Mrs. Clinton's Visit to Tunisia

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s two-day visit to Tunisia (16-17 January, 20011), coming on the heels of earlier visits by Assistant Secretary Jeffery Feltman and Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman, is part of the US’s strenuous, large-scale effort to gain the trust of the Arab masses which have emerged on the political scene as a moderate third force vying for power and recognition with two other forces familiar to the West, namely, long-ruling Arab autocrats and dangerous Islamic radicals.

 It is commonplace but true that the West has often backed Arab autocrats and turned a blind eye to their human rights violations provided they keep the lid on Islamist groups and maintain stability and security in the region. The Tunisian Revolution, however, has changed the political scene in the Arab region beyond recognition and has shown the entire world that freedom, justice, and human dignity are more important than stability and security. To echo Tunisian human rights activist Moncef Marzouki, the tyranny of Arab leaders was such that it placed the Arab subject in an existential impasse where life without honor and freedom is no longer an option. In a word, Tunisia’s revolution has initiated a radical re-structuring of Arab consciousness writ large.

 Foreign policy think tanks both in Europe and in the US are, therefore, compelled to re-appraise their policies toward the Arab world, bearing in mind that the rules of the political game have changed dramatically and that the outcomes still remain disturbingly unpredictable. US government officials, in particular, have to re-learn how to tiptoe ever more cautiously the precarious tightrope facing them in the region, lest they find themselves running counter to the forces of change there--lest they miss out on the last opportunity to correct what many consider the stark fiasco of the Iraq experience.

With the human catastrophe in Iraq still weighing heavy on their hearts and minds, a good portion of the Tunisian public already feels apprehensive about the U.S. chief diplomat’s visit. In the eyes of many Tunisians, this visit does not bode well for the country’s future as they see it, since they find themselves unwilling to trust those who have supported the very regime they grew to despise over the years. In fact, what they fear most is a behind-the-scene deal between the US and the Tunisian Interim Government that would turn Tunisia into a strategic U.S. arms depot, especially given the potential emergence of anti-Western Islamic regimes in neighboring Libya and Egypt. Notable not only for its crucial geo-strategic location but also for its openness to secular values and “westernized” lifestyle, Tunisia would certainly be one of the U.S.’s best watchful eyes on what transpires in North Africa and the Middle East both in the near and distant future.

 Emboldened by a newly acquired sense of empowerment and driven by shared aspirations, a few hundred Tunisians have already protested Clinton’s first post-Ben Ali visit, brandishing the same proverbial slogan they used to oust their dictator: “Clinton, D├ęgage!” (“Clinton, Out!”). They see in such visit a prelude to a dubious political maneuvering, one that is coated with the patina of benevolent humanitarian rhetoric and carried out in the name of political reform and economic development in the country. And even if this is not necessarily the case, they still believe that the financial inducements that the U.S. and Europe are willing to offer will exacerbate Tunisia’s dependence on interest-based foreign aid and ultimately perpetuate the structural vulnerability of its economy.

 In an unprecedented appearance on Nessma TV, an independent Maghreb-oriented satcaster based in Tunis, Mrs. Clinton applauded the many achievements of the Tunisian Revolution and reiterated the Obama administration’s commitment to support a “genuine democratic transition” in the country. This, in fact, comes as a consolidation of a statement she had made prior to her first trip to post-dictatorship Tunisia and Egypt: “We have an enormous stake in ensuring that Egypt and Tunisia provide models for the kind of democracy that we want to see.” And this is precisely what the protesters in the streets of Tunisia are clearly loath to see: an American-made democracy that does not emanate from the political and cultural exigencies of Tunisian reality.

 While re-charting the course of American foreign policy in the Arab world, the Beltway think thanks are clearly at pains trying to steer the emerging regime there in a direction that responds to the aspirations of the Arab peoples but that is not incompatible with America’s strategic interests. In this winter of Arab discontent, as the phrase goes now, how long will the U.S. continue to hedge its bets before it finds itself – once again! – on the same side of history as the despotic regimes it has long supported.


"Gandhi Walk Again"

January 23, 2011

The new interim government makes its first mistake by appointing new mayors the majority of whom are known for their corruption under Ben Ali’s regime, not to mention its continued reluctance to disband the RCD and put in place a Constituent Assembly that is more in synch with the revolutionary spirit of the nation. Because of this clear disconnect between the interim government and the people--a disconnect exacerbated by deplorably biased media practices--, Tunisia seems to be ready for a major uprising against a government whose lamentable ineptness may compromise what the revolution has achieved so far.

 In fact, a "Caravan of Freedom" began its protest walk this morning from Sidi Bouzid, hometown of martyr Bouazizi, and is expected to arrive to its destination, the Capital Tunis, on Tuesday morning. These waves of protesters from Tunisia’s underprivileged southern regions speak volumes about the Tunisian people’s unflagging commitment to freedom, dignity and democracy. As soon as they arrive, they will begin their first open sit-in protest in al-Kasbah, the government headquarters, and this till Ghannouchi’s government and Ben Ali’s lackeys are removed.

 Many political theorists and commentators have argued that Arabs/Muslims are unlikely to carry out revolutions against their rulers, because their religious beliefs and cultural values do not favor such revolutions. Tunisia has just proved them wrong. The revolution in Tunisia has caught the entire world by surprise. Unlike previous revolutions in Iran, Egypt, or Iraq, it is mobilized neither by a religious faith nor by a political ideology; it is perhaps the most secular, apolitical, and non-violent popular revolution ever to take place in recent Arab history. Both unexpected and unprecedented, the Tunisian Revolution has left many a political analyst in the proverbial lurch--to say the least.

 January 28, 2011

The five-day sit-in protest in al-Kasbah forces PM Ghannouchi to reshuffle interim cabinet and remove a few political figures tied to the former regime. In the meantime, some counter-revolutionary groups have infiltrated the sit-in crowds and began throwing stones at the police in order to provoke a reaction from the latter. The reaction was fast coming, and the security police intervened brutally and dispersed the sit-in protesters. The latter had to leave the capital with mixed feelings of happiness and humiliation. Although the sit-in was a success, it is clear to everyone that the newly reshuffled government did not hesitate to begin its temporary mandate with an outrageous display of violence against the very people whose rights it claims to protect.

Interim Government Announced

The Tunisian people are extremely angry with the interim government announced today, because key positions (PM, Interior, Foreign Affairs, Finance, Commerce and Tourism, and the PM’s Secretary) are assigned to RCD holdovers. Kamel Morjan (Foreign Affairs), for example, not only assumed many position under Ben Ali, but he is also married to Ben Ali’s cousin.  This is a clear conflict of interest, even if his hands are said to be unsullied by the former regime’s corruption. Deputy Prime Minister Zuheir M’dhaffer was one of  Ben Ali’s think thanks and the mastermind behind RCD hegemony.  In the protesters’ eyes these nominations forebode a betrayal of the revolution and a surreptitious continuation of the RCD’s dominance.

At first glance, what is significant about this newly formed government is the elimination of the Ministry of Information, which seems to be merged with that of Culture. Why? Surely, to evade responsibility for the ongoing media misinformation. In fact, Tunisian state TVs have changed their names, their logos, and their design, but the content is still the same.  Reporting is often limited to disturbances caused by the militias. No media platforms for  politicians to discuss openly the decisions of the interim government and the democratic future of the country.  

It is worth noting also that the outlawed party of the exiled human rights activist Moncef Marzouki (Congress for the Republic--CPR: French abbreviation for Congres Pour la Republique) and that of the exiled Islamic leader Rachid Ghannouchi (an-Nahda party--and no connection to PM Ghannouchi) are conspicuously absent, certainly because the current electoral and political party laws--which have been dovetailed to ensure the uncontested rule of the RCD-- do not allow them to be part of such government. But PM Ghannouchi has promised to recognize and include them in the upcoming elections.

PM Ghannouchi has also made a number of other promises of political reforms, some of which are significant and bode well for democracy in Tunisia. There will be a strict separation between political parties and state. The upcoming elections will be free, transparent and internationally monitored. But most importantly, however, is that the PM announced that all political prisoners would be released promptly. I find this decision important because the political prisoners’ testimonials will certainly reveal shocking information about the former regime and its outrageous human rights violations (excessive secret police violence, torture, imprisonment without charge or trial, sine die detention, coerced confessions, etc).  Many officials in the Ministry of the Interior, in particular, will surely be anxious to hear their names mentioned in these testimonials.  

The release of political prisoners, especially those tied to Islamist groups, will be problematic, because the Western and pro-Western countries will be anxious to see the re-emergence of a strong Islamic front in Tunisia vying for power, as is the case in Egypt.  These countries (US, France, Britain, Germany, Saudi Arabia) will definitely exert pressure on the interim government  to keep a tight grip on Islamist groups.  Curiously enough, in the midst of all the mayhem of the protests, only prisoners charged of civil felonies managed to escape--or were they let loose by the secret police in order to frighten civilians and abort the revolution?
Yet another copycat act of self-immolation: Two men in Egypt and Mauritania set themselves on fire protesting against their governments--something which led Al-jazeera to refer to the “Tunization” of the Arab street: “Activists across the region have called for the "Tunisation" of the Arab street - taking Tunis as a model for the assertion of people power and aspirations for social justice, the eradication of corruption and democratisation.”

January 18, 2011
Massive protests today calling for the disbanding of the RCD. This party’s presence on the political scene constitutes a betrayal of the Revolution. It doesn’t make any sense. 

Three labour union ministers (General Union of Tunisian Workers--UGTT) withdrew from the newly formed Government, so did Moufida Tlatli (minister of Culture), the well-known, if controversial, film director. Health Minister Mustapha ben Jaafer also quit. The PDP decided to stay.

In an attempt to pacify the protesters, M. Ghannouchi and F. Mbazzah announced on state TV their formal resignation from the RCD. For Tunisians, this is not enough; they demand the removal of all those who served under Ben Ali’s rule.  They want to see a radical departure from that rule and all its “symbols.”  The don’t seem to buy the fact that the government needs the expertise and experience of old-regime technocrats who are familiar with the complex machinery of the state.

Tunisian human rights activist and founder of the Congress for the Republic party, Moncef Marzouki, arrives today from a 20-year exile in France.

Confusing Reports

Sunday, Jan 16, 2011

Unions, popular committees, and army are co-ordinating their efforts to stop the secret militias still engaged in drive-by shootings. Arrest of Kais Ben Ali, Ben Ali’s nephew; Ali Siriati, chief of presidential guard; and Rafik Bel Haj Kassem, Minister of the Interior. But we still haven’t seen any evidence. Protests in Bizerta (north of Tunisia) are demanding the dismantling of the RCD and all the institutions operating under its aegis.

Some Tunisian intellectuals are using FaceBook to explain to the people the ways in which the RCD may end up hijacking the revolution, and this by relying on the existing electoral charter that makes it virtually impossible for any opposition party to qualify for any forthcoming election.

 A National Unity Government will be announced tomorrow. Both the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) and the Democratic Forum for Labour and Freedoms will also be represented, as well as trade unions and lawyers’ organizations.

 Reports of attempted suicides in Algeria: one Algerian burned himself when his job application was turned down and was told by employer: “What can you do? Go and burn yourself like that Bouazizi.” The “Bouazizi syndrome” is spreading into neighboring countries.

Terrible Uncertainty in Tunisia

Terrible Uncertainty in Tunisia

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Constitutional glitch fixed at last: The Parliament Speaker, Fouad Mbazzah, has just been sworn in as the new interim president, and this based on Article 57 of the Constitution. A Constitutional Committee is supposed to be formed soon to arrange for early elections.

During this power vacuum, militias and snipers (most likely part of Ben Ali’s elite presidential guard and other hired thugs) continue prowling through city streets setting fire to public property. Army and civilians are side by side trying to save the country from the chaos that these militias are creating. It is reported that these armed gangs and snipers are connected to the former regime and receive their orders from high national security officials. 

Conflicting opinions about the state of affairs in Tunisia. We no longer know who is on the side of whom.  We haven’t seen any evidence yet of the arrest of any member of the Trabelsi family. The Trabelsi family are Ben Ali’s in-laws who have become over the years a much-dreaded, rapacious mafia controlling different key sectors of Tunisia’s economy.  While people are dying in the streets, politicians are beginning to hedge their political bets in an effort either to abort or co-opt the revolutionary tide sweeping the country.

This is insane! One has the feeling that  the people’s revolution is being manipulated somehow.Tunisian Facebookers begin to suspect a nasty conspiracy being hatched up by leaders of the RCD, the former ruling party (Rally for Constitutional Democracy).  There is talk that tomorrow Jan 16, major protests across the country will be launched to demand the dissolution of the RCD and the arrest of all its leaders.  Reading FB comments, one can actually feel the anxiety of the people and their fear of the unknown, but there is also a sense of unwavering commitment to the fundamental principles  of Tunisia’s revolution (dignity, freedom, democracy) and its success.

It’s surprising that the US administration has remained conspicuously silent about the Tunisian uprising. There has been calls for calm and peaceful negotiations, but no outright condemnation  of human rights violation.

Tunisian Revolution

Friday, January 14, 2011: Tunisia's Second Independence

January 14, 2011 is a day indelibly printed in every Tunisian's memory. After 23 years in office, thanks to a bloodless coup d’etat in 1987 and rigged elections thereafter, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime is swept into the dustbin of history.  A university graduate turned fruit-and-vegetable vendor sets himself ablaze in front the city hall in Sidi Bouzid when denied a vendor’s license.  Little did he know that this was going to change Tunisia’s history--if not that of the entire Arab world.  Less than a month later, and after major popular protests and violent clashes with security forces, Ben Ali succumbs to popular pressure and eventually flees the country to Saudi Arabia.  Now the eyes of the world are riveted on Tunisia as it etches into our memories the glory of its people, their courage, their dignity, and their capacity for sacrifice.

Constitutional glitches in the transfer of power:  PM Mohammed Ghannouchi takes over, based on Article 56 of the Tunisian Constitution, which  stipulates that the PM must assume the presidency in case the incumbent president is temporarily incapacitated.  But since Ben Ali fled the country, creating a power vacuum, Article 57 dictates that the Speaker of Parliament must become the interim president until an election is held, and this within two months.
As much as they are jubilant at having put an end to Ben Ali’s 23-year old dictatorship, Tunisians are extremely disappointed to see M. Ghannouchi president of the new interim government, since he is considered by many a holdover of the very regime they grew to despise over the years. But this is not worse, they thought, than a power vacuum which would potentially plunge the country into civil war.   

Reports of secret militias connected to former regime prowling through city streets looting and pillaging department stores and even breaking into houses and terrorizing families. The army is soon mobilized to protect civilians against these militias.  To protect their properties and their families, civilians decide to set up in every neighborhood an anti-militia committee armed with bats, machetes, and much love for the country.