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.

So, what we have in Tunisia today is the birth of a genuine, national, indigenous, popular movement, not against colonialists or foreign occupiers but against their own repressive regime, and one which is not tainted (as in Iran) by international power games.

This is something new, which is why it's so important. For years, writers have complained about the "Arab malaise" – the way Arabs have become accustomed to playing the role of victims, their passivity in the face of home-grown tyrants, and so on. The need, as I explained in my recent book, is for Arabs to stop being prisoners of their history and start shaping their own destiny. At long last, that is what the people of Tunisia are trying to do.

I admire his verve and willingness to make a provocative statement, but I'll differ with Brian on something key: these economic protests are not new. 

They took place in Tunisia before, such as the 2008 Gafsa mining protests, in Morocco at Sidi Ifni in the same year, in various bread, gas and other protests in Egypt over the last four years, in Algeria as recently as a few days ago (and for several years near Algiers as well as Oran) and elsewhere. These protests seem economic but, in my view, are really political: they are not strictly about the lack of jobs, poor economies, etc. as much as the uneven and unfair distribution of economic opportunity. And what re-arranges economic opportunity?Politics. I touch on this in my latest al-Masri al-Youm column, in perhaps a too round-about way.

It's not about a young man who set himself on fire (as "unemployed graduates" have done in Morocco in recent years) as much as the indignities he suffered at the hand of the authorities and under a absurdly brutal and venal political system. The fact is that there is nothing new about people going out into the streets, even if there is something new about how the movement is being sustained in Tunisia (Oh, how would one love to see it end up like Romania).

What we have yet to see is a faltering in the security services that so expertly defuse these waves of indignation, or indeed the an end collaboration of other Arab states in encouraging a draw-down — and indeed, Western powers who prefer a return to "calm" rather than an uncertain breakthrough, with all the consequences it can have for their business and other interests often built up through bribes. The fact is that the entire regional and international security system conspires against such events growing , becoming transnational or ending in a change of regime. The question therefore becomes, for the protestors, is not so much about their movement being "indigenous" — they obviously are and have long been — but how to secure support within their countries and also outside them to force change. Resorting to outside support does not mean giving up on "shaping their own destiny," it means taking basing that destiny on universalist notions of justice and putting pressure on the larger system that tends to favors the Ben Alis of the world. Solidarity is not an option, it's a necessity.

A few links:

RE: Protests in Tunisia « The Moor Next Door

Re: Protests in Tunisia, Pt. II « The Moor Next Door

TUNISIA: Dependence on Europe fuels unemployment crisis and protests | Babylon & Beyond | Los Angeles Times