SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we are worried, in general, about the unrest and the instability, and what seems to be the underlying concerns of the people who are protesting — it seems to be a combination of economic and political demonstrations — and the government’s reaction, which has been, unfortunately, leading to the deaths of some of the protestors. So we are not taking sides in it, we just hope there can be a peaceful resolution of it…we have got a lot of very positive aspects of our relationship with Tunisia. And what the Ambassador and what the State Department back in Washington did was just express concern that this is a protest that has, unfortunately, provoked such a reaction from the government, leading to the deaths of mostly young people who were protesting. And, as I say, we are not taking sides, but we are saying we hope that there can be a peaceful resolution. And I hope that the Tunisian Government can bring that about.
Fuck that shit, Secretary Clinton. Protests do not “provoke” a government into killing protesters, and what you really mean by “not taking sides” is that the United States is, officially, not all that bothered by violent authoritarian repression. That’s taking sides. Saying things like “lead to the deaths of some of the protesters” is signaling that an authoritarian regime can shoot people, jail them, suppress dissent, and there will not be consequences to its official relationship with the “free world.” That’s officially telling the world that when security forces with guns shoot protesters, it’s really the protesters’ fault for provoking it.
Here, Secretary Clinton, is what Ambassador Robert F. Godec wrote to you about the situation in Tunisia on the 17th of July, 2009:
Tunisia is a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems…for every step forward there has been another back, for example the recent takeover of important private media outlets by individuals close to President Ben Ali.
The problem is clear: Tunisia has been ruled by the same president for 22 years. He has no successor. And, while President Ben Ali deserves credit for continuing many of the progressive policies of President Bourguiba, he and his regime have lost touch with the Tunisian people. They tolerate no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international. Increasingly, they rely on the police for control and focus on preserving power. And, corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising. Tunisians intensely dislike, even hate, First Lady Leila Trabelsi and her family. In private, regime opponents mock her; even those close to the government express dismay at her reported behavior. Meanwhile, anger is growing at Tunisia’s high unemployment and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime’s long-term stability are increasing.
He insisted that the US needed to let it be known that empty slogans would not be enough, that “US cooperation depends on real Tunisian engagement”:
For too long Tunisia has skated by. A small country, in a tough region, the GOT [government of Tunisia] relies on vague promises of friendship and empty slogans. More can and should be expected of Tunisia. The GOT frequently says it is a US ally and calls for greater US engagement. We should respond clearly: yes, but only if we get genuine help from Tunisia on the challenges that matter to us all. The Tunisian government loves the illusion of engagement. The US government should press for the hard work of real cooperation.
That was in July of 2009, when things were still at a low simmer. Since then, they’ve boiled over. Ethan Zuckerman:
On December 17, a 26 year old Tunisian man named Mohamed Bouazizi reached the end of his rope. An unemployed university graduate, Bouazizi had become a seller of fruits and vegetables in the southern Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid. When authorities confiscated his wares to punish him for selling without a license, Bouazizi set himself on fire. He died in hospital on January 4, 2011.
Bouazizi’s suicide struck a chord with other frustrated Tunisians. Thousands took to the streets in Sidi Bouzid to protest widespread unemployment, government corruption and lack of opportunity. Another frustrated youth in Sidi Bouzid, Lahseen Naji, killed himself by climbing an electricity pylon while crying out “No for misery, no for unemployment!” before grasping the high voltage line. The Tunisian government responded by sending baton and teargas-wielding reinforcements to the city and by promising future economic development projects. But riots have spread from Sidi Bouzid across the country, and the government has responded by closing the high schools and universities, arresting those they perceive to be ringleaders and imposing a curfew…There’s good reason to believe the Ben Ali government could fall – trade unions and lawyers have both gone on strike in support of the protests, and the situation appears to be rapidly spiraling out of the government’s control.
Enough. For too long, our state department has skated by on this issue. They rely on vague promises and empty slogans. More can and should be expected of them. Secretary Clinton frequently says that Tunisia is a US ally and calls for the Tunisian Government to bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict. We, the people of the United States, should respond clearly: what part of shooting people to suppress protesters looks anything like a “peaceful resolution”? The Tunisian and American government loves the illusion of engagement. We the people of the United States should press our elected officials to stop shitting in our ears.
Update: Apparently Clinton gave a speech today that sort of vaguely calls on the “leaders of the region” to do more or something for the future maybe. The delighted Times headline was “Clinton Bluntly Presses Arab Leaders on Reform” and Blake Hounshell is impressed, but in reading it, I’m struggling to think of a more vague and meaningless set of cliches than that; apparently leaders are to partner with civil society, just like the US has been urging for decades, and some Orientalist nonsense about sinking into the sand. Meanwhile, as the shit goes down for real in Tunisia, she says nothing. See, she’ll talk in general terms about “leaders of the region” and repeat platitudes about vacuums and visions. But she wouldn’t want to actually suggest that Ben Ali’s security forces stop shooting people; that would be undiplomatic.