BREAKING: Tunisian President Flees the Country; Prime Minister Steps Up
A popular uprising in Tunisia that, although largely ignored in the United States, has been causing street protests and violent public clashes with government authorities for about a month now, culminated yesterday in Tunisia’s president (Zine El Abidine Ben Ali) fleeing the country. Tunisia’s prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, has taken over as interim president. Although it’s far from clear what will happen next (obviously, Ghannouchi is part of the same corrupt and repressive government as Ben Ali), Friday’s events are being celebrated by Tunisians and in other Arab countries as an unprecedented victory for democracy:
Hours after President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia on Friday, a Lebanese broadcaster, in triumphant tones, ended her report on the first instance of an Arab leader to be overthrown in popular protests by quoting a famous Tunisian poet.Hours after President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia on Friday, a Lebanese broadcaster, in triumphant tones, ended her report on the first instance of an Arab leader to be overthrown in popular protests by quoting a famous Tunisian poet.
“And the people wanted life,” she said, “and the chains were broken.”
The day’s seismic events in Tunisia, the broadcaster, Abeer Madi al-Halabi, went on, would serve as “a lesson for countries where presidents and kings have rusted on their thrones.”
Tunisia’s uprising electrified the region. The most enthusiastic suggested it was the Arab world’s Gdansk, the birthplace of Solidarity in Poland, which heralded the end to Communist rule in Eastern Europe. That seemed premature, particularly because the contours of the government emerging in Tunisia were still unclear — and because Tunisia is on the periphery of the Arab world, with a relatively affluent and educated population. Yet the street protests erupted when Arabs seemed more frustrated than ever, whether over rising prices and joblessness or resentment of their leaders’ support for American policies or ambivalence about Israeli campaigns in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009.
Tunisia’s protests were portrayed as a popular uprising, crossing lines of religion and ideology, offering a new model of dissent in a region where Islamic activists have long been seen as monopolizing opposition. Even if they serve only as inspiration, the protests offer a rare example of success to activists stymied at almost every turn in bringing about change in their own countries.
“A salute to Tunis, which has opened the road to freedom in an Arab world devastated by years of waiting on the curb,” said Burhan Ghalioun, head of the Centre d’Études sur l’Orient Contemporain in Paris and a political science professor at the Sorbonne.
One can hardly fault ordinary Tunisians for such joyous emotions, given what they’ve suffered for so long. But as Juan Cole puts it, Tunisia right now is suspended “between democracy and anarchy,” and it’s far from clear at the moment which way things will go:
The fall of the government of dictator Zine al-Abedin Ben Ali after 23 years left behind a number of political and social vacuums. 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.
Prof. Cole also addresses the connection that many commentators are pointing to, between the uprising and Wikileaks:
Some observers are alleging that Wikileaks helped bring down the Tunisian government. A US embassy official in Tunis wrote in June, 2009, after meeting a member of the opposition,
‘ XXXXXXXXXXXX is extremely well respected and considered an upstanding member of the community. While we might doubt the veracity of some of the rumors that he shared with us, we have no reason to doubt his account of his conversation with President Ben Ali, in which he described the President as seeking a 50 percent stake in his private university. We routinely hear allegations of corruption, and such allegations are inherently difficult to prove. XXXXXXXXXXXX anecdote strikes us as credible. It is also significant in that it implicates Ben Ali himself, while so many other reported incidents of corruption involve his extended family.’
Demonstrators pointed to the cable this winter in denouncing Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali as corrupt, and the regime’s attempts to suppress the document led to crackdowns on the internet that further angered young people and the opposition. As Ben Ali fled the country on Friday, a protester tweeted, “I’m Tunisian, and i thank #Assange and #WikiLeaks for helping exposing the corruption in my country.” But another riposted, “he ppl who led the uprising in Tunisia knew nothing about #wikileaks. It was a hunger uprising – like French Revolution.” What can be said is that a similar spirit, of defiance of governmental authority, animates many of the revolutionaries in Tunisia as animates the Wikileaks volunteers.
Be sure to also read Jeb Koogler’s take on events in Tunisia.