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How an Arab Autocrat Falls

This is a cross post by Sohrab Ahmari and Nasser Weddady

The Tunisian people broke the fear barrier — will the West follow suit?

By now, the story of Mohammad Bouazizi has become the stuff of legend in Tunisia and on the Arab street. Despite his university education, the 24-year-old Tunisian had for months been unable to secure employment. So to provide for his family, Bouazizi was forced to sell fruits and vegetables on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, some 150 miles to the south of the capital Tunis. But municipal officials bent on cracking down on street vending would not allow him even this small modicum of opportunity. They confiscated his goods repeatedly and, when the young man showed up at city hall to protest, he was insulted and driven out. Bouazizi set himself on fire just outside city hall. He died two weeks later.

The next day, 26-year-old Hussein Nagi Felhi, another unemployed university graduate, found a quicker way to end his desperation. “No to unemployment! No to misery!” Felhi cried before electrocuting himself by grabbing hold of an electricity pole coursing with some 30,000 megawatts of energy.

The two back-to-back suicides sparked a month of protests in normally serene Tunisia – beginning with the economically-depressed Sidi Bouzid region, where trade unionists, students, and jobless youth poured into the streets to voice their frustration with a corrupt and nepotistic regime that has misruled Tunisia for some two decades. Caught off-guard, the authorities in Sidi Bouzid responded to the demonstrations with predictable violence. A mathematics teacher was shot and killed by police – triggering further rioting by the youth, who hurled stones at police positions and set fire to a municipal building.

As protests spread from Sidi Bouzid to Tunis, the government of Zeine Elabidine Ben Ali directed his feared “BOP” units to open fire on protestors, and to shoot to kill. Security forces were seen shooting demonstrators at point blank range using 12-gauge ammunition. Opposition forces reported as many as 50 protesters killed, with a majority of them dying of head and chest wounds. One particularly disturbing video making its away around the Arab blogosphere showed doctors at a hospital in Kasserine treating wounded demonstrators. A man was seen lying on a gurney with half of his skull missing. The familiar and chilling sound of Arab mothers wailing punctuated the scene. A nurse collapsed in shock. “Allah-u-akbar!” the videographer whispered in horror. In these “martyrs” — not to mention Bouazizi himself — the antigovernment movement found its Neda Agha Soltans and Sohrab Arabis. The Kasserine massacre became a symbol and a rallying cry for opponents of Ben Ali.

As events were heating up, Tunisian cyberactivists — the region’s most skilled — stepped up their game like never before. An all-out electronic rebellion broke out against the Ben Ali regime. Tunisia’s was one of the most sophisticated net censorship and control apparatuses in world. (In the lead-up to the uprising, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Tunisian cyberspace apparatchiks had been running massive phishing campaigns to harvest passwords and crush social media-based dissent.) Nevertheless, the Tunisian cyberactivist community became the main source of information for the better part of the uprising.

Nawaat, a central pro-democracy and human rights website, has been running photographs and news of protests around the clock. This was no accident, Sami Ben Gharbia, Malek Khadraoui, “Astrubaal,” and “Centrist” — the brains behind Nawaat — have been for years playing a vicious cat and mouse game with the Tunisia’s online censorship machine – practicing for the day when North African dissent would spill from the Internet into the streets.

Impressively deploying the full gamut social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), the Nawaat crew managed to evade aggressive attempts to block access to their site in Tunisia. Thanks to its longstanding reputation for reliability, Newaat’s reporting — and on-the-spot analysis — was circulated widely across the Mideast and North Africa region. Other North African activists, who had either been trained by the Nawaat team or had collaborated with it on other campaigns, relayed their information. An electronic pan-Arabism 2.0 of sorts emerged, breaking Ben Ali’s firewall. (The “hactivist” collective Anonymous, too, lent a hand by defacing government sites. This, in turn, led the mainstream media to finally notice something going on in Tunisia.)

Early last week, Ben Ali finally broke down under the intense internal pressure he was feeling. He fired key cronies, such as his adviser and former foreign minister Abdelwahab Ben Abdallahand and interior minister Rafik Belhaj Kacem, and promised to end to the bloodshed. Anybody familiar with the behavior patterns of faltering Mideast despots fighting for their political lives recognized these gestures as designed to buy Ben Ali time and room to maneuver. Finding himself simultaneously vilified and humiliated on the Arab street, Ben Ali also reportedly tried to hire top Arab journalists to manage his crumbling regime’s image problem — but to no avail.

Last Thursday, he took to the airwaves to grovel before his people — an unprecedented event in Arab history. In a widely-ridiculed television appearance, he sought to portray himself as a misunderstood, benevolent dictator, and once again scapegoated his underlings for the violence. (To appear “authentic,” he even used the local dialect as opposed to fosha, or classical Arabic, and dropped the usual demigod gravitas.)

Even so, Ben Ali continued to lay the ultimate blame for the violence on “thugs” and “terrorists,” who prevented “our children from attending school” – forgetting that it was he who ordered schools closed indefinitely. Still, the speech was a massive retreat. Ben Ali went as far as promising not to run for the 2014 elections and to lift censorship. Pathetically, he ordered for sugar and milk prices to be lowered right then and there. This last bit was an attempt to emulate his Algerian neighbor, who understood that provoking a hungry and repressed population was not a smart crowd-control method. For Ben Ali however, the gesture was too little too late.

On Friday, he was forced to leave the country for Saudi Arabia.

The Tunisian regime had for years tried to brand itself as a tourist-friendly, “moderate” Arab government and a source of stability in North Africa. Its willingness to violently repress Islamists of all stripes and fully cooperate in the War on Terror had made Tunisia a favorite in Washington and Brussels, which had been willing to entertain autocracy to stave off Islamism. So it had been easy to forget, for example, that Tunisia was also one of the region’s most efficient and effective enemies of free speech. Or that the Tunisian security forces — with an unhealthy penchant for arbitrary detention and torture – were one of its most feared.

Yet as the events unfolding in Tunisia demonstrate, the bargain struck by the West with autocrats sitting atop social pressure cookers ready to erupt at any minute is a bad one. For stability based solely on naked power is short-lasting. (As his regime was crumbling before his eyes, Ben Ali himself all but openly conceded this point.) For more than a decade, many of these autocrats have been promising to commence cycles of democratization to introduce political freedom and civil rights. Their promises are broken. Sensing that the free world under President Obama is even less inclined to press them on rights, they have reprised the one role they know best: that of absolutist dictator.

Washington and Brussels have for the most part been oblivious, content to reduce the entire Middle East to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ignore a much more important conflict: that between citizens and absolutist dictators of all stripes. But history in Middle East and North Africa is not going to wait for a peaceful way out of the Arab-Israeli impasse. After two years of new management in the White House, and much treasure and prestige expended by both the United States and its European allies on solving the Israel-Palestinian problem, Middle East autocracies remain sinking ships that no power on earth can save from their own people.

So far, the Western response to the Tunisian uprising has been limited to shy condemnations replete with vagaries, suggesting that we may be doomed to learn the same lesson over and over again. Particularly nauseating has been the position of France. At least two ministers in the Sarkozy government went on the record endorsing Ben Ali. “To say unequivocally that Tunisia is a dictatorship strikes me as completely exaggerated,” the French culture minister bloviated, while the agriculture minister stated that “[i]t’s not to [him] to judge the Tunisian regime… President Ben Ali is someone who’s frequently judged badly, [but] he’s done a lot of things.” Those “things,” of course, include the killing of Hatem Bettahar, a French-Tunisian dual citizen and professor at the Université de Compiègne, by (French-trained) Tunisian security forces.

Had something like the Kasserine massacre occurred in Tehran, there would be mass demonstrations in downtown Paris led by Bernard Henri-Levy. And rightly so! Yet when it comes to North African democrats getting brutalized and killed in cold blood, the French and other Western elites and publics alike too often assume an arrogant and dismissive attitude out of a fear of undermining anti-Islamist bulwarks like Egypt’s Mubarak, Morocco’s Muhammad VI, and Tunisia’s Ben Ali. The Obama administration exemplified this stance in the worst possible way. While Obama’s response to Iran’s Green Movement was inadequate and coldblooded, his response to the plight – and victories – of North African reformers was even worse: it was simply nonexistent, right up until Ben Ali finally packed his bags.

Partly, these “realist” fears are driven by skepticism regarding the leaders driving Mideast pro-democracy forces. If we cannot “pin down” the democrats ideologically, the thinking goes, we may as well stick with the tired dictators we know – lest we open the gates to another Iran-style disaster. Yet one would certainly wonder whether anybody foresaw a camera-shy Czech dissident novelist one day becoming the president of a democratic Czech republic before the implosion of the Soviet Union. No one did, as, indeed, few foresaw the collapse of the iron curtain. As it is, no one could have predicted a month ago that the people of Tunisia would have spontaneously taken to the streets to hold their ruler to account.

Mohammad Bouazizi and the Tunisian nation, then, burned away the myth — so persistent in the corridors of Western power — that there is no third way between Islamist theocracies and sclerotic autocracies — as one WikiLeaks cable described the Ben Ali regime.

Democracy remains that third way.

Co-author Nasser Weddady is civil rights outreach director at the American Islamic Congress and co-editor of
Re-Orient, Palgrave Macmillan’s forthcoming anthology of essays by young Arab and Iranian reformers.