SEATTLE — When faced with problems, most authoritarian regimes maintain a policy of rigidity when the appropriate response should be flexibility, political wisdom and concessions. In this way, authoritarian leaders can control their populations to serve the interests of a few individuals and political and military elites. The policy can, however, usher in a regime’s downfall, for populations can only be oppressed, controlled and punished to a point.
President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, who had controlled his population with an iron fist since he arrived in the presidential palace in 1987, must have crossed that point. He was forced to flee the country amid the angry protests of thousands of Tunisians, fed up with growing unemployment, soaring inflation, government corruption, violent crackdowns and lack of political freedom. The government’s subsequent crackdowns only stirred emotions further.
The upheaval in Tunisia is certainly worthy of headlines, but many reactions contain generalizations that hype expectations, worsen an already terrible situation and provoke misguided policies.
Indeed, the current political storm, dubbed both the “Youth Intifada” and the “Jasmine Revolution,” has inspired many interpretations. Some commentators wish to see the popular uprising as a reaction against Arab regimes that will manifest itself elsewhere, while others place it within a non-Arab context, noting that popular uprisings are growing in countries that struggle with rising food prices. Even al-Qaida has tried to score points in a seeming political void.
Many commentators have focused on the Arab identity of Tunisia to find correlations elsewhere. Hadeel al-Shalchi’s Associated Press article, “Arab activists hope Tunisia uprising brings change,” presented the uprising within an Arab context. From Cairo, she reported growing optimism among those she dubbed “Arab activists” that other Arab leaders will share the fate of Ben Ali if they don’t ease their grip on power.
Hossam Bahgat is such an activist. He told AP: “I feel we are a giant step closer to our own liberation. What’s significant is that literally days ago the Tunisian regime seemed unshakable.”
True, both Tunisia and Egypt are Arab countries with many similarities, but to expect a repeat of a uniquely Tunisian scenario and implicitly to suggest that Western states serve as harbingers of democracy is illusory, to stay the least.
Now that Ben Ali is out of the picture, Western governments are cautiously lining up behind the uprising, but not with the same enthusiasm they did in support of the Iranian riots in June 2009.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague merely denounced the unrest, calling for restraint from all sides: “I condemn the violence and call on the Tunisian authorities to do all they can to resolve the situation peacefully.”
U.S. President Barack Obama urged everyone to avoid violence while calling on the Tunisian government “to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the near future.”
Cliches aside, both the United States and Britain must fear the repercussions of a popular uprising in an area so close to the heart of U.S.-British interests in the Middle East. Both countries are careful not to appear to oppose democratic reforms, even if they are forced to disown their friends in the region. Their response is largely representative of official responses from many Western capitals — the very capitals that lauded Tunisia as a model for Arab countries on how to help win the war on terror.
Neither the U.S. nor Britain had Tunisia on its radar for circumventing democracy or violating human rights. Ben Ali was celebrated as an icon of moderation, notwithstanding his atypical Arab stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime was not the type that required much chastising. It was the benign kind that allowed a tiny space for secular opposition while cracking down on any Islamic opposition group. For 23 years, such practice served the interests of both Ben Ali and various Western powers. The countless calls for respect of human rights from international and local organizations went mostly unheeded.
Now that the Tunisian people’s fight for rights has taken a sharp turn, many of us find it difficult to examine the specific context of this case without delving into dangerous generalizations. Western governments now speak of democracy in the region — as if there were ever a genuine concern, as if every Arab country is a duplicate of another. Technology bloggers are celebrating another “Twitter revolution.”
Tunisia, after all, is a small country, and most people know little about it aside from the fact that it’s a cheap tourist destination — thus the need to place it within a more gripping context.
Al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is using the opportunity to read the Tunisian uprising in a unique way. AQIM leader Abu Musab Abdul Wadud has called for the overthrow of the “corrupt, criminal and tyrannical” regimes in both Tunisia and Algeria and the installation of Shariah law. This call has prompted American commentators to warn of the future Islamization of Tunisia and will likely result in Western intervention to ensure that another “moderate” regime succeeds the one that just fled.
It seems that Tunisia is understood largely within layered contexts, devoid of political, cultural or socioeconomic uniqueness. Viewing Tunisia as just another “Arab regime,” another possible podium for al-Qaida does not lead to any cohesive understanding of the situation there and the events likely to follow.
Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an internationally syndicated columnist and the author, most recently, of “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story.”