On Tunisia

by zunguzungu

Lots of people on the internet are talking about whether what’s happening in Tunisia is the result of social media, and if you’re interested in that conversation, you could do worse than go here or here or here. I’m not that interested in that conversation. It seems to me that whether twitter was “indispensable” to what has already happened is a much less interesting question than the very much still in play question of what will happen next. And I have no idea, like most people. And along with Mona Eltahawy’s never-ending twitter feed (and her blog), here are some of the people I’m reading.

In Jordan, Naseem Tarawnah writes:

It is safe to assume that the Jordanian state has been watching Tunisian events closely and taking careful measures to help curb the likelihood of similar protests taking place in Jordan. Despite their denials that the two have anything to do with each other, these measures are quite obvious attempts at quelling potential violent eruptions within the Kingdom. The initial rise in prices one week (including fuel), and the subsequent lowering of those prices – a move that I don’t recall the state having ever made in the past 15 years or more – is an early indication that there is concern. The $169 million subsidy package that was recently announced is another indication of concern. The message the government has been sending out is quite clear, and ranges from “we’re doing all we can” to “look, we’ve done quite a lot”.

Just like their brethren in Tunisia, the feeling of economic discontent is ripe in Jordan. From high unemployment, high inflation and a record deficit of $2 billion (or roughly 10% of the country’s GDP), things are simply not great. Winter represents a season where fuel prices go up, and those struggling to heat their homes or cook food get hurt the most. This represents the majority of Jordanians.

(also, Amira Al Hussaini on reactions from around the Arab world.)

Juan Cole on the power vacuum left behind what he yesterday characterized as “the first middle eastern revolution since 1979”:

…As for the security breach, it was gangs and Mafia that attempted to step into it. Friday afternoon and into the evening witnessed systematic looting in Tunis and in some other cities. Men in masks attacked civilians. Some Tunisians on the internet accused the police of going rogue. One tweeted, “many policemen have been arrested by the army, many gunshots around presidential palace.” Some tweets are calling the rogue police “counter-revolutionaries.”

Aljazeera says that cars with no license plates cruised the streets looking for opportunities for larceny. Helicopters dropped paratroopers in some towns to combat the looters. One Tunisian interviewed from a quarter of Tunis said, “There is complete disorder here. Families are afraid.” One eyewitness tweeted, “… what a night in Bourj Louzir, robbers still doing their things, and locals keep fighting them, at 3:45 am.” Some tweets report the formation of neighborhood ad hoc militias to patrol for safety. One warned that forming factious militias had been the downfall of Iraqis under US rule. (Iraq is thus a negative, not a positive, example for Tunisian oppositionists). The central train station and some supermarkets were set ablaze late Friday afternoon.

Shadi Hamid notes that the US “does not have a history of supporting Arab democratic aspirations” but argues that what happens next — and how the international community supports the democratic process — will be the real test:

Yesterday, the Tunisian people toppled their leader, President Ben Ali, in a historic first for the Arab world. This is still a would-be revolution, not yet a successful one. A revolution entails a change in regime, not just in leadership. Power, today, is still in the hands of those associated with the Ancien regime. As Issandr El Amrani writes: “The next 24 hours may be as crucial as the preceding 24.” Elections are to be held within 60 days. Here, US and European pressure will be critical in ensuring they are free and fair, with full participation from all political forces, including the banned Islamist party — al-Nahda led by Rachid Ghannouchi. Any post-revolutionary government in Tunisia needs to represent the widest spectrum possible of social forces in the country — socialist, leftist, liberal, and Islamist. Tunisians will need to reassess and redesign their constitutional and institutional setup. This is where the international community (for example democracy promotion NGOs) can play a critical supporting role. For starters, under what electoral framework will new elections be held?

The fact that Ben Ali is gone is good, of course, but who will replace him? Ben Wedeman writes that in Tunis right now, “the feel is very much that of a military takeover. It’s hard to catch a whiff of what is being called the Jasmine Revolution”:

The army and security forces are trying to impose order in Tunis. Tanks and armored personnel carriers have been deployed on one of the capital’s main thoroughfares, Avenue 7 Novembre (named after the date when Ben Ali assumed presidential powers in 1987). At midday Saturday I watched as two truckloads of soldiers pulled up on the avenue and began stringing out barbed wire. A dusk-to-dawn curfew is being ruthlessly enforced. Just how ruthlessly I saw from my hotel window. At midnight I watched as plain-clothed policemen beat with batons and kicked a young man to the ground. All the while be screamed, “Have mercy on me!” This afternoon the front desk called to tell me to close my window on orders of the police. In the Place de l’Independence, I watched municipal workers taking down a large poster of Ben Ali. There was no cheering, no celebration. The few people in the square appeared more concerned with getting home before the curfew began.

Robin Yassin-Kassab first argues that and questions whether Tunisians have “changed the script” for democracy in the Arab world:

…[a]lthough the head of the snake has been sacrificed, the conglomerate of interests behind the Ben Ali regime is largely still in place, and will be working furiously to restrict and roll back popular participation. For this reason it is of crucial importance that Tunisians are tonight raising the slogan ‘al-intifada mustamura,’ or ‘the intifada continues.’ Beyond the local Tunisian mafia, those who have every reason to wish the revolution to fail include: the terrified Arab regimes, particularly the Western clients; Israel; and sections of the American, French and other Western elites. One or more of these powers may stoop to sponsoring chaos in some form or another. But we can have a good degree of confidence. Over the last weeks Tunisians have proved themselves sufficiently courageous and open-eyed to face down all manner of threats.

Whatever happens next in Tunis, the Arab world has entered a new stage. Tunisia has shown that the ‘Arab street’ has greater potential, greater power, than many Arabs, cowed by decades of oppression, dared dream. Now we know that if Arabs are enraged by their regimes’ corruption and mismanagement, by the muzzling of dissent and debate, by the failure to build functioning health and education systems, by the craven kow-towing to Zionism and the hosting of foreign miltary bases – now we know the Arabs can coerce their regimes to change these policies, or face Ben Ali’s fate. The Western clients in particular are in trouble. Saudi-owned media coverage of Tunisia makes their fear plain. Over the last weeks Algeria has seen demonstrations and riots. Yesterday thousands marched against economic conditions in Jordan. Tonight a demonstration outside the Tunisian embassy in Cairo congratulated the intifada, and chanted “Revolution Until Victory” (the old Palestinian battle cry), “Revolution in Egypt.”

Cameron Abadi notes Ben Ali somehow got his hands on the Shah of Iran’s playbook for embattled dictators. Poor choice.

One of the reasons I distrust the “Twitter Revolution” argument is that it takes the emphasis off the thing that Mohamed Bou’aziz died in order to emphasize, the thing he was willing to immolate himself to proclaim to the world: that economics is a matter of life and death. People are not fighting for their right to use youtube. They’re also fighting for economic security, the right to live a life worth living. And on that note, J-dV speaks to the universality of that protest:

…even as I cry “all politics is local!”, as I respect and honor that those brave Tunisians who took to the streets faced circumstances and history unique to their situation, I find myself recognizing my own life in the story of Bou’aziz, the story of a generation facing a future threatened by austerity and strangled by financial capitalism. The media narrative, by orientalizing what has happened, simultaneously avoids confronting what is particular about Tunisia and precludes the possibility of relating the events to our own position. In recognizing myself in Bou’aziz I examine the particular and open the possibility of relating our lives, within the contemporary global context. This is not a claim of equivalence or a reduction to similarity, nor a subsumtion into the universal, — there is no emerging global movement in which we unite and fight a common enemy — but an invitation to solidarity.

And Uticz notes that

Paradoxically it’s sometimes (and under certain conditions) easier to topple an authoritarian regime than a formally ‘democratic’ one, one which doesn’t claim a democratic mandate than one which does. It’s a myth that authoritarian regimes are the most stable and inflexible. In a sense they are more precarious because they rely on direct and overt shows of violence and repression that are better concealed in non-authoritarian regimes. It’s one of the great insights of the early Frankfurt School thinkers that in the wake of 1917 many states realised that introducing mass democracy, representative democracy, widening the suffrage, would be a more effective way to thwart revolution than were they to be openly authoritarian and crush the discontented masses. Representative democracy would be the way to more effectively channel and frame the democratic demand, neutralise the call for full ‘direct’ democracy and revolutionary economic change.

Pictures from Foreign Policy. Mother Jones gives us “what’s Happening in Tunisia for Dummies, and Americans”