Salute to Tunisia

It all started a month ago when a disenfranchised university graduate Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, doused himself in petrol and set himself alight after police confiscated his produce, alleging he did not have the necessary permit. This public suicide grew into unprecedented country-wide anger and, ultimately, proved to be the death of a dictator.

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who seized power in 1987 by coup d’état, was ultimately forced to flee to Saudi Arabia having been denied landing in Paris, France. Ben Ali, 74, was the second president of Republic of Tunisia who was appointed Prime Minister in October 1987, and assumed the Presidency in November 1987 in a bloodless coup d’état from then President Habib Bourguiba who was declared incompetent.

The regime he led was deemed authoritarian and undemocratic by independent international human rights groups such as Amnesty International, Freedom House, and Protection International. They criticized Tunisian officials for not observing international standards of political rights and interfering with the work of local human rights organizations. In the The Economist’s 2008 Democracy Index, Tunisia was classified as an authoritarian regime ranking 141th out of 167 countries studied. In 2008, in terms of freedom of the press, Tunisia was ranked 143 out of 173.

In December 2010 and January 2011, riots over unemployment escalated into a widespread popular protest movement against Ben Ali’s government. On January 13, 2011, he announced he would not run for another term in 2014, and pledged steps to improve the economy and press freedom. The following day, however, thousands demonstrated in the center of Tunis, demanding Ben Ali’s immediate resignation. On January 14, 2011, Ben Ali reportedly fled the country and a caretaker ruling committee headed by Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi was announced.

Twenty three years long rule of Ben Ali is marked with cruel state repression. Censorship in Tunisia has been an issue since the country gained independence in 1956. Though considered relatively mild under President Habib Bourguiba (1957–1987), censorship and other forms of repression have become common under his successor, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (1987–2011). The latter has been listed since 1998 as one of the “10 Worst Enemies of the Press” by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Reporters Without Borders has also named Ben Ali as a leading “Predator of Press Freedom”.

All major newspapers essentially follow the government line and tend to report uncritically on the activities of the President. Certain editions of foreign—principally French—newspapers that criticise the human rights situation or alleged electoral fraud, such as Le MondeLibérationLa CroixLe Figaro are often banned or censored, when they publish articles unfriendly to the Tunisian regime. Charlie Hebdo and Le Canard enchaîné, both satirical newspapers, are banned on a permanent basis. In order to avoid accusations of censorship, Ben Ali’s regime authorized only a very limited number of editions of foreign newspapers.

Yasmine Ryan of Al-Jazeera throws light on issue of Internet censorship In Tunisia.

Thousands of Tunisians have taken to the streets in recent weeks to call for extensive economic and social change in their country.

Among the fundamental changes the protesters have been demanding is an end to the government’s repressive online censorship regime and freedom of expression.

That battle is taking place not just on the country’s streets, but in internet forums, blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.

The Tunisian authorities have allegedly carried out targeted “phishing” operations: stealing users passwords to spy on them and eradicate online criticism. Websites on both sides have been hacked.

Anonymous, the loosely-knit group of international web activists that drew world attention for their “distributed denial of service” (DDoS) attacks on the servers of companies that blocked payments and server access to the whistle-blowing website, WikiLeaks, joined the fray, in solidarity with the Tunisian uprising.

Most international news organisations have no presence in the country (and, some say, a lack of interest in the protests). Media posted online by Tunisian web activists has been some of the only material that has slipped through the blackout, even if their videos and photos haven’t generated quite the same enthusiastic coverage by Western media as the Iranian protest movement did in 2009.(Source)

There were reports of police obstructing demonstrators and using tear gas on hundreds of young protesters in Sidi Bouzid in mid-December 2010. The protesters had gathered outside regional government headquarters to demonstrate against the treatment of Mohamed Bouazizi who had set himself on fire to protest the police confiscation of fruit and vegetables he was trying to sell on the streets. Coverage of events was limited by Tunisian media. On 19 December, extra police were present on the streets of the city.

On 22 December, Lahseen Naji, a protestor, responded to “hunger and joblessness” by electrocuting himself after climbing an electricity pylon. Ramzi Al-Abboudi also killed himself because of financial difficulties arising from a business debt by the country’s micro-credit solidarity programme. On 24 December, Mohamed Ammari was fatally shot in the chest by police in Bouziane. Other protesters were also injured, including Chawki Belhoussine El Hadri, who died later on 30 December. Police claimed they shot the demonstrators in “self-defence.” A “quasi-curfew” was then imposed on the city by police.

Violence later increased as Tunisian authorities and residents of Sidi Bouzid Governorate encountered each other once again. The protests had reached the capital Tunis on27 December with about 1,000 citizens expressing solidarity with residents of Sidi Bouzid and calling for jobs. The rally, which was called by independent trade union activists, was stopped by security forces. The protests also spread to Sousse, Sfax and Meknassy. The following day the Tunisian Federation of Labour Unions held another rally in Gafsa which was also blocked by security forces. At the same time about 300 lawyers held a rally near the government’s palace in Tunis. Protests continued again on the 29 December.

On 30 December, police peacefully broke up a protest in Monastir while using force to disrupt further demonstrations in Sbikha and Chebba. Momentum appeared to continue with the protests on 31 December and further demonstrations and public gatherings by lawyers in Tunis and other cities following a call by the Tunisian National Lawyers Order. Mokhtar Trifi, president of the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH), said that lawyers across Tunisia had been “savagely beaten.” There were also unconfirmed reports of another man attempting to commit suicide in El Hamma.

On 3 January 2011, protests in Thala over unemployment and a high cost of living turned violent. At a demonstration of 250 people, mostly students, in support of the protesters in Sidi Bouzid, police fired tear gas; one canister landed in a local mosque. In response, the protesters were reported to have set fire to tyres and attacked the office of Constitutional Democratic Rally.

Some of the more general protests sought changes in the government’s online censorship, where a lot of the media images have been broadcast. Tunisian authorities also allegedly carried out phishing operations to take control of user passwords and check online criticism. Both state and non-state websites had been hacked.

Dr Larbi Sadiki, a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, brilliantly highlighted the different aspects and root causes of ongoing movement on 27th of December 2010.

What happened to the state? Where did civil society go? Why is there only silence from Development Minister Mohamed Nouri Jouini?

Before even attempting to answer each one of those questions, these seemingly dysfunctional institutions need to be inspected more closely in order to see the extent to which they share responsibility for the suicidal protests of despair by Tunisia’s youth.

This is a not time for scoring political points. What Wikileaks says or does not say about Tunisia’s ruling familiy serves no purpose here. This is a time for reflection on Tunisia’s own ‘wretched of the earth’ – the ‘khobz-istes’ of Sidi Bouzid and the country’s disenfranchised youth.

The Khobz-istes (the jobless) strike back

Putting Rousseau’s notion of a ‘social contract’ and Arab politics in the same phrase is to ask for an oxymoron. Tunisia’s politics is no exception. But there is another type of contract which has nothing to do with Rousseau: The ‘bread contract’ – bread in parts of Tunisia and Egypt are called ‘eish, dear ‘life’ itself.

The tacit contract that has defined the North African country since its independence in 1956 is the ‘bread’ provision – mostly subsidies – in return for political deference. With modest resources, Tunisia has historically funded subsidies of strategic commodities – bread, sugar, tea, coffee, kerosene – and education, health, housing in some cases, and even recreational activities, such as sport.

The National Solidarity Fund and the National Employment Fund, still under centralised control, have had some successes. They have partly shifted the burden of providence from the state to society.

Tunisians dug into their pockets to volunteer what little of their non-disposable income they have to the cause of poverty alleviation, and improvements of the so-called ‘shadow zones’ (bidon-villes), the misery belt suffocating the rich towns and suburbs.

But even this system of quid pro quo bread and political deference has failed many Tunisians, leaving many hopeless and jobless.

Bou’azizi’s letter to President Bin Ali

It is a national tragedy when the youth – literally the future – commit suicide to make a point.

The despair must have been unimaginable when a university graduate, 26-year-old Mohamed Bou’azizi, was prevented from earning an honest living peddling fruits and vegetables. It is humiliating enough to do that.

He doused himself in petrol and set himself aflame on December 17. If he survives his horrific burns, he will now live with physical and emotional pain for the rest of his life.

Irrational as it might have been, it was a cry for help, and a message to his state and his president to act.

The police tend to intercept these cries for help, seemingly able to diagnose all the psychological damage done to tens of thousands of Bou’azizis with the prescription of a handy baton and a badge. But for the local authorities to confiscate his cart or stall is to add insult to injury.

Bou’azizi’s message was seconded by another suicidal signature of another young man in his mid-twenties, Lahseen Naji, who electrocuted himself in despair of ‘hunger and joblessness’. A third, Ramzi Al-Abboudi, under the burden of business debt, ironically made possible by the country’s micro-credit solidarity programme, killed himself.

Added to these signatures to Bou’azizi’s letter to Mr Bin Ali are the spontaneous riots of Sidi Bouzid and surrounding towns.

Tunisia’s long winter of discontent

Like many developing states, Tunisia jumped onto the ‘Washington consensus’ bandwagon, which led to fiscal, political and social adjustments.

This led to a decrease in subsidies, privatization, poor convertibility of the dinar, vast land sales with foreign ownership of real estate, tourist resort leasing, nouveaux riches consumption patterns, big business commissions, business monopolies and corruption.

Inevitably, the clouds gathering over the skies of Tunisia’s winter of discontent have started  the tell-tale signs of a deluge of ills symptomatic of a quasi ‘banana republic’.

The marginalization of the agrarian and arid central and southern areas will continue unabated. Some of this is due to nature (poor soil and low rainfall), and some to nurture (state neglect and weak entrepreneurship by Tunisia’s industrial and commercial elites).

The state is a control-freak to the point that it disallows the existence of any hint of an informal economy. There is one in Italy – even in America – but not in Tunisia. If the state is partly failing in its provision of jobs, then it is unwise to ban informal trade and work.

A youth empowered by education but disempowered by marginalization can be the spark that ignites social upheaval and social tension.

In Tunisia, marginalization is today being translated into irrational and tragic suicides. But tomorrow these can be the triggers of a different type of suicides.

Does Minister Jouini want to be held responsible for this?

‘North’ vs ‘South’

A stroll in the boulevards, leisure and sports centres, rich esplanades and shopping malls of the green coastal areas reveals a Tunisia that looks and feels like a land of geniality, of delight – in official propaganda parlance, a ‘model’ of development worthy of emulation.

The models of development and distribution applied to the country’s coastal and northern cities, towns and suburbs are nowhere to be seen in the centre or the south. The riots of Sidi Bouzid and surrounding towns call into question years of uneven development and mis-distribution.

They challenge policy-makers to rethink redistributive justice and regional development urgently.

But today the notion of ‘total state’ and ‘total politics’ may not be apt for successful social engineering and re-distribution. Total control can translate into loss of control. The signs are there.

From the central phosphates Basin towns via Sidi Bouzid to Ben Guerdane, the cracks on the current developmental model are showing.

The puzzle of Tunisia is that it insists upon belt-fastening whilst, for a while, cruising at a high altitude (i.e. stability, development). It is time to unfasten belts and let society, NGOS, entrepreneurs, the informal economy, political parties, local initiatives, and autonomous charities share the burden of development with the state. (Source)

Tunisia has a diverse economy, ranging from agriculture, mining, manufacturing, petroleum products and tourism. In 2008 it had a GDP of $41 billion (official exchange rates), or $82 billion (purchasing power parity). It also has one of Africa and the Middle East’s highest per-capita GDPs (PPP). The agricultural sector stands for 11.6% of the GDP, industry 25.7%, and services 62.8%. The industrial sector is mainly made up of clothing and footwear manufacturing, production of car parts, and electric machinery. Although Tunisia managed an average 5% growth over the last decade it continues to suffer from a high unemployment especially among youth.

Tunisia was in 2009 ranked the most competitive economy in Africa and the 40th in the world by theWorld Economic Forum. Tunisia has managed to attract many international companies such as Airbus and Hewlett-Packard.

Lina Ben Mhenni, a Tunisian blogger and university assistant, told Al Jazeera that people are discontented.

“We are unhappy with the policies in Tunisia, we are unhappy with everything – it is not just unemployment.”

Tunisia’s uprising electrified the region. The most enthusiastic suggested it was the Arab world’s Gdansk, the birthplace of Solidarity in Poland, which heralded the end to Communist rule in Eastern Europe. That seemed premature, particularly because the contours of the government emerging in Tunisia were still unclear — and because Tunisia is on the periphery of the Arab world, with a relatively affluent and educated population. Yet the street protests erupted when Arabs seemed more frustrated than ever, whether over rising prices and joblessness or resentment of their leaders’ support for American policies or ambivalence about Israeli campaigns in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009.

Tunisia’s protests were portrayed as a popular uprising, crossing lines of religion and ideology, offering a new model of dissent in a region where Islamic activists have long been seen as monopolizing opposition. Even if they serve only as inspiration, the protests offer a rare example of success to activists stymied at almost every turn in bringing about change in their own countries.

“A salute to Tunis, which has opened the road to freedom in an Arab world devastated by years of waiting on the curb,” said Burhan Ghalioun, head of the Centre d’Études sur l’Orient Contemporain in Paris and a political science professor at the Sorbonne.(Source)

Issandr El Amrani, a Moroccan-born freelance journalist in Cairo, who edits the Arabist blog, in a blog post headlined, “Where Tunisia Is Now: Exhilarating Limbo,” he added these thoughts:

Ben Ali has fallen. An Arab dictator of 24 years has turned out to be removable — not by a relative, former ally or military chief, but by a popular insurrection. This is historic first for the entire region and I will come back to it tomorrow.

In the meantime, though, we should not assume that Tunisia has become an instant democracy. The announcement today that Prime Minister Ghanouchi was assuming the presidency has yet to be accepted. Rioting and looting are continuing in the streets of major Tunisian cities, sometimes targeting the homes and businesses of regime cronies, but also of ordinary citizens. Some suspect police deserters to be looting. The situation is chaotic and the army is showing signs of wanting to impose order.

With no clear leadership with the moral authority to get people to go back to their homes, it may be days before the situation resolves itself. What interim president Ghanouchi does tomorrow in his meeting with the opposition — whose very definition will be controversial, notably over whether En-Nahda’s Islamists could become part of an interim coalition government — will be crucial. Right now, there does not seem to be any indication that Tunisians are accepting any government as legitimate. Ghanouchi will have to either move quickly to build a credible alliance (here the international community may have a role in conferring legitimacy) or step aside for someone who can.

Lamis Andoni, an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs, writes about the aftereffects of this uprising to other Arab monarchies.

Official figures place unemployment in the Arab world at 15 per cent but many economists believe the real rate is far higher than government supplied statistics suggest.

A joint study by the Arab League and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) indicates that in most Arab countries young people constitute 50 per cent of the unemployed – the highest rate in the world.

According to the same report, rates of poverty remain high – “reaching up to 40 per cent on average, which means that nearly 140 million Arabs continue to live under the upper poverty line”. Worse still, the study noted that the region has seen no decrease in rates of poverty in the past 20 years.

The report was submitted to the Arab summit that convened in Kuwait in 2009, but found no real response from Arab officials – who continued to pursue economic policies that had, in their main outlines, been imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

In most Arab countries, rampant corruption, nepotism and inefficiency have further aggravated the impact of IMF-inspired privatisation processes, austerity measures and the reduction or scrapping of government subsidies on fuel and staple foodstuffs.

Crying out against injustice

It was not until the global economic crisis that the Arab world started to witness the recovery of popular opposition – first materialising in Egypt in 2007 and 2008. These strikes and protests were the first indications of a return to organised protests against political repression and poverty inducing economic policies.

These movements, ultimately unsuccessfully, brought students and workers together to challenge the apathy and disdain of the ruling elite to the suffering of the poor and marginalised. The political movement for change, led by Mohamed ElBaradei, to establish a democratic and participatory political system, reflected the merger of the discontented sectors of Egyptian society.

But it was Bou’aziz’s heart-wrenching attempt to kill himself that most accurately represented the loud cry of the millions of impoverished and aching citizens against the yoke of politically and economically repressive systems. His act was one of extreme despair. But he is not alone. Lahseen Naji, another young Tunisian, followed – electrocuting himself to death – and at least five others attempted to commit suicide but were stopped.

In Jordan and some other Arab countries, frustration borne out of political and economic disenfranchisement has manifested itself in a higher rate of societal violence, especially among the young. The absence of strong political parties and movements are strengthening tribal rivalries among younger generations, often leading to armed clashes.

But Jordanian society has also witnessed this frustration being turned into affirmative action in the form of workers’ and teachers’ demands for improved working conditions. Jordan’s teachers have emerged as an important force within the country, resisting government attempts to marginalise them and pushing their demand for the formation of a syndicate to protect their interests.

As the Tunisian protests continued, demonstrations took place in Algeria against a housing programme that failed to accommodate the thousands of families made homeless by the country’s devastating 2003 earthquake.

Bou’aziz’s wounds and Naji’s death should not go down in history as mere tragic incidents: if the Tunisian protests do indeed signal the return of social movements to the Arab world, their stifled hopes may just be turned into an outcry against injustice. (Source)

So far the president’s departure has not dampened the violence. Looting occurred throughout the day on Friday and continued into the night, with reports that some police officers may be taking part. The villas and businesses of the president’s family are said to be targeted, though ordinary citizens have also been caught up in the violence. Tunisia’s national television stations have featured calls from viewers pleading for calm.

Today’s events mark the first time in recent memory that popular protests have felled a leader in the Arab world. But the celebration in Tunisia has been muted. It is unclear whether Tunisians will accept the leadership of Mr Ghannouchi, or whether the protests will continue. The revolution that toppled Mr Ben Ali may not be over yet.



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