Over the last few weeks, I have been following the unraveling of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, my emotions changing from surprise, to awe, and then to elation. As you probably know by now, the protests began on December 17 when Mohammed Bouazizi, a vegetable vendor who had suffered from police harassment for some time, had his unlicensed cart confiscated. He set himself on fire in the main square in the town of Sidi Bouzid, an act of desperation that inspired the country’s thousands of unemployed graduates to take to the streets in protest. It was perhaps understandable for some observers to initially dismiss the protests as another one of the region’s “bread riots.” But this was Tunisia, a country so tightly controlled that the protests themselves were highly unusual.
The police did what police do in dictatorships: they used tear gas, beat up protestors with clubs, and fired live ammunition, killing dozens of people. But the protests continued. Two weeks into the unrest, Ben Ali gave a television address, where he tried to show sympathy for the unemployed, while also blaming the country’s troubles on foreign hands and agent provocateurs. His speech was interrupted by a ringing cell phone, which turned a solemn affair into a comic one, as a flustered Ben Ali leaned forward and back in his chair without answering it. His patina of stern dictator seemed to crack. For the first time, his portraits were ripped from street corners. Trade union members and professionals joined students in the protests, which reached a fever pitch on January 4th, when it was reported that Bouazizi had died of his wounds.
Ben Ali dismissed a few members of his cabinet, but the protests grew even more popular, spreading from Sidi Bouzid to Kasserine, Sfax, Hammamet, and the capital. Then, on January 13th, he delivered a long litany of promises: he would create jobs, he would allow more personal freedoms, he would appoint an investigative commission, and, most significantly, he would leave office in 2014. Here was the dictator on television again, a man of seventy-four years with unnaturally dark hair and a chubby face, but the expression behind his eyeglasses was one of astonishment and fear. I had seen that expression before, a long, long time ago—on the face of Ceauşescu.
In the February 7 issue of The Nation magazine, I comment on the Tunisian events, and offer some context for them. Here is the opening paragraph:
In conventional thinking about the Middle East, perhaps the most persistent cliché is “moderate Arab country.” The label seems to apply indiscriminately to monarchies and republics, ancient dictatorships and newly installed ones, from the Atlantic Coast to the Persian Gulf, so long as the country in question is of some use to the United States. And, almost always, it crops up in articles and policy papers vaunting the need for America to support these countries, bulwarks against growing Islamic extremism in the Arab world.
A perfect example is Tunisia. Just three summers ago, Christopher Hitchens delivered a 2,000-word ode to the North African nation in Vanity Fair, describing it as an “enclave of development” menaced by “the harsh extremists of a desert religion.” This is a country with good economic growth, a country where polygamy was outlawed in 1956, a country with high levels of education, a country with perfect sandy beaches. And, Hitchens wrote, it “makes delicious wine and even exports it to France.
(Photo Credit: AP)