Saturday, January 15, 2011

Tunisia: protests bring dictator down...now what?

Tarek Amara and Christian Lowe, Reuters News Agency in Toronto Star, January 14, 2011
TUNIS—A surge of anger in the streets over police repression and poverty swept Tunisia’s veteran leader from power on Friday, sending a chill through unpopular authoritarian governments across the Arab world.
Former president Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali stepped aside after more than two decades in power and flew out of the country.
Late Friday, Saudi Arabia’s state news agency said Ben Ali had arrived in the kingdom, Associated Press reported....
The violence and rapid turn of events sent shockwaves across the Arab world, where similar authoritarian rulers are deeply entrenched, but face mounting pressures from growing young populations, economic hardship and the appeal of militant Islam.

“When a regime is so repressive, in a crisis like this it just crumbles,” said Phillip Naylor of Marquette University, author of North Africa: A History from Antiquity to the Present....
The protests, which began with the suicide of a desperate young vegetable-seller in December, spread from rural towns to the capital. They tore through a wide spectrum of Tunisia’s society, including professionals, unemployed students and the poor, protesting the government’s brutality and corruption, as well as unemployment and steadily escalating food prices.

The military and police were apparently reluctant to continue their violent response, which left dozens dead and others wounded.
The demonstrators railed against his Ben Ali’s family and that of his loathed wife, Leila Trabelsi, seen as a cross between Imelda Marcos and Catherine de Medici. Trabelsi’s family is reviled for taking lucrative slices of state business and contracts, and plundering Tunisia’s wealth.
Listening to a spokeswoman from the Library of Congres, Mary Jane Deeb, on PBS' News Hour, one gets the clear impression that this uprising is not about radical Islam, but has a much more secular basis. If that is the case, there is some reason for the west to hope that radical Islam will not take hold in this very shaky and unstable situation. However, whenever there is instability, especially after 23 years of dictatorship, multiple forces will likely attempt to seize power. Remember the cliche, "Nature abhors a vaccuum!"
Of course the role of technology is a focus of western newscasts, making it much more convenient for protestors to learn about local information important to their movements. However, the real news in this story may be the awakening of repressed peoples of all classes, and all languages and all cultures to the promise of participating in the governing of their countries.
And that energy, in the face of other repressive regimes, must today be a sign of a potential political tsunami that could roll across the Middle East, making the tenure of repressive leaders look a little less stable.
Support from the White House for the people and against the riot police who have already killed several is neither surprising nor excessive. And it marks a change from the "blind eye" that has been the routine approach to these repressive regimes, because they allegedly supported the west in the campaign against terror and terrorists.
Managing the situation, for the Prime Minister, will not be a simple or easy task. And the west, while vitally interested in the long-term outcome of these street protests, will have to exercise a subtle, sophisticated and intelligent "hand" in helping to shape the future, not only of Tunisia but of the whole region. This is clearly not Iran or Iraq; it is also not Egypt or Saudi Arabia. It is not Jordan or Syria. This is certainly not Lebanon. And each of these countries have both human and natural resources, along with vital interests in the path selected by the Tunisians. Imagine the complexity that the State Department of the U.S. and the Foreign Ministries of all countries will have to both understand and dance with, in the coming weeks and months, as liberation of repressed peoples, linked to their history and faith cultures, helps all of us to understand the complexity of  international relations.
Update, for this extremely fast-moving, and turbulent story
By David D. Kirkpatrick, New York Times, January 15, 2011

TUNIS — Power in Tunisia changed hands again Saturday morning in the aftermath of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s flight from the country as soldiers kept the city under a tight lockdown, sporadic nighttime riots simmered down and clouds of smoke from the burning of a major supermarket hung over the bleached-city skyline.  
Bowing to the continuation of the uprising over night, the prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, ceded authority to the speaker of the Tunisian parliament. State television announced the change...
The handover to the speaker of parliament announced Saturday accords with the provisions of the Tunisian constitution. The speaker is expected to hold elections to reconstitute the government within six months.

Tunisia, however, has essentially been a one-party police state with no record of free elections, so the speaker of the parliament is himself another ally guided to his position by Mr. Ben Ali.

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