Wave upon wave of demented avengers, march cheerfully out of obscurity into the dream

January 17, 2011 § 5 Comments

I’ve missed quite a week.

The Sudanese election went as smoothly as could be hoped and, although it’ll take a long time to count up the results it seems we are on track for partition. A lot of people will have their hearts in their mouth for a while yet.

The Haitian election was postponed due to continued wrangling over who should advance into the second round. The OAS observation team have suggested that when all dubious ballots are removed there is only 0.3% between the second and third candidates, and that they would support Martelly’s inclusion rather than Célestin’s (see past Haiti posts). We still have no date for a second round. And to make things more exciting, former dictator Jean-Claude “baby doc” Duvallier ended his self imposed exile and arrived back in Haiti yesterday to general exclamations of “what the?”, “why?” and “what’s his game?”

And then there was Tunisia.

Hannibal

Tunisia, or Carthage, home of the other Hannibal of whom I don't have a photo.

By now most of you will have read quite a lot about it so I’ll be brief and to the point. What happened and three small observations.

What happened?

Tunisia copied a pattern which will be familiar to citizens of many countries and moved in the 50s from colonial rule to dictatorship and in the 90s from outright dictatorship to nominal democracy but with one party totally dominant. That party is the RCD, formally left wing but effectively simply a “kings party”, the party of power, the party of government, the party of the army. Since seizing power in a palace coup in 1987 the leader of the RCD and Tunisia has been Zinedine Ben Ali.

There had been mounting unrest over totalitarianism and economic failings in Tunisia for some time. On the 17th of December there was widespread rioting and Mohamed Bouazizi, a vegetable seller, set fire to himself after being prevented from working by the authorities’ refusal to grant him a licence. The police and Ben Ali, at first came down hard on the demonstrators killing several. However this led to those who died becoming martyrs and to a series of copycat protest-suicides. Realising the situation was rapidly spiralling out of control Ben Ali changed tack, promised economic and social reforms, to stand down in three years time, and even visited Bouazizi just before he died in hospital on Jan 4th. However by then it was too late and the situation descended into bloody violence with the forces of the state and the public at loggerheads.

Seeing the writing on the wall Ben Ali fled on Jan 14th, abdicating the presidency and thus triggering a presidential election within the next 60 days. The next 24 hours were chaotic with 3 different heads of state: firstly it was not clear at what point Ben Ali ceded the presidency, then Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi briefly stepped up to the plate, before turning power in a matter of hours over to the speaker of the upper house Fouad Mebazaa.

The situation is far from over. Ben Ali loyalists are still trading gunfire with members of the public and the armed forces, who have by no means all changed sides – although the arrest of prominent Ben Ali supporters suggests that the government is trying to make a clean break with Ben Ali lest they too become infected. And this is the crux of the issue: the protests were not just about Ben Ali’s rule – they were about the RCD in general. And the RCD are as entrenched as ever. All the faces of the new government who are so keen to suggest that they are the new, modern, face of Tunisia are RCD men through and through; and were Ben Ali loyalists until last week.

So the next elections will be key. Will it be the same old RCD landslide and if so will the public accept that, and if they do will the RCD genuinely change, continue as before with a  different front-man, or even pave the way for bringing back Ben Ali a la FR Congo? Or if there is to be a new face how will they get organised within the next mere 60 days?

3 brief observations.

As Jane Kinninmont from the Economist Intelligence Unit said, it is “fascinating that the Arab world’s first popular revolution in 50 years was not carried out by Islamists.” Personally I find it even more fascinating that one would have assumed it would have been. The USA has utterly brought the line that the Arab world faces a choice between dictatorships that merely abuse human rights a little and and democracy which would be a fast road to rule by Taliban-like groups. Tunisia shows what a load of rubbish that was from the beginning.

For one thing Islamism is strengthened by dictatorship in that it provides and alternative to an unpopular government, so by supporting the dictator you strengthen Islamism not weaken it. But also Islamism is by no means an automatic choice of those who reject dictatorship; nor is it necessarily even the strongest political motivating force in Arabic countries – as Tunisia shows. Issues of sustenance come first; when they are championed by Islamists (Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood) they do well, but they can equally have other champions (Jordan’s quasi-liberal Islamic Action Front, the OACL in 1980s Lebanon, or the continuing Palestinian socialist movement) it’s just a question of who steps up to the plate.

Secondly everybody has written the subject of the role of social media in the revolution to death. However it is not without reason.

 

Anonymous

Schoolchildren in Tunisia wearing Guy Fawkes masks in the fashion of Anonymous

Facebook, Twitter and Youtube did play a large part in orchestrating the demonstrations, some people give Wikileaks some credit, and Anonymous repeated the kind of supporting attacks they took part in during Iran’s green revolution. It certainly played a part, and certainly in the post-wikileaks, post-internet era it is becoming increasingly harder to sell a lie to your ever more informed public.

In 2007 Yerkes National Primate Research Center (sic) conducted an interesting experiment on Capuchin Monkeys. Two monkeys did tricks in exchange for cucumbers perfectly happily. They then did the same trick in separate cages from which they couldn’t see each other and one monkey was given a cucumber for performing the trick and one monkey grapes. Then the partition was removed and the two monkeys were able to see each other. Upon realising that the one monkey was getting grapes for a task in which he received a mere cucumber, the second monkey threw a fit and went on strike. It’s a fairly obvious experiment but quite a nice metaphor. The internet removes our partition: makes it harder for those of us with grapes to hide or justify our grapes to those of us with cucumbers.

Ok fair enough, and you can read a thousand other articles that say the same thing on any major news site (but mine has monkeys). But I think it is worth pointing out that this isn’t really anything new. The Green Revolution in Iran really was special (albeit it didn’t quite come off) and even before then there were internet and social media aspects to uprisings in Serbia, the Ukraine, and Georgia. As the scale of social media grows and information becomes ever harder to control then yes dictators will struggle to justify their existence. But those who suggest that Tunisia is the first domino to fall should remember there are still more internet connections in Manhattan that the whole of Africa, and that it is going to take a while before there are enough tweeters in Chad to take down Idriss Deby.

Of more interest to me is the demographic aspect. Like most revolutions this was a revolution of the young – the young have less to lose. But 27% of the population of Tunisia is between the ages of 15 and 25, and that is not an atypical distribution for the region. There are now over a billion 12-18 year olds on the planet and 90% of them living in the developing world.

Thank you BBC

That is a lot of potential revolutionaries. Even without web 2.0 and all the rest of it this could be a very bumpy decade, but with any luck we’ll come out of it with fewer dictators than we went in. Bliss it was that dawn I guess.

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