Friday, January 14, 2011

There's something about Tunisia

Something's happening in Tunisia.

That statement alone is pretty significant, since it concerns one of the world's most tightly controlled police states.

The north African state has been controlled by two dictators since independence in 1956. First was Habib Bourguiba, who ran the country from 1956 until he was removed for 'health' reasons in 1987 by his prime minister Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who still rules today. The country is so rigidly monitored that it's said that Ben Ali, a former intelligence chief, personally reviews logs of who entered and left the country via the main international airport.

But after nearly a quarter century, Tunisians appear to be fed up with Ben Ali's regime. As The New York Times described the situation: unisia also has one of the most repressive governments in a region full of police states. Residents long tolerated extensive surveillance, scant civil liberties and the routine use of torture, at least until the economic malaise that has gripped southern Europe spread here, sending unemployment and public resentment skyrocketing.

The current crisis started when an unemployed university graduate set himself on fire after police refused to allow him to scratch out a meager living selling fruits and vegetables on the street because he lacked paperwork.

Protests erupted, spread by social media, since the traditional media is heavily censored. The protests were dealt with in the way that autocratic regimes usually deal with such displays: brute force. People were killed, which fueled even more fury and resentment. To no one's surprise, Ben Ali initially blamed the unrest of foreign elements and terrorists.

(Foreign Policy has a good analysis of Tunisia's socioeconomic problems and other catalysts of the protests.)

Then an unusual thing happened, the dictatorship blinked.

A chastened Ben Ali went on national television and promised not to run again for the presidency in 2014, to ease censorship and apologized for the abuses of the insecurity forces.

Many are skeptical of the dictator's promises, especially after several people were shot by men in uniform not long after Ben Ali's speech; a human rights' organization counts 66 confirmed deaths since the unrest began on December 17. There's the added factor that Ben Ali's family has a stranglehold on the Tunisian economy (some are describing this as the first Wikileaks' Revolution) and won't relinquish that easily.

The protesters aren't satisfied. They want Ben Ali to give up power now.

Still, it's a remarkable climbdown for a strongman who had, not long prior, so vehemently denounced the protests.

In the blogosphere, there's some interesting discussions about social media and the Tunisia situation.

Ethan of My Heart's in Accra worries that no one is paying attention. Even the normally excellent BBC World Service had virtually nothing on it, at least that I heard, for the first several weeks of the protests.

George Brock of 21st Century Journalism counters that whether the events in Tunisia are noticed in the west or not misses the point. It's the empowerment that matters. Much inflated hyperbole is talked about the effect of social media on politics and society in Europe and the US. But here in the Middle East, it is impossible exaggerate the importance – actual and potential – of informal media, he explains.


Update: Today, Ben Ali has declared a state of emergency, sacked the entire government (except himself of course) and called for new elections within six months.

Further update: Ben Ali has apparently resigned and fled the country. His prime minister, a close ally, has assumed the acting presidency, though there is some doubt as to whether this is constitutional.

Third update: Tunisia's high court has appointed the parliamentary speaker as acting president.

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