Tunisia Shows the Way

Hasan Zillur Rahim

Posted Jan 17, 2011      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Tunisia Shows the Way

By Hasan Zillur Rahim

When the history of the downfall of Arab dictators is written – ten years, twenty years, even 50 years from now – one name will find an honored place in it: Mohammed Bouazizi of Tunisia.

The 26-year-old with a degree in computer science couldn’t find employment, a fate he shared with 200,000 fellow Tunisian graduates in a population of 10 million. Driven to despair, he tried to sell fruits and vegetables to make a living. The corrupt, repressive police arrested him for lack of a “license” to operate as a street vendor and repeatedly harassed and tortured him. Unable to cope with the indignity, he set himself on fire on Dec. 17, and died on Jan. 3.

The flame that consumed Bouazizi ignited a mass movement throughout the country as Tunisians gave vent to their pent-up feelings against the dictatorial regime of Zein el-Abidine Ben Ali.

For 23 years, Ben Ali and his family and cronies looted the treasury, building beachfront villas and taking a cut from every business while the young population (half of Tunisians are under 25) lived lives of deprivation. A ruthless network of enforcers and informers, drawn mostly from the ranks of the army and the police, kept the populace at bay.

But the self-immolation of Bouazizi changed the equation. Social networking sites, particularly Twitter, helped spread the word and the Jasmine revolution was underway.

The unthinkable happened, a first for the Arab world: Ben Ali and his entourage fled the country.

Tunisia has rarely been in the news in America. Occasionally we heard stories of how Ben Ali was our ally in the fight against terrorism and how Tunisia was a model of democracy. France was even more aggressive in propagating this lie because of its historical ties with the country.

The recent Wikileaks, however, revealed to the world what every Tunisian had known for years, that the regime of Ben Ali was corrupt and authoritarian beyond imagination.

But why did the U.S. go along with the status quo? For the same reasons that our country has gone along with gross human-rights violations in Arab countries: preference for sugarcoated stability to trumped-up threats of radical Islam.

All a dictator like Ben Ali had to do was dangle the specter of Muslim extremists taking over, and the United States turned to jelly. Consider how long some of the Arab dictators have been in power - Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi, 42 years, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, 33 years, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, 30 years – and ask yourself, “Is it that these countries have no worthier candidates than these aging autocrats who are already grooming their sons (never daughters!) to continue their dynastic decadence?”

The answer, of course, is no. But by running police states while keeping the United States happy with manufactured anti-terrorism crackdowns, the dictators continue to rule unchallenged. Thus, there are no new ideas in these countries, no innovations in education, science and technology, and no programs to meet people’s aspirations.

But the game is up. It may take years but business as usual in the Arab world has run its course. Could anyone predict only a few months back that an Arab dictator could be toppled by street riots and demonstrations? As Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The U.S. is showing signs that it is finally beginning to read the handwriting on the wall. In a visit to Qatar this month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Middle Eastern leaders that “in too many places, in too many ways, the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand … Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries’ problems for a little while, but not forever. If leaders don’t offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum. Extremist elements, terrorist groups and others who would prey on desperation and poverty are already out there, appealing for allegiance and competing for influence. So this is a critical moment, and this is a test of leadership for all of us.”

Lip service is easy. What is needed is action. Unless it aligns its foreign policy with its values instead of with political expediency, and starts recognizing the legitimate aspirations of the Arab populace, particularly the educated young, U.S. influence will dramatically shrink in the region.

There is no turning back. Tunisians have shown that they can write their own scripts. The Egyptians, Moroccans, Syrians, Jordanians and others have taken note. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech now has an Arab resonance and the “fierce urgency of now” has already begun to animate the Arab youth. Change is indeed afoot.