First thoughts on the overthrow of Ben Ali

In light of the overthrow of Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali this blogger was inspired to write a long and interested post on the meaning of the Tunisian rebellion. Then he got the flu. Readers will have likely gathered the general outline of events from Ben Ali’s departure from Tunis to Saudi Arabia (with loads of gold, no less), the set up of the Ghannouchi government and fast replacement by that of Fouad Mebazaa. Here are a few general thoughts on the nature of the current political arrangement, the police and militia problem, the role of the armed forces and the some general thoughts on the uprising itself. None of this is concerned with the impact of social media or WikiLeaks the impact of which has been exaggerated to no end by big media outlets and others (this is dealt with best by Issandr at the Arabist). Some parts of it were written at various parts of the weekend but were not posted due to inconsistent consciousness. As always, none of it is complete or total, and deeper and perhaps more interesting insight can be found variously by the Arabist, Nawaat, A Tunisian Girl, Brian Whitaker and others. This BloggingHeads episode between Issandr and Shadi Hamid will brief many better than much of which is in the Washington Post on the issue. (Just saying: Be wary of bad ideas leveraged by the Tunisian example for political points in the US.)

1. It is important to keep in mind that the organizing forces behind the interim government are drawn from the old system (the parliament is full of RCD members, for instance; this should be qualified by noting that there are divisions between military, which is a key driver at present, and the internal security forces which provided Ben Ali with much of his backing and are causing significant distress for many Tunisians currently, adding to this that members of the Family and their entourage have been arrested and even beaten) meaning that although Ben Ali was removed from power in a revolutionary fashion it remains to be seen if the country’s political leadership can (or) provide revolutionary change without further goading from the population. Ghannouchi represented this problem too obviously and his lack of legitimacy is likely a main reason he gave way to Mebazaa (who ought to have succeeded Ben Ali constitutionally, anyway). While the interim government invited only the parties recognized by the old regime to talks on forming a unity government — excluding parties like En-Nahda, the PCOT, CPR and so on — meaning that the organized parties that were heavily involved in the uprising have been excluded from this avenue of political development. The risk would seem to be that the stay behind elements of the old political class aim to preserve what they can of Ben Ali’s system without his poor taste. This perspective must be kept in mind at the same time as the street violence and reports of militia men moving through homes and hotels: there is no clear consensus reached at ground level and the Tunisian “revolution,” the first popular revolution in an Arab state, could be rolled back by slights of hand or turn into something very dark if competition between the armed factions becomes greater. A hybrid regime is a likely outcome of the current process. (The new national unity government can be seen here; note the defense, finance, foreign affairs remain the same as previously RCD loyalists hold most other important spots as well.)

2. The security forces’ crackdown quickly became a breakdown after Ben Ali made off. Reports of firearms spreading into the hands of ordinary people should be a cause for concern: the government previously had an almost total monopoly on these weapons and that they are spreading represents a troubling development that may be difficult to reverse later on and it may continue of violence continues as it does. Numerous reports of armed gangs of Ben Ali loyalists, many of them former police, have circulated on the Internet in recent days which is likely related to this. The rapid decline in the prestige of the police forces as a result of their handling of the protestors and the increase in the army’s could set up for more serious competition. Ben Ali, a long time operator in the security services, had favored the the police  to the military and it makes very good sense that his partisans are coming from the parts of the deep state he helped create and sustain. Through the whole crisis it is the Tunisian military and not the police that appear professional and worthy of some kind of public trust. A great many Tunisians view the military as having “saved” them from the police during the crisis, though some news reporting has translated this as some desire for military rule or guidance. One does not get that sense from talking to Tunisians or from viewing the Tunisians on Twitter or in web forums. In any case, a major task for a future Tunisian government will be restoring respect and professionalism to the police, making law and order legal — no small fix. The looting and gangsterism displayed by police and RCD party militias (this is how they have been described by  Tunisians and by news reports) represents fear of a loss of privilege and position one can expect to see if a similar overthrew took place in any of the other Arab countries. One wonders what sort of social base these people command (for perspective). As there are what appear to be elements interested in moving on from Ben Ali, and who are “cleaning up” some of the important enforcers from within the security services, their anxiety seems natural but no less unacceptable. Ordinary people have taken to setting up check points to guard entrance ways to neighborhoods which is in someways encouraging but in others represents many of the same problems associated with the police’s fragmentation.

3. The military has been reported to be a strong force in the moves taking place in the interim government and one should keep look out for personnel changes (promotions, retirements, etc.) in the military staff and the moves of Gen. Rachid Ammar (the army chief of staff) in particular. Rumors of a military take over were running rampant in the late stages of the uprising, many intimating a soft coup that would remove Ben Ali but allow the regime structure to survive. The military is also concerned the irresponsible levels of graft that took place under Ben Ali and one can imagine that, unless they too get addicted to honey, the military will be looking to push the new government toward concessions on openness and better governance, at the very least cosmetically. They will need to keep separate from Ben Ali and the police’s reputation for blood sucking (they have a head start in that Gen. Ammar does not resemble Dracula). The possibility of military government in Tunisia seems unlikely but a government with some military guidance will likely emerge if the security services and the powerful civilians attempt to regress excessively or, in particular, if the internal security services push back against the military for arresting members of the old ruling clique or criminal activity.

4. The spread and scope of the Tunisian unrest was remarkable in human and physical terrain. The demonstrations cut across class and geographic lines and a variety of political tendencies joined the protestors. But Islamists were hardly anywhere to be found. Communists, labor (UGTT) and other forces from the left and elsewhere were dominant organizational forces. Women participated in large numbers. Narrow, hierarchical Islamist factions may be on their way to co-opting the uprising but there is little evidence of that happening. The discourse between the street nad the regime was not about religion but about tangible economic and political issues. Political Islam was not a driving force in the Sidi Bouzid affair.  It is important to note that labor has played an increasingly important role in channeling and focusing popular discontent in Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria in recent years while organized Islamism has suffered from official repression and from a loss of popular credibility. What influence, for example, Rachid Ghannouchi can command among the masses in Tunisia remains to be seen.

5. In a region where autocracy is dominant, Tunisia was the cream of the crop: a country with close links to the west, a relatively prosperous economy and a government with full spectrum political domination over its people. It was among the most secure and politically passive states in the Arab region. Perhaps Ben Ali was unprepared to deal with a population that talked back: his first speech admonished his people, like children while his second sputtered out “concessions” that led to to his abdication in shorter and shorter intervals. This is a powerful image: an impotent dictator — whose last resort is to claim that he “did not know” he had become a dictator — stumbling with his back to the sea as thousands and thousands of young people tear down his cult of personality, burn his posters, climb the ramparts of his clients’ castles and putting an end to over two decades of his personal rule. What Arab youth doesn’t want to do these things in his own country? It is likely that the events in the wake of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-imulation will have repercussions in other Arab countries, emboldening activists and youth (they already lighting themselves on fire in Algeria and Egypt). It will also affect Arab regimes, who have watched Tunisia’s drama unfold closely. Ben Ali’s handling of the crisis was provocatively violent, with the police brutalizing and shooting at demonstrators and killing tens of people. The government came off as desperate and brittle and its responses invited only more outrage. Other regimes will likely seek to avoid Ben Ali’s mistakes. The Algerians, for example, drawing on their own experiences and the simultaneous Tunisian rising held the fire and officials kept quiet. By not speaking their leaders deprived youth of a visible and public target; by restraining police they netted fewer youth deaths which made their repression of the rioters more acceptable to outsiders and the elite.

The Tunisian case, with all its idiosyncrasies (the legacy of Bourguiba, secularism, its high rate of education and women’s rights) it represents something new in Arab politics that observers must continue to pay attention. Early on the Sidi Bouzid events were dismissed as bread riots and were not appreciated for they ended up being. This blogger was cautious, mostly for the same reason others were: things like this weren’t supposed to happen in countries like Tunisia. What was written here during the uprising happened only because it happened in the Maghreb (and because it seemed . . . strange). What should be very sad is if all the work Tunisians put into their intifada was hijacked by old party people and officers and put on course for rule by committees or strong men as has been the case following so many times before. The question remains: what will be done?

6 thoughts on “First thoughts on the overthrow of Ben Ali

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