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The Tunisian model

28 January, 2011

By M.A. Niazi


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The applause seems to be universal for the people of Tunisia, who have overthrown their ruler, Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali, by means of forcing him into exile, after a series of protests had convinced him that it was physically unsafe for him to carry on.

This was something of a mixed signal, for while his was the first Arab regime to fall this way, it was not among the larger of the Arab states, nor even among the oil-rich. As it was in the Maghreb, and a former French colony, Tunisia was not really a leader of Arab opinion, and thus the revolution there could not be seen as reflective of an atmosphere within the Arab world. Yet, the apparent humbleness of Tunisia led to the question of why not one’s own country. There was a strong element of patronage in the question of why not one’s own state if Tunisia, but though it is unlikely anyone thought Tunisia would be a leader of opinion in the Arab world, the question did arise: If Tunisia could get rid of its western-backed, corrupt and unpopular leader, why couldn’t other Arab countries? It has been one of the givens of the Arab world that its leaders will be venal and corrupt, but they will be obeyed so long as the state machinery stays obedient. And not just obedient, but oppressive as well. Apart from the oil wealth, Tunisia fulfilled all the clichés about an Arab state, and if the worm turned there, there was no reason why it should not in other equally repressive states. Already, there have been protests, avowedly inspired by the Tunisian example, in Egypt and Yemen. Both are typically repressive Arab regimes, and neither has any oil wealth, and both have historically depended on their status as ports to provide their people a living.

Egypt has also had rich agriculture for thousands of years, which has not only made it a centre of population, but the breadbasket of the region and one of the main leaders of Arab opinion. That protests in Egypt have grown serious is seen from the ban that has been placed by the Egyptian authorities on Twitter, which is seen as the main means of organising the protests in Tunisia, and which must have been used in Egypt enough to provoke the ban being slapped down. Protests are supposed to have been unprecedented, and the arrests of about 500 people after the protests in Cairo and Gaza was meant to enforce order where there had been peace before, but the reasons behind the Tunisian protests also exist, mainly food inflation and unemployment among educated youth.

The Tunisian protests began after a young Tunisian, Muhammad Bouzizi, burnt himself on December 17, because, not even a university graduate (though he wanted to be one, and was reputed to be one in initial reports), he had been reduced to selling vegetables. He would have done that had he been left to it, but he wasn’t. His stock was confiscated (yet again, as it had been often enough before), and he now wanted to see the provincial Governor of his hometown, Sidi Bouzid, an agricultural town in the hinterland of Tunisia. As Tunisia is primarily a coastal country, there is not much hinterland, but though perched on the Sahara Desert, this is an area which has practiced agriculture since before Roman times.

The fall of one dictator seems burden enough for one rather unsuccessful vegetable salesman, but the reason why he killed himself has not gone away. Though Ben Ali has left, his administration is in place, and his Prime Minister, Muhammad Ghannouchi, is under pressure to resign, because the justice, interior and foreign affairs portfolios are also in the hands of old Ben Ali associates. Whatever the fate of the Ghannouchi Cabinet, the problems Tunisia faces are common to the Arab world, the Muslim world and the Third World as a whole, are the results of globalisation. Because of globalisation, jobs do not stay in a country, but go where the appropriate skill sets are. They are not available for Arabs or Muslims, unless they have obtained those skill sets, and if like Bouzizi, they sell vegetables, they are simply not available.

Though there have been no self-immolations in Pakistan in imitation of Bouzizi, as there have been in the Arab world, there is both empathy with the movement which toppled Ben Ali and the same causes of food inflation and youth unemployment are very much present here. In Pakistan is also the problem the Arab world faces, that of American dominance. After all, that dominance is expressed through the presence of Israel, made worse for the surrounding Arab states by the Palestinian problem. The Palestinian Diaspora is spread in these states, and a major part of the Arab experience has been knowledge of the Palestinian problem not as something happening in a faraway people to a semi-mythical land, but as something that happened to the parents of a classmate, not at all far away.

However, that is not part of the Pakistani experience. Yet, like the Arab world, the problems are pressing, as is the desire of the ruling classes to please the US. The affected countries, Tunisia and now Egypt, both have got military men for rulers, as have the countries surrounding Tunisia, like Libya and Algeria. While Ben Ali was an army man who got into the security of first post-Independence President Habib Bourguiba, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was in the air force before he was picked up by Anwar Sadat. It was in that respect that Pakistan is not just similar, but perhaps ahead. However, Pakistan has had direct military rule, not military men who have taken over and remained in office. It should be remembered that Mubarak’s predecessors, Nasser and Sadat, were both military men also.

The military in former colonies was the point at which the middle classes of a colony were best attuned to the wishes of the coloniser, and it was through them that the coloniser was best able to get its wishes. It should be kept in mind that the Arab world mostly was colonised after the First World War, when the Ottoman Caliphate was broken up, and the Arab countries were either given independence under carefully selected monarchs or made colonies under the League of Nations mandates. The US was deeply interested in the area because of its oil wealth, and operated before the Second World War through its links to the Saudi monarchy, and after the war through Israel, created on the British League of Nations mandate for Palestine.

From the point of the war on terror, the riots are destabilising. Iraq has not yet been affected, but it is perhaps only a matter of time. In that case, which will only occur if the riots spread throughout the Arab world, because while the events in Tunisia have been slotted in with those in the rest of the world, by being given a name, the Jasmine Revolution, which makes it one of the ‘flower revolutions’ which the US claims are meant for more democracy, the problem it has with the Arab world, and the reason it supports military rulers and monarchs there is that elections would mean the return of those opposed to Israel and the US.

This also applies to Pakistan, where the US is unpopular, not just for its support of Israel and its direct occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, but also because it is veering towards India despite the latter’s illegal occupation of Kashmir. However, because Pakistan is one of the few Muslim countries which is also a functioning democracy, the US has followed the British model and has ensured, if WikiLeaks are to be credited, that all political forces are friendly. However, the people of Pakistan are not at all inclined to forgive the US for its war on Muslims, and for its support of occupiers of Muslim lands. There should be no expectation of the government going anywhere soon. It has survived so many tribulations already, that a few more are unlikely to face it. The Tunisian model lacks two ingredients to be of interest to Pakistanis: it has not brought about a real change, and it has not even brought about any change.

 

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