Sidi Bouzid

January 28, 2011 § 10 Comments

I tend not to cover protests until they turn into actual revolutions, but where does one draw the line? It is clear that something pretty special is happening in the Middle East at the moment so I feel it would be disingenuous, not to mention churlish, not to cover it.

A recurring theme of this blog appears to be me suggesting that we all calm down and that things aren’t as serious or as substantial as they seem. I’m not going to say that about these protests. In fact I think they could be the most important event of the century (I know, I know). Of course it might not be, it could all be a flash in the pan – it is simply far too early to tell (like Zhou Enlai I think the jury is still out on the French Revolution so I’m not expecting history to rush to any snap judgements).

Sidi Bouzid

SB

Sidi Bouzid is a fairly dull little town in central Tunisia with a population of about 40,000; it is a fairly unlikely location for the genesis of a social movement which threatens to change an entire region. Up until now its only real claim to fame was that it leant it’s name to the nearby WW2 “battle of Sidi Bouzid”, an engagement during the first few weeks of 1943 in which a surprisingly spirited German counter-attack drove back the advancing US army some 60 miles and so delayed the allied reconquest of north Africa by a couple of months.

As I wrote here, there had been widespread protests in Tunisia for some time but they stepped up a gear after a street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi burnt himself alive in protest on December 17th. That brought an end to the Ben Ali regime, but protests have now spread across the region. It’s hard to generalise about such a large and diverse movement ,but here is a summary of a few key observations on what has become known as the Sidi Bouzid movement:

  1. It is genuinely of the people. As far as it is possible to tell such a thing. It seems to be spontaneous, and due to its spontaneity, there seem to be no obvious leaders yet. Like all mass movements, there are many disparate agendas at work here.
  2. It is indigenous. Allegations of foreign interference are well wide of the mark. Indeed, in many, if not all, of these countries the western powers have been implicitly supporting the dictators against the people for many years – based upon the flawed premise that the politics of the middle east exists in a dichotomy between pro-western dictatorship and extremist Islamist democracy. One of the most powerful impacts of the Sidi Bouzid demonstrations in the west has been in publicly demonstrating how flawed and reductive that thinking is. That said we still see western governments taking a cautious approach towards the demonstrations and not willing to abandon their erstwhile allies so easily – and some on the right have even been actively hostile.
  3. It is not led by Islamists. One of the impacts of viewing middle eastern politics as a dicotomy has been that is has considerably strengthened the Islamists hand. With all opposition, including secular democratic opposition banned, the only outlet for dissent had previously been the underground Islamist network. However what these demonstrations have shown is that when safety in numbers allows ordinary people to demonstrate most of them, in fact, are not Islamists. In the main the demands have been simply for the introduction of greater democracy, economic reform (more jobs), and an end to corruption. That said Islamist groups are certainly taking part, and more are jumping on the bandwagon. As most opposition groups haven’t been allowed to openly organise, Islamists might be able to cash in in any post-revolutionary chaos, or fresh elections, but at the moment they are certainly not the leading force, or even as strong a force as they were, say, in the 1979 Iranian revolution.
  4. The internet has been helpful, but this is a revolution in the real world. Twitter, facebook, Anonymous, Wikileaks etc.. have all performed a role in publicising and organising the protests and an even more important role in reporting on them. However, in many cases the protesters have been amongst the poor, the unemployed, and ethnic minorities (such as the Bedouin in Egypt) who don’t  have much in the way of internet access – with workers and the middle classes only joining in later. Conventional methods, such as this pamphlet, and short wave radio, have played a major and overlooked part.
  5. Anonymous

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

  6. Al Jazeera are loving it. Maybe this is unfair. Maybe they are just doing their job as the region’s premier objective broadcaster. But I think I’ve been detecting a certain amount of delight in Al Jazeera’s reporting, certainly amongst individual journalists (Al Jazeera journalists tend to be a liberal and pro-democratic lot), This is important as they have been giving it their all to make sure that the protesters and their demands get fair coverage, in Arabic, across the region. What will be interesting will be to see what happens if the protests spread to Qatar, if the Qatari regime put pressure on AJ to change their tone, and if they can resist that pressure. Of course we’re a way off that happening yet.
  7. It is going to be a while before anything happens. Mass demonstrations take time to build momentum; the French revolution didn’t just happen on Bastile day. It took more than a month for the Tunisian government to fall, and the Iranian revolution took more than two years. The fact that the media only turned up for the last three days of the Tunisian demonstrations has raised expectations unrealistically that regimes are going to fall overnight. They are not. Be patient. They key here is momentum, if the protests keep escalating to the point where a nation becomes ungovernable the regime will fall, if the protests fizzle out it won’t,

Here then is a run around the protests of the region:

Tunisia

FC

As I said before now Ben Ali is gone, the key question will be whether the RCD follow suit. The  RCD are determined to cauterize the wound, discarding those seen as Ben Ali allies in the hope that this will be enough to satisfy the mob and they themselves will get back in in emergency elections. It remains to be seen whether they will.

Algeria

I wrote about Algeria before all this here. It was thought that Algeria would be the next site for the protests, particularly after there were five self immolations in three days between the 13th and 16th of January. Whilst events in Egypt have overshadowed the Algerian protests they are still continuing. There was a major spate of protests in the week leading up to 10th January. Then the protests thinned somewhat but opposition groups plan to restart the movement with a major demonstration on February the 9th. The size and scale of that demonstration should give us some idea what to expect in the coming months. Meanwhile a socialist opposition group, the FFS, has suggested that rather than demonstrating, they should attempt to build an alternative consensus through a series of meetings across the country.

Egypt

Egypt has some great posters:

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It had previously been thought that Egypt would be one of the least likely regimes to fall, simply because the government was so entrenched and the police so strong. However, the protests which as I write are entering a fourth day, seem to have that most vital quality: momentum. Everyone is getting very hopeful at the moment, with stories of many thousands on the streets, NDP headquarters being sacked, Bedouin seizing soldiers, and the police (and even a tank) changing sides. But it’s still a very strong regime so let’s wait and see what happens.

As I said here, and here last year’s elections were a pyrrhic victory for Mubarak because, by so utterly denying the opposition any seats, he pushed his many millions of opponents outwith the processes of state. The main victims of that rigging, the Muslim Brotherhood, are certainly involved in these protests but they don’t seem to be the ringleaders. It seems to started amongst Bedouin and, for a while, largely Bedouin cities like Ismaïlia and Suez were the only sites of demonstrations. However it now seems to have genuinely spread to all sections of Egyptian society, with all religions and all ages represented across the country.

A potential leader for the movement emerged when Mohamed ElBaredi announced that he was returning to Egypt. He made it clear that he was not leading the protests, but that he would participate in them, and that he was not seeking the presidency directly (although, if asked, he would serve as an interim leader) but merely reiterating the position he has long held that Egypt needs to embrace significant electoral and constitutional reform to hold free elections which everyone, including the Muslim Brotherhood can participate in (ElBaredi has the Voltairesque view – one I happen to share – that whilst by no means an Islamist, he will fight for the Islamists right to exist). And that were that to happen he would run for the presidency in those elections.

ElBaredi is a fascinating individual. He has been campaigning for democratic reform in Egypt since 1964, although for much of the last 30 or so year he has done so from the confines of his day-job in New York. Educated in Sweden and with a PhD from the New York School of Law (where he lectured for a while), he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. He served in the UN for 30 years including three terms (twelve years) as the director of the International Atomic Energy Authority – the UN’s anti proliferation body. In this role he came up against the Bush regime on several occasions for:

  1. Agreeing with his predecessor Hans Blix that the evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq did not amount to a case for war, but merely a case for fresh inspections.
  2. Rubbishing some of the claims for evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, in particular the Niger enriched uranium link, as implausible (it turned out he was right).
  3. Saying it would be “utterly crazy” to attack Iran (this was perceived as “being soft on Iran” by the Bush regime).
  4. Criticizing Israel for preventing UN weapons inspectors from inspecting their weapons programme for over 30 years, and raising concerns that the Arab world might think that a double standard was being applied.
  5. Stating that “We must abandon the unworkable notion that it is morally reprehensible for some countries to pursue weapons of mass destruction, yet morally acceptable for others to rely on them for security – and indeed to continue to refine their capacities and postulate plans for their use.” In context it was clear that he was not advocating nuclear proliferation (which would be an odd viewpoint for the head of the UN non-proliferation unit to have) but merely decrying nuclear diplomacy and calling for disarmament.

Based upon these, to my mind entirely reasonable, statements and the aforementioned defence of the Muslim Brotherhood’s right to exist some on the right seem to have got the idea ElBaredi – to all intents and purposes a New Yorker – is anti-western. I find that somewhat ludicrous.

Back to the protests themselves, as I say they do seem to be gathering momentum and the Egyptian government does seem to be embarking upon some suicidally counterproductive policies. They have shut down the internet (really), suspended some mobile phone networks, taken the local cable and terrestrial franchises of Al Jazeera off air (there’s nothing they can do about the satellites), arrested ElBaredi and various other “ringleaders”, and banned Friday prayer in some areas. The last move was particularly boneheaded as it has a) enraged Muslim sentiment, b) meant that most Egyptians have had nothing to do on Friday morning and so thought they might as well join a demo and c) meant that there have been a spate of people protesting by praying in, and blocking, the street.

Yemen

The protests don’t seem to be as strong in Yemen yet but it is early days and the situation in Yemen is highly volatile. Yemen is split across religious lines (the 50% living in the north are Zaidi “fiver” Shia whereas the southern 50% and the government are Sunni), there are active insurgencies in parts of the country, and Yemen has powerful opposition movements (a hangover from the different governments of former-Ottoman North Yemen and former-British South Yemen and the left wing rebellions in both halves).

Elections are two years overdue and the ruling General People’s Congress have been under mounting pressure from both the Shafi Islamist Islah party and the left wing Yemeni Socialist Party (the former government of South Yemen. Thus whilst there aren’t yet that many people on the street, it may take fewer people to topple the government. So far the Yemeni protests have been more political than those in other countries, with the opposition coalition taking the lead in proceedings.

Jordan

There have been some surprisingly large demonstrations in Jordan. Jordan had always been thought of as one of the more moderate regimes in the region, but as I wrote here and here, the regime has taken a turn for the authoritarian of late – something which some have attributed to the rise of hard-liners PM Samir Rifai and his deputy Rajai Muasher. The Monarchy have taken a different approach to the regimes in other countries, King Abdullah II saying that reforms are needed and should be sped up:

“All officials concerned should shoulder their responsibilities and take their decision in a daring, transparent and clear manner. I don’t want to hear someone says that he has directions from the head. All files should be opened to the public, doubts should be cleared and mistakes corrected.”

Interestingly this has by no means ended the protests, the total bodging of last year’s elections have left a lot of people very angry. But we could see a different kind of reform in Jordan, regimes not toppling but slowly adapting as hard-liners lose the ear of the king and long promised democratic reforms finally take place. Or maybe not, in which case there will be consequences…

Where else?

There have been reports of riots and immolations in Saudi Arabia and Mauritania. In addition Bahrain (which I wrote about herehere, and here) is clearly worried enough about the issue (or maybe just wanting to build some new alliances) to suggest a regional symposium to discuss democratic reform. But it’s fair to say that we don’t really know where will be next, or if it will spread at all.

How do I find out what’s going on?

Online Al Jazeera have been peerless and the Guardian have been pretty good. On twitter you’ll find a lot by searching #jan25 (Egypt) or #sidibouzid. I also recommend @ajenglish for news, @aslanmedia also worth a follow and has had some scoops. @dilma_khatib is an Al Jazeera journalist who often tweets before AJ themselves do and indulges in the occasional editorial comment. For Tunisia I recommend @voiceoftunisia @revolution_isnow and @LiberateTunisia. For Egypt @nefermaat, @jan25live (warning, this translates Arabic reports tweets and rumours, not all of which have been independently authenticated, and some of which are clearly a way off the mark) and @jan25voices who use phones to get round the internet blockade.

And finally … Gabon

There’s been an utterly botched coup in Gabon. It doesn’t appear to be linked to the Sidi Bouzid protests although it’s not entirely clear what was going through Andre Mba Obame’s head. He was, until a couple of days ago, leader of the Gabonese opposition until, apropos of absolutely nothing at all he declared that he should have won the August 2009 presidential election and that as a result he was unilaterally declaring himself president. The African Union expressed its “surprise and concern” and everyone else blithely ignored him. The election, which saw President Ali Bongo (son of Omar Bongo, president 1967-2009) elected with 42% of the vote probably wasn’t entirely fair, but just announcing yourself President 18 months after the fact doesn’t make it so.

Obame turned up at the headquarters of the UNDP demanding that the UN either a) recognise his regime or b) give him asylum. They went with option b.

 

UPDATE

So it now seems a case of when, not if, Mubarrak goes. I say that for three reasons, firstly as I said before, the key currency here is momentum and the Egyptian protests have that in spades. Secondly, for the first time in his 30 year career Mubarrak has appointed a vice-president. This is clearly the mark of someone who knows his days are numbered and is trying, probably unsuccessfully, to ensure an NDP succession. Thirdly the police have been replaced by the Army on the streets and Egypt has a conscripted Army in which everyone does a stint of national service. In other words whist the police are loyal to the regime insofar as they are on the payroll, the army are a largely random subset of the people and so their loyalties are much more with the people. Thus the last couple of days have seen the army in many cases openly siding with the people against the government. Of course, being the army, they have also been a bit more trigger happy and death tolls have been creeping upwards.

As for the big “where next” question, there is speculation about Morocco and Sudan but it doesn’t seem to have much basis. As well as the places mentioned above Syria is going to have a day of mass demonstrations on February the fifth. A week ago I would have said there is absolutely no chance of the Syrian regime falling, but if Egypt can fall then seriously anywhere can. We’ll know better on the fifth how seriously to take this.

Someone asked me over twitter if it is true that this all started as a dispute over oranges. The answer is yes and no. Whilst it’s easy to say with hindsight, it now appears that the entire region was as well primed and ready to blow as a firework at a well-organised display. Mohamed Bouazizi was a barrow boy, and he did sell oranges, and he did burn himself alive after a police officer – on the lookout for a bribe he couldn’t afford to pay – closed down his orange stand for not having a licence. That took place in the context of a demonstration which was already in process: it was a talismanic event, but maybe this would have happened anyway; maybe someone else would have set themselves on fire over something else.

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