|Regimes in the region have long imposed their will on a reluctant population through the use of fear [EPA]|
Eastern European nations, for decades shackled under the weight of Communism, were the last geographical bloc to break the chains of oppression en masse, and in the process shed a history of subservience to a far off and, to many, an alien political culture. How that landscape has now changed.
While Eastern Europe is now free, the plight of the majority of the Arab world is reminiscent of the worst excesses of Soviet rule: Political repression is the norm, civil society is suffocated while a political elite operates in a parallel existence intoxicated by the stench of absolute power.
Lest anyone think oppression breeds indifference, however, the people of Tunisia have just turned history on its head and unleashed a defiance that is bound to resonate with the people of neighbouring nations and to shake the thrones of Arab despots.
Do not underestimate the psychological impact of what Tunisians have just achieved. Arab regimes have had a free hand at imposing their will on reluctant populations through the use of a single instrument: Fear. In the space of just a few weeks, masses of Tunisians have demonstrated to the Arab region the limits of dictatorial rule.
The death of one young Tunisian who set fire to himself in an act of desperation lit the fuse of popular protests against mounting economic turmoil, blistering corruption and a massive breach of trust with the ruling class.
Where perhaps just a month ago such anger would have been momentary and the rage dowsed by pure state brutality, the strength of feeling that has propelled Tunisians to fight the state has proven overwhelming and irreversible.
It is such sentiment which has resonated so profoundly across the region. The rage is not specific to Tunisia: almost identical conditions fester right across the Middle East. Tunisia in this instance could just as well be Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan or Syria. (This is to momentarily ignore the political situation in the Gulf region.)
What is not lost on most of the protest voices in the region is the sheer complicity of Western nations which have long waved an abstract, need one say meaningless, flag of freedom. The violent protests that greeted the result of the Iranian election were utilised to maximum effect by governments in the US and Europe. Iranian leaders, rightly so, were at the end of some heavy political vitriol from Western powers.
The popular revolution that many had thought – wished – would materialise in Iran has forced itself on Tunisia. No words of praise for Tunisians, however, from Western quarters for toppling their dictator, unsurprisingly.
Beware the French
As the former colonial overlord in Tunisia, France has a history of deceit, mendacity and, to boot, hypocrisy in relation to North Africa. How often are the French wont to proclaim liberté, égalité, fraternité as their most fundamental values? As far as French policy in North Africa is concerned, we may add another: Fallacy.
The Tunisian despot’s closeness to France was legendary. Despite achieving independence from France, Tunisia remained subject to its puppet master’s whims under its dictatorial regime.
Something of a similar revolution spread across Algeria some two decades ago. Back then, with the avowed backing of the French state, Algerian security forces trampled over Algerian democracy precipitating a brutal civil war.
For Tunisia’s revolution not to be short-lived, the population will need to be alert to the behind-the-scenes machinations and manoeuvrings of the French.
That France refused refuge to the deposed despot was not a sign of the former’s solidarity with the Tunisian people. Rather a play at real politik by the French and a little forward thinking in how best to influence future events in Tunisia.
If a new system beckons in Tunisia, the people would do well to distance themselves from France.
The Arab world has had little cause for celebration of late. At the mercy of long-standing kingdoms and hereditary life-time autocrats, political suffocation has been the order of the day. Defeatism had taken hold over civil society. But the momentous events in Tunisia show how no amount of bloodletting will kill peoples’ spirit.
Platitudes from foreign powers are unnecessary now. The people of the Middle East are capable of building their own futures as they see fit.
Despite such optimism, however, do not be surprised if the new revolutionary zeal is buried prematurely given what it may mean for Western policy.
The tide of defiance will not easily be pushed back. That is not to say there will not be many forces out there employing all means necessary to smother it. Tunisians and Arabs are only at the very early stages of their struggle for freedom and must be on their guard against the difficult obstacles ahead.
Mohammed Khan is a political analyst based in the UAE.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.