|After 23 years of iron-fisted rule, Tunisia’s president was driven from power by 29 days of violent protests [AFP]|
Nationwide public protests since mid-December have led to the toppling of Tunisia’s president of 23 years, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, from power and his hasty departure from the country.
Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst, comments on three crucial issues.
The recent dramatic change in Tunisia has come as a surprise to most. How do you explain its success, timing and speed?
The simplest and perhaps the most accurate answer was “provided” almost a century ago by Tunisian poet Abu Al-Qasem Al-Shabi (Schebbi), in his Defenders of the Homeland which became the most popular verse in Arab poetry, and used in the Tunisian national anthem: “When people decide to live, destiny shall obey, and one day … the slavery chains must be broken.”
Unlike the short-lived uprising in neighbouring Algeria or recent socio-economic protests in other Arab countries, the popular Tunisian uprising was immediately supported by all the opposition groups, from the Islamists to the Communists, as well as by the labour unions, which helped it spread to all major parts of the country, including the influential north.
Likewise, the great degree of pent-up tension after decades of dictatorship, especially the last quarter of a century of police state under Ben Ali, allowed the situation to explode once the lid was removed in the early days of the protest against unemployment.
How does such an unpopular oppressive regime stay off the radar of the international community?
The so-called international community has been traditionally silent about totalitarian practices and abuses within its member states, except in cases where certain Western countries or powers have invoked questions of regime oppression either as a tool of foreign policy or championing the cause of human rights for public consumption.
So that when those regimes, as in Tunisia, co-operated with their Western counterparts on economic or strategic issues, their abuses of power have been generally ignored.
Much of which explains Western leaders’ silence or confusion regarding the Tunisian “uprising”, but their rush to support the “uprising” of the Iranian opposition following the elections last year. Call it hypocrisy.
But what does Tunisia have to offer?
For US and European leaders, Tunisia’s deposed president had been considered a staunch ally in the war on terrorism and against Islamist extremism.
As it is well known and reported by international human rights groups, he exploited this Western support to crack down on peaceful dissent.
During a 2004 visit by Ben Ali to the White House, in advance of Tunisia’s hosting of an Arab League summit, George Bush, the then US president, praised his guest as an ally in the war on terrorism, and praised Tunisia’s reforms in “press freedom” and the holding of “free and competitive elections”.
The same was repeated in 2008 by Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, who praised the improved “sphere of liberties” when human rights abuses were rampant in Tunisia. In once instance, at least 200 people were prosecuted against the backdrop of socio-economic protests in one southern mining town, Redhayef.
When certain European officials criticised Tunisia’s human rights record, they generally praised its economic performance.
France is Tunisia’s leading trade partner and its fourth largest foreign investor, while 80 per cent of the country’s trade is with the European Union.
Arguably, the neoliberal economic opening to Western investments has played no small part in the deterioration of the economic situation in Tunisia and other Arab countries.