On cold winter days, Mohamed al-Bouazizi, a resident of Sidi Bouzid, loads his cart with fruits and vegetables and pushes it along the dusty streets of the town hoping to make enough money for himself and his family. One day, like many other days, town officials harassed him and then confiscated his produce: he did not have the proper licenses to do business.
Many Tunisians his age graduate high school, earn a college education, and then sit in cafés playing cards and waiting for a job. Officially, about 15% of Tunisians are out of work. Unofficially, many economists put that figure at 40%. When the underemployed, the temporary workers, and homemakers are factored in, nearly 60% of Tunisians become affected by the global economic slowdown and the absence of sustainable economic development. Moreover, the uneven distribution of national resources and development programs created two Tunisias. The first Tunisia consists of the coastal cities whose economy thrives on tourism and government services, and the second Tunisia is made out of the interior states that rely on agriculture. The average citizen of the first Tunisia makes nearly $700.00 a month while the average inhabitant of the second Tunisia sustains himself on no more than $100.00 per month.
Al-Bouazizi is from the second Tunisia. He applied for work without success, and when he applied for government grants to start his own business his application was denied. That is very common, too. Government grants and business opportunities are given to individuals associated with the ruling party and those opportunities are generally found in the first Tunisia.
Like many Tunisians, al-Bouazizi wanted a job--any job that would preserve his dignity and that of his family. He figured that selling fruits would help him and that the government should be pleased with his efforts since he is relying on himself, not on it. He was sadly mistaken.
A government like Ben Ali’s does not like people taking initiative or doing anything without its permission. Al-Bouazizi’s entrepreneurship was deemed unauthorized and he was humiliated by the police. He decided to plead his case before the governor, and traveled to see him. When he announced his intention to meet with the governor he was laughed at, humiliated—again, beaten, and thrown out of the building. With the last door closing before him, al-Bouazizi poured gasoline over his body and set himself on fire. People rushed to save him, and he was taken to the hospital. The event triggered angry protests across the state which later spread to most interior states. At least four more youths attempted to burn themselves in protest as well. After two weeks of riots that were met by harsh police measures, President Ben Ali made a TV appearance to threaten rioters and to promise that he will do all it takes to restore order. He sacked several ministers and governors, visited the burn victims, and attacked foreign media (primarily Aljazeera) for inciting disorder.
As I write this piece, protesters continue to demonstrate in every major interior city, journalists and lawyers are arrested, and reportedly 50 people have been killed (officials claim only 14 had died). The government insists that the incident was merely a family, isolated dispute. Protesters, however, are threatening a revolution to overthrow a regime that is corrupt, brutal, and without legitimacy.
Despite the bloodshed, the resilience of protesters, and the brutality of the security forces, Western governments and media hardly reacted. In the U.S., major newspapers, such as the New York Time and the Washington Post, did not run any major story covering these events. It took the State Department nearly two weeks before issuing a statement of concern. The European Union and its major news outlets essentially ignored Tunisian unrest. Now, it seems that all of North Africa may experience violent riots to protest the same issues. This week alone, a number of people were killed and many more wounded and arrested in Algeria. Moroccan authorities seem to have launched a pre-emptive strike and arrested an indeterminate number of young people under the epithet “terrorist.” Is the U.S. ill informed about the state of affairs in Tunisia (and the Maghreb) or are there other reasons explaining this lax attitude?
The short answer is this: the US and the E.U. are well informed about the Maghreb because the regimes there, especially Tunisia’s, are Western-made and Western-approved. The silence is complicity not ignorance. In the end, complicity will only threaten the interests of governments that stand with regimes instead of democracy-yearning peoples, especially when such complicity is made obvious by the selective condemnations of certain regimes and implicit support of others. The public ought to know the facts about Tunisia in order to contextualize the recent and other uprisings.
On November 7, 1987, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali overthrew the first Tunisian president, Habib Bourguiba, under the pretext that the latter was no longer fit to govern because of his old age. Bourguiba was a self-declared mujahih akbar (the Great Struggler) whose work helped Tunisia earn its independence. In recognition of his achievements, he was anointed president for life; by whom, we don’t know.
In nearly one quarter of a century, instead of becoming an advanced nation as Ben Ali promised, Tunisia was on a path to social and economic collapse. In the first half of the 1980s, bread riots, labor strikes, and students’ protests brought the country to the brink of collapse. But instead of addressing the real issues, Bourguiba adopted the band-aid approach: he fired and hired one prime minister after another and imprisoned and executed opposition figures while holding sham elections that did very little to build strong civil society institutions. After all, the ruling party has been in charge since the country’s independence.
When Bourguiba appointed Ben Ali as Prime Minister and Interior Minister, he had made his last appointment. On an early Saturday morning in November 1987, the national radio announced the rise of Ben Ali to power. The new president refused to take the “mujahid akbar” label that the national media was willing to offer him. Instead he gave people the illusion that he would be different from his predecessor: he promised openness, democracy, development, and term-limited presidency. Tunisians thought that they would be able to see a new face in Carthage Palace by the end of the second term of any president; that is what the new constitution Ben Ali amended promised then.
Twenty-three years later, Ben Ali is still president. His supporters started a campaign to amend the constitution, for the second time, to allow him to run again. For many, this is a déjà-vu: another irreplaceable “leader” for whom the rules must be bent so that he continues to govern over subjects treated as immature and helpless. For the West, Ben Ali is a known quantity who can be trusted to keep his people in check; after all, his relations with CIA were well documented.
Through constitutional amendments, new election laws, and a strict code governing the press and the media, the regime reneged on all its promises: the term limit was effectively abolished, opposition figures were silenced, business leaders were co-opted, and civil society institutions were uprooted. This time, he did it all systematically and with the West’s tacit approval.
Illusions of Political Pluralism
Although Ben Ali allowed several political parties to contest elections, such parties lacked the social depth and the ideological platform to be able to compete. The real opposition remained banned under numerous pretexts. The performance of political parties in regional and national elections was so pathetic that the regime instituted in election law a kind of “affirmative action” when it reserved a set number of seats in the parliament for opposition parties. This was thought necessary because the authorized political parties failed repeatedly to win any significant votes. By doing so, the regime gave observers the illusion of political pluralism without opening the door to real opposition movements. Ben Ali learned from his predecessor that opening the door to groups such as al-Nahdah Movement could bring about the end of his party’s rule through democratic means. The regime, therefore, opted for political charity with the “affirmative action” election laws instead of open democratic contestation of elections.
Marginalization and Co-opting
In the 1970s and 1980s, the challenge to the single party rule came from labor movements, students, and members of professional associations. Almost every year students in high schools and universities launched paralyzing demonstrations, labor unions went on strikes, and leaders of professional associations provided support for protest movements.
Today, Ben Ali’s ruling party has absorbed many business leaders. Party activists took over student organizations, and universities were relocated to rural areas in order to isolate students from the rest of the populations. Even the large high schools were split into smaller ones to facilitate monitoring and crushing activists.
Regulation of Free Press and Freedom of Expression
The state of the press today is worse than it was during Bourguiba’s reign. Although a large number of news outlets are run by non-government entities, the rules governing the editorial practices are fine-tuned so that any newspaper veering from the official line of interpretation of event would risk being shut down. The only free voice to which Tunisians have access is Aljazeera Satellite channel and website and those are subjected to repeated de-authorization and shutdowns.
For many visiting foreigners, Tunisia is safe, clean, and affluent especially when compared to other African nations with similar resources. Indeed, the capital Tunis (or part of it at least) and other coastal cities are built for Western tourists: luxurious hotels, clean beaches, and security forces in every intersection. The conditions of the people living in the interior cities, however, are wretched. It must be noted that the uneven development in Tunisia is not new, as it has been known as jihawiyyah since the reign of Bourguiba. However, the elite have excelled at marginalizing regions and peoples in the interior lands. Specifically, Ben Ali’s in-laws (the Traboulsi family) are seen by many Tunisians as a new mafia, not only controlling the means of production and resources, but using the government institutions to establish monopolies and crush competitors. In fact, the French authorities are believed to have pursued charges against one of Ben Ali’s relatives for illegal business activities.
Education and Religious Freedom
Ben Ali’s regime main threat is the youth and religious groups. He marginalized the youth by offering them a placebo. Before 1987, only 12-15% of high school students graduated. The low percentage was not due to students’ laziness, rather, due to government’s measured control of the job market: since most college graduates expected the government to place them in jobs, the government elevated the level of difficulty of the final comprehensive examinations to regulate the job market.
Ben Ali’s regime altered that practice: now, nearly 80% of high school students graduate and move on to college. The result is an increased number of college graduates being unemployed or underemployed, which frustrated the youth of the country.
In order to control the role of religion in the public sphere, the government “nationalized” religious institutions. In other words, individuals are not allowed to form associations, clubs, or attend religious events unless authorized and run by the government. The only orthodoxy is that identified as such by the regime and the only recognized religion is that of the state.
Tunisia is demographically and economically too small to have an impact on world affairs. It is important, however, given its location and memberships.
Geographically, Tunisia is just minutes away from Europe. From the Tunisian coastline, one could cross to Italy using a makeshift raft or inflated tube. In fact, dozens of African immigrants die every year trying to make the journey to Italy, and the European Union has developed strategies to help these “buffer states” keep African immigrants away. One such strategy is paying off North African leaders to act on their behalf. Another more ambitious strategy to combat illegal immigration is the creation of the so-called Union for the Mediterranean, an intergovernmental organization linking 43 countries. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, promoted this idea not only to deal with immigration but also to offer Turkey an alternative association given his opposition to Turkey’s bid for joining the EU.
Additionally, Tunisia is a member of the United Nations, the Organization of Islamic Conference, the Arab League, and the Union of Maghrebi States. In other words, Western concern with Tunisian politics is not premised on oil or military matters, but rather on influence. In this way, the West’s alliance with the Tunisian regime differs significantly from Western interest in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Bahrain, Qatar, or even Egypt.
Consequently, Tunisia, despite its relatively average demographic and economic weight within the Islamic world, remains central given its location and its memberships. The ten million citizens of Tunisia want to be respected as human beings, to be given the rights of human beings, and to be treated with dignity. When their government does not afford them these rights, and the West supports the regime and offers lip service to the people, their plight becomes another example of Western double standard and Europe’s willingness to sacrifice its commitment to the promotion of human rights to preserve “friendly” regimes.
For example, the West categorizes a number of Arab and Muslim countries as “moderate,” which is a euphemism for pro-Western. These countries include Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. It is a known fact that all these countries have a terrible record when it comes to human rights: They hold laughable elections, they incarcerate large number of political prisoners, they torture their citizens, they treat minorities with disdain, and they have no concept of peaceful transfer of power.
The credibility of the West is at stake because of this double standard, which diminishes its standing among the Muslim people when it goes after countries such as Iran, Syria and Sudan for violating human rights, but looks the other way when the rulers of whom it approves continue to abuse the rights of their citizens with impunity. This account is meant to make the public in Western societies aware of reality in places such as Tunisia since the media is effectively practicing self-censorship. It is not an invitation for the US and its allies to interfere in the affairs of sovereign nations, but it is an appeal for their leaders to stop dealing with tyrants, giving despots favored status, and/or shielding dictators from legal actions in international systems. It is a wake up call for the media to live up to its professional role as a neutral institution whose main mission is to inform objectively and without prejudice or favoritism.
• A.E. SOUAIAIA is an associate professor teaching for International Programs, Religious Studies, and College of Law at the University of Iowa.