caretaker government(which will run the country until elections are held) is confrontingdemonstrators who demand that all Ben Ali supporters be excluded from anysubsequent government. This puts Ghannouchi, a longtime Ben Ali ally, in a bind.Twenty-first century Tunisians know the game, and they don't want the same oldauthoritarian faces in charge backed by the same old money.

Al-Qaida's North African affiliate, al-Qaida in the Maghreb,and other militant groups will seek to influence events, and they represent amajor threat. These extremists have little to say about jobs, however -- a keydemonstrator demand. Their totalitarian ideology also runs counter to the callsfor free speech and fair laws that energize Tunisia's revolt.

This leads to a tactical convergence of interests betweentyrants and the terrorists. If the terrorists create enough mayhem, the tyrantsbet the Tunisians will trade in their would-be democracy for a strongman whowill stop the terror.

Pray that Tunisia can avoid such calculated chaos. The Iraqipeople, however, did not capitulate to al-Qaida's terror campaign and, in sodoing, dealt al-Qaida a strategic political defeat.

Tunisia's revolutionaries appear to be just as fearless.Tyrants and terrorists of all types and isms use fear to suppress demands forfreedom. Chain-reaction revolts are unlikely, but Tunisia's rebellion isanother indication of a psychological change lurking in Arab nations: They arelosing their fear.

The revolt also demonstrates a people's willingness toaccept responsibility for altering their own dreadful circumstances. That's badnews for the authoritarian leaders and al-Qaida. 

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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