Ben Ali's government was assumed to be immune to serious challenges to its widely validated power [AFP]
Almost six years ago, President George W. Bush's otherwise inconsequential Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, gave a speech at the American University in Cairo that grabbed headlines.
While lauding the autocratic leadership of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Rice indicated a new approach to the Arab world by the United States in these much-quoted words: "For sixty years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."
Explaining further this new approach in Washington, she went on to say, "Throughout the Middle East, the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty. It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy."
Any close listener at the time should have wondered what was meant when at the same time she praised Mubarak for having "unlocked the door for change", whatever that might mean. As it turned out, outlawing opposition parties and locking up their leaders seemed to remain the bottom line in Egypt without generating a whimper of complaint from the White House either in the Bush years, or since, in the supposedly milder presidency of President Obama.
And supporting "the democratic aspirations of all peoples" seems to have run aground for the White House after the Gaza elections of January 2006 in which Hamas triumphed, and the people of the Gaza Strip, regardless of how they voted, were immediately punished despite the internationally monitored elections being pronounced among the fairest in the region.
It should be remembered that Hamas was enticed to participate in the political process as a way of shifting the conflict with Israel toward nonviolent political competition, and that when victorious in the elections Hamas immediately declared a unilateral ceasefire as well as indicated its openness to diplomacy and a long-term framework of peaceful co-existence.
Maybe these Hamas initiatives were not sustainable, but they was neither welcomed, reciprocated, nor even explored. Instead, humanitarian assistance from Europe and the United States to Gaza was drastically cut and Israel engaged in a variety of provocations including targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders.
In mid-2007, after Hamas seized control of the governing process from Fatah in Gaza, Israel imposed its notorious blockade that unlawfully restricted to subsistence levels, or below, the flow of food, medicine, and fuel. This blockade continues to this day, leaving the entire Gazan population locked within the world's largest open-air prison, and victimized by one of the cruelest forms of belligerent occupation in the history of warfare.
There is another aspect to the Rice/Bush embrace of democracy that was disclosed by their avowedly disproportionate response to the indiscriminate bombing campaign unleashed in 2006 by Israel on population centers in Lebanon in retaliation for a border incident. In the midst of the carnage Rice observed at the United Nations that the Lebanon War exhibited "the birth pangs of a new Middle East", while her boss in the White House described the one-sided assault on a helpless civilian population as "a moment of opportunity".
The point here being that when the people get in the way of imperial policies, it is the people who are sacrificed without even shedding a tear, really without even noticing. If their lives and well-being is so easily cast to one side in this callous geopolitical manner, surely the American posture of welcoming democracy in the region needs to be viewed with more than a skeptical smile. Supporting Israel's aggressive wars initiated against Lebanon in 2006 and its massive assault for three weeks on Gaza at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009 are clear demonstrations of the priorities of American foreign policy.
Looking back at the 20th century
Actually, this pattern has far deeper historical roots. During the Cold War there were strategic excuses constantly being given by Washington that overlooked oppression and corruption in Third World countries so long as they aligned themselves with the United States in the ideological struggle against the Soviet Union and put out a welcome mat to foreign investors. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, this geopolitical argument evaporated, but the economic and strategic priorities remained unchanged.
This supposed American dedication to democracy has all along seemed schizophrenic, lauding its virtues, but often dreading its genuine emergence, especially if strategic interests associated with economic and military priorities are at stake as they usually are. Consult the record of "gunboat diplomacy" in the Western Hemisphere carried out under the aegis of the Monroe Doctrine (1823) if any doubt exists.
Turning back to North Africa in 1992 when the FIS in Algeria won hotly contested elections for legislative representation. The military intervened to impose its will; Washington was silent and remained so during the "dark decade" of strife followed in which at least 60,000 Algerians lost their lives. It is part of the reality in the region that American strategic and ideological goals point one way and the popular will of the people point in the opposite direction.
It is thus either hypocritical or a sign of deep confusion for American leadership to advocate democracy in the Middle East without being willing to alter its grand strategy. As of now, there is every indication of continuity in the American approach to the region, signaled by its passivity in the face of Israeli extremism, its continuing military presence in Iraq, and the degree to which keeping Gulf oil reserves in friendly autocratic hands is an unquestioned goal of American foreign policy.
Given these considerations what are we to make of America’s cautiously affirmative response to the Tunisian Revolution, or as it often called, the Jasmine Revolution? It is certainly prudent to be wary of the words issued by our government in particular, and to keep an eye out for its contrary actions, although such a gaze may well be obstructed by reliance on covert activities, and only when the next Julian Assange steps bravely forward will the public get any real understanding of the realities that take refuge behind non-transparent walls.
There is no doubt that during the twenty-four years of cruel dictatorial rule of Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, the United States government, despite the words of Rice, the "democracy promotion" schemes of the Bush presidency, and the new approach to the Islamic world promised by Obama, found nothing to complain about - ignoring report from respected human rights organizations.
As Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist and activist dedicated to the Palestinian struggle has written of the American response to the violence directed by the police during the Tunisian uprising, "Not one word of condemnation, not one word of criticism, not one word urging restraint came from Barack Obama or Hilary Clinton as live ammunition was fired into crowds of unarmed men, women, and children".
Compare the strong denunciations of Iranian authorities when they used similarly brutal tactics to suppress the Green Revolution in Iran. The point is that geopolitics calls the tune in Washington.
Old Tunisia as ideal US ally
Indeed, Tunisia exemplified what the United States believed serves its interests: a blend of neoliberalism that is open to foreign investment, cooperation with American anti-terrorism by way of extreme rendition of suspects, and strict secularism that translates into the repression of political expression.
The Arab regimes throughout the region that seem most worried by the regional reverberations of the unfolding story in Tunisia all resemble the Ben Ali approach to governance, including dependence in various forms on the United States, which is usually accompanied, as in the Tunisian case, by aloofness from the Palestinian struggle for self-determination that is so symbolically significant for the peoples in these countries. There is no way for any government in the region to follow the Ben Ali path without becoming beleaguered and led to rely on extreme repression, denial of rights, abuse of political prisoners, and police violence designed to induce fear in the population - and shield the privileged corrupt elites from accountability and public rage.
The spontaneous popular eruption in Tunisia that followed the tragic suicide of Mohammed Bouazizi in the central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010, was the spark that lit the revolutionary fire. This flame surge only could have occurred in an environment of acute grievance that was felt deeply and widely by ordinary Tunisians, so deeply and widely that in a few weeks time it shifted the locus of fear from the oppressed to the oppressed.
This shift was signaled by the abdication of Ben Ali on January 14, a pattern repeating the departure of another bloody dictator, Idi Amin, a few decades earlier. But the main lesson here is that oppressive regimes alienated from their populations are vulnerable to political bonfires that can be started by an insignificant spark in a faraway part of the country. Facing such a prospect can only make rulers dependent on force both more insecure and more inclined to extend the reach of political firefighting so as to achieve the impossible - spark prevention!
The martyrdom of Mohammed Bouazizi epitomized the plight of many young jobless and tormented Tunisians. This impoverished young vegetable street seller set himself on fire in a public place after the police confiscated his produce because he lacked a permit.
Such an act of principled and spontaneous suicide is not common in Arab culture where suicide, if it occurs in a politically relevant mode, is usually a deliberate instrument of struggle, relied upon by Palestinians for a while and currently by parts of the opposition to developments in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Such forms of political suicide are usually, although not always, targeting civilians, and are inconsistent with basic ideas of morality and law.
Bouazizi's acts were expressive, not aggressive toward others, and recall practices more common in such Asian countries as Vietnam and Korea. When Buddhist monks set themselves on fire on the streets of Saigon in 1963 it was widely interpreted within the country as a turning point in the Vietnam War, a scream of the culture that was outraged by both oppressive Vietnamese rule and by the American military intervention. The intensity of Mohammed Bouazizi's emotional funeral on Janurary 4 was intoned in these words exhibiting sadness and anger: "Farewell, Mohammed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today. We will make those who caused your death weep". In the end one hopes that these almost inevitable sentiments of revenge, however understandable given the background of suffering and injustice, do not become the signature of the revolution.
'Bread, freedom, dignity'
Another more hopeful direction was captured by a slogan that was said to draw inspiration from the French Revolution: "bread, freedom, dignity". To be worthy of the sacrifices of those who took to the streets, confronting the violence of the state without weapons during these past several weeks, any new governing process must attend to the material needs of the Tunisian masses, open up the society to democratic debate and competition, and assert the protection of human rights as an unconditional commitment of whatever new leadership emerges.
Not many revolutions manage to carry out their idealistic promises that infused the period of struggle against the established order. Typically, they quickly succumb to the temptation to punish wrongdoers from the past and imaginary and real adversaries in the present instead of improving the life circumstances of the people.
It is not a simple situation. Such a revolution as has taken place in Tunisia is likely to beset by determined efforts to reverse the outcome. Powerful and entrenched enemies do exist, and rivalries among those contending anew for power will produce imaginary enemies as well that can discredit the humanistic claims of the revolution by tempting the leadership to launch bloody campaigns to solidify its claims to run the country. It is often a tragic predicament: either exhibit a principled adherence to constitutionalism, and get swept from power or engage in a purge of supposed hostile elements and initiate a new discrediting cycle of repression.
Will Tunisia be able to find a path that protects revolutionary gains without reverting to oppression? Much depends on how this question will be answered, and that will depend not only on the wisdom and maturity of Tunisians who take control at this time, but also on what the old order will do to regain power and the extent to which there is encouragement and substantive support from without. As Robert Fisk pointedly observes, "Tunisia wasn't supposed to happen".
Undoubtedly, Tunisia faces formidable challenges in this period of transition. As yet, there has been no displacement of the Ben Ali bureaucratic forces in the government, including the police and security forces that for decades terrorized the population. There were an estimated 40,000 police (2/3 in plainclothes, mingling with the population to monitor and intimidate).
It was said that friends were afraid to talk in cafes or restaurants, and even in their homes, because of this omnipresent surveillance. So far even prisoners of conscience have not been released from Tunisian jails, sites that daily exposed the brutality of the Ben Ali regime. Heading the interim government are longtime allies of Ben Ali, including Mohammed Ghannouchi, his main aide, regarded as being more aligned with the West than with the Tunisian people, although these days promising to step aside as soon as order is restored. But even if such an intention is carried out, is it enough?
We know that the revolution came about because of the courage of young Tunisians who took to the street in many parts of the country, faced gunfire and vicious state brutality, and yet persisted, seeming to feel that their life circumstances were so bad that they had little to lose, and everything to gain.
We know that the flames of revolution spread rapidly throughout, and beyond the borders of Tunisia, by interactive reliance on the Internet, many throughout the Arab world replacing personal pictures on their Facebook page with admiring pictures of revolutionary turmoil on Tunisian streets or as a sign of solidarity, posting pictures of the Tunisian flag.
There were even suicides of regime opponents in several Arab countries. What we don't know is whether a leadership can emerge that will be faithful to the revolutionary ideals, and will be allowed to be. What we cannot know is how determined and effective will be internal and external counter-revolutionary tactics. We do know from other situation that elites rarely voluntarily relinquish class privileges of wealth, status, and influence, and that Tunisian elites have allies in the region and beyond who are silently opposed to the Jasmine Revolution, and extremely worried about its wider implications for other similar regimes in the region that stay in power only so long as their citizen is held in check by state terror.
We also know that policymakers in Washington and Tel Aviv will be particularly nervous if Islamic influence emerges in the months ahead, even if vindicated by electoral outcomes. Fisk reminds us that Ben Ali was praised in the past for keeping "a firm hand on all those Islamists", which was itself code language for bloody repression and a terrorized populace. It may even be that if Islamic-oriented political parties demonstrate their popularity with the Tunisian citizenry by winning the forthcoming promised election for a new democratic selected leadership, then the counter-revolutionary backlash will be particularly severe.
There is some reason to believe that Islamic political forces currently enjoy great popularity in Tunisia, and that the main voice of the most important political party with an Islamic identity, Ali Larayedh (imprisoned and tortured for 14 years; and harassed for the past six years by Ben Ali’s secret police), articulates a moderate line on the relation of Islam to the future of Tunisia that resembles the development of recent years in Turkey rather than the hard line and oppressive theocratic developments that have so deeply tainted the Iranian Revolution.
The future of the Tunisian Revolution is filled with uncertainty. It remains at this moment a great victory for the people of the country, and those of us in sympathy with the struggle for "bread, freedom and dignity" must do all in our power to honor these goals and preserve this victory. A Palestinian journalist living in Norway, Salim Nazzal, put the situation well: "Arab observers agree that even if it is difficult to know where things would go in the future what is sure is that the Arab region is not the same after the Tunisian Revolution".