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Saturday, January 15, 2011

After the Tunisian Revolution, which Arab country is next?

In the late 1970's, I was a teenager spending part of the summer in my mother's hometown in Romania when the inhumanity of the Communist regime of the self-styled Danube of Human Thinking, Nicolae Ceausescu, hit me. The paucity and bad quality of goods in stores; the weird cat-and-mouse game we had to play in Bucharest when staying with a cousin so that the resident man from the Securitate (Ceausescu's answer to the Gestapo) wouldn't see us spending the night with her (yes, you've heard right, my mother, as a foreigner, was not allowed to spend the night at her cousin's house!); my great-aunt spending time in jail, after the Communists took over, because she had grown up in France where her sister (my grandmother) still lived thus making her a dangerous counter-revolutionary and Western agent; my mother not being allowed to inherit the house built by her grand-parents (because she was born in Paris and had left Romania); nobody allowed to travel abroad - it all struck me as too weird and inhuman to last. "Maman, this can't go on. Sooner or later the system will collapse," I exclaimed. My mother shook her head and replied with a sad voice, "Look around. Has any Communist regime that has taken over ever lost power?  Why do you think your grandmother insisted that I go back to France?" It was true that at the height of the Cold War the Communist-bloc dictators seemed unassailable.

And yet, at the end of the next decade, while pursuing my master's degree in the United States, I was mesmerized by a scene on my TV screen, a scene I never thought would happen. In December 1989, during a speech at the soon-to-be-renamed Revolution Square in Bucharest, something unthinkable took place: Ceausescu, who among his self-granted titles used "Genius of the  Carpathians", was booed by thousands of Romanians. Yes, the docile Romanian people who had put up like sheep for decades finally said, "That's enough, we can't stand this anymore. Go!" and rose against the tyrant. Vox Populi, Vox Dei. Three days later, on one of my most memorable Christmas Days, the hated dictator and his wife Elena were executed. Justice and democracy had finally come to long-suffering Romania. But too late for my great-aunt who had died a few years before of a lung disease contracted while in Communist jails.

In the next two decades democracy would soon conquer all of Eastern Europe, Latin America (with the exception of the Castro-engineered hell in Cuba), many Sub-Saharan African countries, part of East Asia including Chinese Taiwan. Only one region held out: the Arab world. From the (Persian) Gulf to the (Atlantic) Ocean, as the phrase in Arabic goes,  feudal monarchies, military-backed single-party regimes and presidents-for-life hold sway, impervious to the winds of freedom blowing all over the world, and often actively aided and abetted by Western democracies (now that is an irony.) It was absurdly claimed that Arabs were not wired for democracy, that Islam was the reason, forgetting that many Muslim countries such as Turkey and Indonesia had embraced multi-party democracy quite successfully, some of them even electing female rulers. But Arab countries were still the exception. No velvet revolution there, sheepish Arab citizens just seemed willing to accept their sad lot forever.

When my father's home country of Mauritania, where I spent part of my childhood, elected Sidi Ould Cheick Abdallahi (who went to school in France with my parents) as president in 2007, I held my breath: could that tiny country teach the Arabs a lesson? In Arab League meetings, "Sidioca" (as he was familiarly known) was the only Arab leader freely chosen by his people and you could tell it grated on his colleagues. And you could hear the collective sigh of relief from Arab rulers when 18 months later Sidioca was overthrown in a bloodless coup by a general who wanted to be top dog. Things were back to normal.

So when Tunisians started rioting a couple of weeks ago (almost 21 years to the day after the fateful event in Bucharest) about their economic conditions, neither Arab rulers nor the Tunisian regime's Western backers worried too much. Nothing that a good crackdown, censorship and a few deaths can't fix. And yet day after day, week after week, the ranks of protesters kept swelling as the  nature of their demands grew: from lack of employment opportunities to disgust with corruption and, as the death toll rose, to outrage at the killings perpetrated by the police and, finally, demands that President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, whose 23 years' reign had turned the country into a police state, step down. Then last Thursday, with the whole country in full uprising,  I saw on Al-Jazeera TV  Ben Ali speak in Tunisian Arabic, to be better understood by a majority of his subjects, that " I have understood you, I will not run again in 2014." My first reaction was, "I don't think you will because you'll be gone well before that." I knew then the game was up for him and it would be just a matter of months, maybe weeks, before he was consigned to the bins of history.

I was wrong. The next day the dictator who had run Tunisia with an iron fist for so long fled the country. Vox Populi, Vox Dei.

The Tunisians had achieved something unique in the Arab world: for the first time an Arab ruler was overthrown not by the army, or a foreign invasion, or a coup, but by the people themselves. For the technology person I am, I was gratified to see that this was also the first digital revolution on record. Tunisians, especially the youth, made great use of Twitter to coordinate rallies and protests, used their iPhones to make pictures of what was happening and posted them on Facebook. With the government preventing foreign reporters from entering the country and covering the events, most of the images we first saw were amateur videos. Tunisians filmed themselves making their own revolution and shared it with the world.

I bet you anything you want that no Arab ruler slept comfortably last night. Most of them are feeling quite edgy, and several must be shaking in their boots. The military-backed FLN party-run regime next door in Algeria is wondering whether its days are counted. Ominously there were riots in Algiers at the same time as in Tunisia, but they were quickly subdued (for the time being?) The Tunisian case, however, shows that any insignificant event  can turn into the sparkle that will ignite a full conflagration (in Tunisia it all started with a college-educated street vendor setting himself to fire in protest at lack of opportunities and heavy-handedness by the police) and that no matter how long a people has been cowed there comes a moment when they conquer the fear, break their shackles and there is just no stopping them.

Tunisia's other neighbor, Libya to the east, whose buffoonish dictator has (mis)ruled it for 40 years, could be the next domino. But the biggest prize for popular overthrow of a dictatorial regime  would be the country next door: Egypt. This ancient land shares many traits with the situation in Tunisia: heavy-handed security apparatus, corrupt regime, a pauperized majority and a relatively well-educated youth who have been watching with fascination the events that their fellow Arabs have shaped in Tunisia. The current Pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak, who has maintained himself in power for an incredible 30 years (yes, you've read right, he came to power in 1981 when Reagan was president and Gorbachev had not even come to office!) through repression, rigged elections (like Ben Ali in Tunisia he claims at every election an improbable score of 90 to 99%) and support from the United States government. And once Egypt, the heart of the Arab world, falls, the other Arab countries will follow through. History is on the march and it is exhilarating to watch it.

(Tunisia also broke another record. Yesterday at noon Ben Ali was still president, in the evening his Prime Minister had officially taken over only to be succeeded this morning by the Speaker of Parliament. Three presidents in less than 24 hours, that must be  a world record, even better than the three presidents Argentina had over ten days back in the early 2000's.)


  1. Your article was insightful. I was younger,17 and living in S Asia when Ceausescu (and earlier the Wall ) fell. Today Gen Y and post-Gen Y concerns dominate the airwaves (or should I say webpages) and mind share of pundits, policymakers & marketing execs, so it was refreshing to revisit those Earth changing days. Many youth in S Asia don't remember repression because of a new glut of consumer materialist options and thus they ignore/ gloss over their extremely dysfunctional democracies.
    On a critical note I was disappointed that your last post was on Jan 15 when it seems the world itself turned over in Tahrir square.- PM Ponje

  2. Thanks PM for your comments. I think your criticism is unwarranted, though: on Jan. 15 when I posted my notes on Tunisia the world did NOT "turn over in Tahrir Square" as you claim. Protests in Egypt started on Jan. 25, so a full ten days later.