16 Jan 2011
The Tunisian uprising, which succeeded in toppling Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian president, has brought down the walls of fear, erected by repression and marginalisation, thus restoring the Arab peoples’ faith in their ability to demand social justice and end tyranny.
It is a warning to all leaders, whether supported by international or regional powers, that they are no longer immune to popular outcries of fury.
It is true that Ben Ali’s flight from the country is just the beginning of an arduous path towards freedom. It is equally true that the achievements of the Tunisian people could still be contained or confiscated by the country’s ruling elite, which is desperately clinging to power.
But the Tunisian intifada has placed the Arab world at a crossroads. If it fully succeeds in bringing real change to Tunis it will push the door wide open to freedom in Arab word. If it suffers a setback we shall witness unprecedented repression by rulers struggling to maintain their absolute grip on power.
Either way, a system that combined a starkly unequal distribution of wealth with the denial of freedoms has collapsed.
A model of tyranny
Tunis may have been an extreme example, but all Arab regimes are variations on the same model, which obediently follows Western-instructed economic ‘liberalisation’ while strangling human rights and civil liberties.
The West has long admired the Tunisian system, praising its “secularism” and “liberal economic policies”, and, in its quest to open world markets and maximise profit, has turned a blind eye to human rights violations and the gagging of the media – two functions at which the Ben Ali regime excelled.
But Tunis, under Ben Ali, was not a model of secularism but a shameless model of tyranny. It turned “secularism” into an ideology of terror – not merely in the name of countering Islamic extremism but in an attempt to crush the spirit of opposition – Islamic, secular, liberal and socialist alike.
As with previous examples of countries it deemed to have embraced ‘successful economic models’, like Chile under the late dictator Augusto Pinochet, the West, particularly the US and France, backed the Ben Ali regime – prioritising forced stability over democracy.
But even when such governments remain in power for decades, thanks to Western support and a security apparatus that suppresses the people with immunity, it is only a matter of time before they come to a humiliating end.
The West, and the US in particular, has always abandoned its allies – a memorable example is the way in which Washington dropped Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the late shah of Iran, when popular anger threatened the country’s stability.
The Arabs are listening
The people of Tunisia have spoken and, most significantly, the Arab people are listening.
The Tunisian protests have already triggered peaceful demonstrations in Jordan, where people have protested over inflation and government efforts to undermine political liberties and press freedoms and have demanded the departure of Samir al-Rifai, the prime minister.
The government, seemingly concerned by the unfolding developments, sought to appease popular discontent by reversing what had been the ninth increase in fuel prices since 1989. But it was too little, too late, particularly as food prices continue to rise, and Jordanians are expected to continue their demonstrations over the coming weeks.
The government would do well to learn from Tunis that repression by the security forces can no longer solve its problems and guarantee the consent of its citizens.
In Egypt, the opposition Movement for Change appears to have been reinvigorated by the events in Tunisia. And in Arab capitals, from Sana’a to Cairo, the people are sending a message to their own governments, as well as expressing their support for the Tunisian people, by organising sit-ins in front of Tunisian embassies.
Arabs of all generations are also expressing their sentiments online – not only congratulating Tunisians but also calling for similar movements in their own countries. And on Facebook, many have replaced their profile pictures with images of the Tunisian flag, as though draping themselves in the colours of an Arab revolution.
Fear and jubilation
The failure of one of the Arab world’s most repressive security forces to quell people power has been met with jubilation. Bloggers have compared the event to the fall of the Berlin wall, suggesting that it will usher in a new era in which the Arab people will have a greater say in determining their future.
Mohamed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian who set himself on fire in protest against unemployment and poverty, has become a symbol of Tunisian sacrifices for freedom.
Activists across the region have called for the “Tunisation” of the Arab street – taking Tunis as a model for the assertion of people power and aspirations for social justice, the eradication of corruption and democratisation.
But the celebratory atmosphere dominating the blogosphere and wide sectors of Arab society is tainted by a prevailing sense of caution and fear: Caution because the situation in Tunis remains unclear and fear that there may be a coup d’état, which would impose security but stifle popular aspirations.
Whether the Tunisian uprising will succeed in bringing about radical reforms or be partially aborted by the ruling elite remains to be seen. But it has already empowered people across the Arab world to expose the fallacy of regimes that believe adopting a pro-Western agenda will enable them to fool their people and guarantee their longevity.
History has shown that security forces can silence people but can never crush the simmering revolt that lies beneath the ashes. Or in the words of the beloved Tunisian poet Abul-Qasim al-Shabi in his poem To the Tyrants of the World:
Wait, don’t let the spring, the clearness of the sky and the shine of the morning light fool you …
Because the darkness, the thunder’s rumble and the blowing of the wind are coming toward you
from the horizon
Beware because there is a fire underneath the ash