The year of spontaneous combustion

My new al-Masri al-Youm column is up. This week, I wanted to do something else than the obvious (write about Tunisia or its impact on Egypt), so I decided to be a little more adventurous. Like many people I was aghast at the wave of self-immolations over the last few days, and imagined what might happen if they continue (let's hope they don't). It's written from the perspective of January 1, 2012.

At first, when it began nearly a year ago, many people thought it was just a copycat fad that would soon disappear. Inspired by the events of the Tunisian uprising, people--mainly young men--began to set themselves on fire.

Read the rest.

More on what Tunisia means for Egypt

Reader Amjad asked (several times) in a comment:

Please allow for a slight detraction from the ongoing events in Tunisia, this still is very relevant but with an eye out to the future, near or far.

As most people here have observed the news coverage on all news channels very quickly turned to Egypt, and for reasons I'm sure we are all well aware of. I'd like to ask Arabist permission to open up some debate on how to manage such an event, should it occur in Egypt and in particular Cairo.

Change will one day happen, and laying out strategies to cope/manage the consequences are as attested in Tunisia pretty important.

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Tunisia, Egypt and ElBaradei

In the Guardian, my friend Jack Shenker talks to Mohamed ElBaradei about the risks of a Tunisia-like uprising in Egypt — which ElBaradei does not want:

"What has transpired in Tunisia is no surprise and should be very instructive both for the political elite in Egypt and those in the west that back dictatorships," ElBaradei told the Guardian. "Suppression does not equal stability, and anybody who thinks that the existence of authoritarian regimes is the best way to maintain calm is deluding themselves."

The Nobel peace prize winner repeated his call for the Egyptian government to implement urgent political reforms, claiming that the citizens of the Arab world's largest nation were "yearning desperately for economic and social change" and that without drastic improvements, a "Tunisia-style explosion" in Egypt would be unavoidable. Nearly half of the country's 80 million citizens live on less than £1.25 a day, and despite record GDP growth the majority of the population has become poorer in real terms over the past 20 years.

Yet on the heels of six reported incidents of self-immolation and large anti-government demonstrations planned for next week, ElBaradei refused to throw his weight behind street-level protests, instead expressing concern at the "general state of instability" engulfing the country.

"These things need to be organised and planned properly," said the 68-year-old. "I  would like to use the means available from within the system to effect change, such as the petition we are gathering demanding political reform. The government has to send a message to the people saying 'yes, we understand you', and of course, if things do not move then we will have to consider other options including protests and a general strike.

"I still hope that change will come in an orderly way and not through the Tunisian model," he added. "But if you keep closing the door to peaceful change then don't be surprised if the scenes we saw in Tunisia spread across the region."

Grassroots activists accused ElBaradei of timidity. "From day one ElBaradei has proved himself not to be a man of the street," said Hossam El-Hamalawy, a prominent journalist and blogger. "He comes from a diplomatic background and the kind of change he wants is peaceful and gradual, something that will not shake the foundations of the establishment. But unfortunately for him the Egyptian people have far more radical demands than the ones he is articulating: this is not just about creating a clean parliament and a fair presidency, it's about the daily bread and butter of the Egyptian people."

I'm not surprised this is ElBaradei's position. This has been most Muslim Brotherhood leaders' position for a while too, as well as secular parties like the Wafd. There is widespread fear, as I touched upon in my op-ed yesterday, that an Egyptian uprising would awaken some terrible impulses that lie not far beneath the surface of Egyptian society: sectarianism, class revanchisme, and populism. Of course the regime is largely to blame for these potential outcomes, and thus far has not showed any sign of having a political (as opposed to economic) response to what's happened in Tunisia. But this debate — change from within vs. revolutionary change — is likely to intensify in the next few months, as we get closer to September presidential race.

Tunisia and the region

I wrote this commentary for the Guardian's CiF on Tunisia's impact on the region:

The elation felt across the Arab world over the Tunisian uprising is deep and palpable. It is not simply that, like most people, Arabs are pleased to see a long-repressed people finally have a shot at gaining their freedom. It is also that many recognise themselves in the Tunisian people and share their hopes, their fears, and also their guilt.

Living in a dictatorship is not simply about shutting up and putting up. It is a humiliation, an abasement of the human spirit, that is reinforced on a daily basis. Every time you lower your voice when mentioning a political leader, every time you shrug off rampant corruption as a fact of life that has no redress, every time you bend the rules in a country where connections systematically trump the rule of law, every time you consider emigration simply to get away from the ambient mediocrity and stasis, you forfeit a little piece of dignity.

Tunisians lived this way for decades, and the Ben Ali regime, which inspired such dread, turned out to be rotten and hollow. This small, well-educated and relatively prosperous country of 10 million – despite the rioting, looting and score-settling that has taken place over the past week – has a real chance at making an unprecedented breakthrough for this region and become genuinely democratic. And if successful, this breakthrough will have been made in spite of western support for the Tunisian regime, and without palace plots and military adventurism. It may yet turn out to be the genuine item, a progressive popular revolution.

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On Leila Trabelsi

One of the key drivers of the Tunisian uprising was seething resentment for Leila Trabelsi, Ben Ali's wife, and her clan. You kept seeing protestors shouting slogans against "al Trabelsiya" and the homes of her family were among the first hit by looters and rioters.

I wrote this profile of her for the Daily Beast:

Laila herself ran the family business like a cross between a mafia don and a marriage maker. Conscious of the Trabelsi's humble background, she cemented alliances by marrying her relatives to more established families from the Tunisian business world and bourgeoisie. She meddled in the affairs of the country's elite like Joan Collins once did on the soap opera Dynasty: forever plotting and scheming to get her way.

Read the whole thing.

Ben Brik: Once upon a revolution

The veteran Tunisian dissident and journalist Taoufik ben Brik, writing in Courier International:
En Tunisie, comme partout, un tyran peut en cacher un autre. Mohamed Ghannouchi, le Premier ministre de Ben Ali et Fouad Mebazaa, le président d'un Parlement – non élu – et bras droit de Ben Ali se relaient sur une présidence vacante. Le changement sans le changement. On a coupé la tête du canard, mais le corps bouge encore. Ben Ali s’est éclipsé, mais il a laissé derrière lui son système qui repose sur les PPP. Ici, tout repose sur le karakouz, le théâtre d’ombres turc. Et on sait bien qui, désormais, est le marionnettiste qui manipule le karakouz, la marionnette. Nul n’est dupe. Le pouvoir est toujours entre les mains des anciens caciques de Ben Ali. "Un bain de sang ne les ferait pas reculer", c’est l’avis général. La police, le RCD (Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique), le parti au pouvoir et la pègre ne vont pas lâcher prise facilement. Ce ne sont pas une association de charité.

La Tunisie du "miracle économique" s'est pris le pied dans le tapis, l’économie de la débrouillardise a montré là son vrai visage, le visage d’une machine sans conducteur. Une économie sans but, sans pilote dans l’avion, un avion qui s’écrase et qui s’appelle Tunisie. Et qui s’écrase sur qui ? Sur les Tunisiens eux-mêmes. On a vu, à Sidi Bouzid, à Kasserine, à Jendouba, à Gafsa, à Medenine, la ruine s’installer, le chômage s’étendre. Nul parmi les Etats, européens, partenaires de la Tunisie, n’avait  prévu cet effondrement  foudroyant. Qui peut donc honnêtement prévoir les conséquences de cette révolution inachevée… ou confisquée. Un soulèvement comme on aimerait en avoir le plus souvent. Un horrible dictateur chassé par un peuple vaillant. C’est déjà ça!
My translation:
 
In Tunisia, as elsewhere, a tyrant can hide another. Mohamed Ghannouchi, Ben Ali's prime minister, and Fouad Mebazaa, the speaker of parliament (unelected) and right hand of Ben Ali have taken over a vacant presidency. Change without change. We've cut off the duck's head, but the body continues to move. Ben Ali ran off, but left behind a whole system that relies on three Ps: Police, Profiteers and Party. Here, everything depends on the karakouz, the Turkish shadow puppet theater. And we know all too well who is puppeteer and who is puppet. No one is fooled. Power is still in the hands of Ben Ali's old stalwarts. "A bloodbath would not make them back down" is the general opinion. The police, the ruling RCD party and the profiteers won't let go that easily. They are not a charity.

The Tunisia of the "economic miracle" caught its foot in the carpet, the parallel economy has shown its true face — the face of a vehicle without a driver. An economy without goal, with no pilot in the cockpit of a crashing plane whose name is Tunisia. And that is crashing on whom? On the Tunisians themselves. We have seen, in Sidi Bouzid, in Kasserine, in Jendouba, in Gafsa, in Medenine, destitution install itself, unemployment spread. No state among Tunisia's partners, the Europeans, had predicted this lighting collapse. Who can then honestly predict the consequences of this unfinished — or perhaps stolen — revolution. An uprising of the sort we would like to see more often. A horrible dictator chase by a valorous people. That's already something!
I have no idea whether what Ben Brik says is representative of popular opinion in Tunisia, but it's a pretty clear explanation of the state of play at the moment: the guys in charge are ancien regime, will they deliver the revolution or hijack it?

Me and Shadi Hamid talk Tunisia on Bloggingheads

Brookings' Shadi Hamid (who has written tons on US policy and democracy promotion) and I talk about Tunisia and its regional impact on Bloggingheads. For policy nerds only.
Since we raise the issue of Western policy in Tunisia and the whole democracy promotion debate, I would like to flag this fine article by the man who is probably the leading expert on the US aspect of this, Thomas Carrothers. He offers a few words of wisdom about the unexpected nature of what happened, and more. (Here I have to confess that towards the end of my debate with Shadi, when we discussed how no one including ourselves had predicted these events, I barely suppressed an irresistible urge to quote Monty Python: "You never expect the Spanish Inquisition." That's why I'm smiling.)
Here's Carrothers:
Tipping points in political change are based on psychological thresholds, which are both difficult to predict and measure. Often the very people who know the country best are least able to foresee the change, rooted as they are in old assumptions of stability.
I also agree (and we talk about this in the debate) with his conclusion:
Fourth, although the international community often has little to do with sudden authoritarian collapse, it can play a critical role in the immediate aftermath. No Western government has pushed Tunisia hard on democracy and human rights in the past 10 years and none can take any credit for the end of the dictatorship. The United States and other Western governments can, however, play a vital role now. 

The departure of Ben Ali does not necessarily signal a democratic transition. Some authoritarian systems offer up the ouster of a president in the hopes of keeping the rest of the repressive system in place. They promise elections that will be held but then quietly shut off the oxygen to the political transition process once the international attention fades. Washington and other Western capitals should press now to get specific commitments from the new Tunisian leadership that not only will elections be held, but that they will be meaningful—that there will be genuine space and time for political parties to organize and campaign; freedom of expression, association, and movement will be respected; the elections will be administered by independent authorities; and international observers will be allowed.  

Washington largely missed the boat on helping Tunisians during their dark years of dictatorship; let's not miss the chance to make up for that now with meaningful pro-democratic engagement.

Why you shouldn't call it the "Jasmine Revolution"

It's not exactly the most important thing about what's going in Tunisia right now, but on Twitter and elsewhere you see a lot of people complaining about media reporting on Tunisia describing the recent events there as a "Twitter Revolution" or even a "Wikipedia revolution" — it just really seems to make people angry. I don't think these are accurate terms, but I am more concerned — as are many Tunisians — about the enthusiasm for the name "Jasmine Revolution," which has become ubiquitous in much of the international media. 

There are several reasons this term should not be used. There's nothing wrong in flower revolutions in themselves — the term derives from the very honorable end of the fascist regime in Portugal on 25 April 1974, dubbed the Carnation Revolution. But it unfortunately echoes more recent divisive terms, notably Lebanon's 2005 Cedar Revolution, which is associated with March 14 and US propaganda by a good part of Arab (and other) opinion. Personally, I loved the Syrian pullout out of Lebanon (and its alternative name, more common in Arabic, "Independence Intifada") — but, at the same time, so much spin was put on what was not really a revolution anyway. The term is now poisoned with Lebanon's divisive politics.

Furthermore, in Lebanon — as in Georgia's Revolution of the Roses and Ukraine's Orange Revolution —you also had events that, as positive as they may have been,  are closely intertwined with Bush administration policies, making the flower revolution concept even more divisive. What I'm hearing from Tunisians these days is, "don't you go branding our revolution." For me, that's reason enough to stay away from the term.

But there's another reason to stay away from "Jasmine Revolution." It was the term that deposed President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali used in 1987 to describe his own takeover, in those initial years of his reign that offered some hope for a democratic transition. To reuse Ben Ali's propaganda phrase at this point seems perverse — whereas something like the Sidi Bouzid Revolution, marking ground zero of the movement that led to the dictator's downfall, seems so much more appropriate.

Update: Qifa Nakbi points out that Josh Landis used the term Jasmine Revolution to describe moves towards reform in Syria in 2005.

Should Tunisia dump the constitutional process?

One of the debates in Tunisia over how to handle the post-Ben Ali transition is over whether the current constitutional framework should be strictly followed. The government today indicated it wanted to follow Article 57 of the constitution and hold new elections in 45-60 days. But many in the opposition will not stand for any elections that take place under the current electoral law, which restricts many parties from presenting candidates for the presidency, and rightly insist that elections should be run by an independent electoral commission rather than the elite of the ruling RCD party. And then there is the question of the participation of banned parties, such as the long repressed Islamist party an-Nahda (roughly a Muslim Brotherhood modeled movement). 

Allowing for such changes may take longer than the 60-day deadline the new interim government (whose legitimacy is still contested) has. The question now is, can a consensus be formed about how to proceed? 

Twitter, Wikileaks and Tunisia

There's been a lot of speculation, notably in the US, over the role social media played in the Tunisian revolution (it sure feels nice to say those two words.)

Wikileaks may have played a minor atmospheric rule in baring to the whole world what was whispered about the Ben Ali regime's corruption, showing that US diplomats were aghast at the mafia nature of his regime.

Social media, from Twitter and Facebook to video upload sites, were crucial in spreading the word about what happened in a country where the press was tightly muzzled. It generated tremendous amounts of solidarity in the Arab world in beyond. But it's just a means of communication, not a driver in itself.

At the end of the day, Tunisians took the streets because they had enough. They risked getting shot and beaten with no guarantee of success. And it's likely that if they hadn't heard about events around their country through Twitter and Facebook, they would have heard it by telephone. The difference is one of velocity: the technology available today allows for faster and more efficient distribution of information, notably including video.

I'll be discussing the same today, at 17:30 Cairo Time, on al-Jazeera English. 

Tunisia's Ghannouchi is dead in the water

Update: As predicted, Ghannouchi is no longer president, Speaker of Parliament Fouad Mebazaâ is now interim president under Article 57 of the constitution, has mandate to hold elections in 45-60 days. But he may not be entirely acceptable either, although at least this answers the critique that the constitution had not been followed. Also, Ben Ali is now officially no longer president.
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Where Tunisia is now: exhilarating limbo

Ben Ali has fallen. An Arab dictator of 24 years has turned out to be removable — not by a relative, former ally or military chief, but by a popular insurrection. This is historic first for the entire region and I will come back to it tomorrow.

In the meantime, though, we should not assume that Tunisia has become an instant democracy. The announcement today that Prime Minister Ghanouchi was assuming the presidency has yet to be accepted. Rioting and looting are continuing in the streets of major Tunisian cities, sometimes targeting the homes and businesses of regime cronies, but also of ordinary citizens. Some suspect police desertors to be looting. The situation is chaotic and the army is showing signs of wanting to impose order.

With no clear leadership with the moral authority to get people to go back to their homes, it may be days before the situation resolves itself. What interim president Ghanouchi does tomorrow in his meeting with the opposition — whose very definition will be controversial, notably over whether En-Nahda's Islamists could become part of an interim coalition government — will be crucial. Right now, there does not seem to be any indication that Tunisians are accepting any government as legitimate. Ghanouchi will have to either move quickly to build a credible alliance (here the international community may have a role in confering legitimacy) or step aside for someone who can.

The question of what role there should be for longtime regime cronies such as Mr Ghanouchi is crucial. On the one hand he and others like Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane represent known quantities. They can be seen as managers that might not play a role in future governments. Yet public opinion is now divided on this, weary that if they remain one of the main grievances against the Ben Ali regime — its cronyism and corruption — will not be addressed. Because the Ben Ali network was in business with everyone, this is difficult: few are entirely innocent, especially among the officials who have the capacity to run government in the short-term.

Another alternative, particularly if violence endures, is for the army to take over. It already seems to be moving to impose order, and may enjoy some of the moral authority to end the violence if the pictures of people kissing soldiers on the streets are anything to go by. But that would also alienate some of the protest movement.

The next 24 hours may be as crucial as the preceding 24. What Tunisia needs is a transitional government able to make the streets safe and inspire confidence that the country will be embarking on a genuine democratic transition, not just trading one dictator for another. 

Uncertainty in Tunisia

Yesterday my column on Tunisia at al-Masri al-Youm went up, news about a curfew in Tunis had just surfaced, rumors of grumbling in the military and the firing of General Rachid ben Ammar, the head of the army, were spreading and there were reports that much of the Ben Ali family was either in Canada or heading to Argentina.

No wonder that by late Tuesday / early Wednesday there were rumors of a coup. And right now, as I write this, news is trickling that Ben Ali has fired his interior minister and prime minister, and released all those arrested (aside from those charged as criminals). This is the response Ben Ali should have had two days ago in his speech to calm the situation — it's a peace offering. He may have missed that opportunity, though, with general strikes scheduled for the next few days.

All of this highlights the paucity of reliable information about what's happening in a dictatorship, and the heroic efforts (and occasional mistakes) of the people spreading the news on Twitter and elsewhere. I'll be talking about this and more on al-Jazeera International today at around 5pm Cairo time.  

Links and reflections on Tunisia

Here are links to some recent articles on what's happening in Tunisia. One question raised by these articles (I excerpt the relevant passage below) is what danger do the protests pose the Ben Ali regime and what alternatives to it there are. Regimes like Tunisia have been extremely effective not only in containing opposition leaders but also in ensuring that none exist at all that have a wide popularity. There is no Tunisian Aung San Suu Kyi or Yukashenko. There are some prominent intellectuals and journalists, but there are not likely political candidates with any kind of organized base. This is the price that was paid in part by Western support for these regimes, and in part by the "social contract" enacted with the population.
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Tunisia, Whitaker and the Sidi Bouzid protests

A provocative idea from Brian Whitaker: what if the Sidi Bouzid protests in Tunisia are the most important story to come out of the Arab world in the past year?

Tunisia is in an unusually fortunate position as one of the few countries in the Middle East where foreign powers have little incentive to meddle. Its dictator, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali (23 years in power) is a western ally of sorts, but an embarrassing one. He's no great asset and his departure would be no great loss. If a recent WikiLeaks document is to be believed, the Americans find him impossible to deal with and have more or less given up on trying to work with him.

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Succession in Tunisia

Mohammed Sakhr al-MeteriThis young man could be the successor to President Ben Ali, the dictator of Tunisia. As always in these cases, apart from being unbelievably corrupt it's not clear what his assets are for the job. From a US Embassy Tunis cable on Wikileaks:

Personally, El-Matri presented himself as self-confident, but low-key. This was in marked contrast to his reputation as a flamboyant and aggressive business mogul. His reputation derives in part from the fact that he drives an Austin Martin and a Hummer among other cars, and rumors that he owns a pet tiger. With the Ambassador, he was equally comfortable talking about political issues and personal issues. He indicated his awareness of his relative youth vis-a-vis his position in the RCD and his business success, but did not seem uncomfortable with that reality. He also discussed his wife Nesrine's commitment to using only organic products from the food they eat to the paint and varnish in their new mansion.

A spoilt brat, then. Tip of the hat to Brian Whitaker, who found another cable on Libyan sibling rivalry and succession, which he discussed here.

Tunisia's apologists

I've covered the lobbying efforts of Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Egypt in the past. But here's an interesting tidbit about the poor excuses for human beings that lie for Tunisia in Washington, DC:

Tunis Lines Up Top PR Team; Washington Media Group, Washington

Maghreb Confidential

June 10, 2010

 Does Tunisia suffer from a poor image abroad? The country's communications minister, Oussama Romdhani (who is also boss of the powerful Agence Tunisienne de Communication Exterieure) signed a contract with the American lobbying and PR firm Washington Media Group on May 1. Tunisia's account will be handled by lobbyist Gregory Vistica, a former journalist, and a public relations specialist, John Leary. In return for an annual fee of USD 420,000, WMG will work to burnish Tunisia's image in the United States but also in France and elsewhere in Europe. Apart from translating certain official web pages into English, the firm will work at "modifying" Wikipedia's reports concerning Tunisia, keep an eye on social networks like Facebook and "optimize" search engines in order to focus on favourable content on Tunisia. Identifying media outlets that could provide more positive coverage will equally form part of the package.

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