Uprising brings joy to Tunisia – and fear to the region's autocrats
One man's suicide sparked a nationwide uprising, and now other repressive regimes across the Arab world can see the seeds of their own destruction in the burnt-out buildings of Tunis
By Elaine Ganley and Bouazza Ben Bouazza in Tunis and David Randall and Maryrose Fison in London
Sunday, 16 January 2011
Buildings burned, army snipers fired from rooftops, other gunfire sounded sporadically across the capital, and at least 42 were killed when a prison was torched, as Tunisia yesterday teetered between continued violent chaos and the first faltering steps towards a possible new start. Other regimes in North Africa and the Arab world looked on with some trepidation lest, as many predict, Tunisia's unrest should help foment a similar end to their lengthy and undemocratic rule.
The unseating by popular uprising of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years of repressive rule and pocket-filling is virtually unprecedented in a region where democracy is a concept rather than a reality, economic hopelessness is widespread, and militant Islam a potent force. Yesterday, in the wake of Mr Ben Ali's sudden departure, Arab activists celebrated, thousands of messages congratulating the Tunisian people flooded the internet on Twitter, Facebook and blogs, and many people replaced their profile pictures with red Tunisian flags.
One Egyptian human rights activist, Hossam Bahgat, said he hoped that his countrymen could do the same some day. "I feel like we are a giant step closer to our own liberation. What's significant about Tunisia is that literally days ago the regime seemed unshakable, and then eventually democracy prevailed without a single Western state lifting a finger." On Friday, activists opposed to President Hosni Mubarak's three-decade regime in Cairo chanted a reference to the Tunisian's president's airborne exile: "Ben Ali, tell Mubarak a plane is waiting for him, too."
Analysts certainly saw Tunisia as potentially a trigger for uprising in other countries in the region. Jean-Paul Pigat, of Business Monitor International, said yesterday: "Looking at the conditions that are necessary for unrest, it becomes clear that Egypt certainly ticks many of the boxes. Food-price inflation in Egypt is among the highest in the entire region, and the impact of food-price inflation on possible unrest should never be downplayed."
And Dr Maha Azzam, an associate fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, at Chatham House, said: "Tunisia has started a momentum that is going to be difficult to hold back. Certainly we are going to see turmoil in Egypt. I think it will come to a head with the presidential elections in September, but something could occur before this. Obviously we have to keep in mind that the level of security is very, very high in Egypt."
Another factor there is the limited use of social and internet media, compared with Tunisia. According to Professor Emma Murphy, of the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University: "One quarter of Tunisians use Facebook. In Egypt there is a larger population, they are less well educated, they are not internet-connected, not watching Al Jazeera, they are watching state television. Whereas the Tunisians are very homogeneous, Egypt is a more complicated and diffuse place."
Some experts thought it telling that the Tunisian crisis was spontaneous and had no obvious architect or central guiding force. A Beirut-based commentator, Rami Khouri, said: "It marks the end of acquiescence and docility among masses of ordinary Arab citizens who had remained remarkably complacent for decades in the face of the mounting power of Western-backed Arab security states and police- and army-based ruling regimes."
The baton of revolution may take some time to be passed, particularly since, as Sir Richard Dalton, former British ambassador to Libya and Iran pointed out, other regimes "will not have the squeamishness about suppression with violence that the Tunisians showed". Tunisia's popular movement was being compared in several quarters yesterday to that in Poland, where a 1989 popular movement instigated freedom in Eastern Europe. But that process took many months, and was seeded in very different ground, as yesterday's chaotic events in Tunis demonstrated.
Soldiers and police exchanged fire with assailants in front of Tunisia's Interior Ministry, and snipers could be seen on the roof. The skirmish came soon after Tunisia swore in a new interim president. He is Fouad Mebazaa, the 77-year-old former president of the lower house of parliament, who swiftly ordered the creation of a unity government that could include the opposition, ignored under Mr Ben Ali's autocratic rule.
Mr Mebazaa, in his first move after being sworn in, seemed intent on reconciliation and calming tensions. In his first televised address, he said he had asked the Prime Minister to form a "national unity government in the country's best interests" in which all political parties will be consulted "without exception or exclusion".
The leadership changes came at a dizzying speed. Mr Ben Ali left abruptly on Friday night for Saudi Arabia, where he is now holed up in the small city of Abha, 310 miles south of Jeddah. Some of his family were said by the interim regime in Tunisia to be under arrest, and the French government says family members resident there "are not welcome in France and are leaving". None of these relatives was named.
Mr Ben Ali's long-time ally, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, then stepped in briefly with a vague assumption of power. But on Saturday, Constitutional Council President Fethi Abdennadher declared the President's departure was permanent and gave Mr Mebazaa 60 days in which to organise new elections. Hours later, Mr Mebazaa was sworn in.
It was unclear who might emerge as the main candidates for power in a post-Ben Ali Tunisia. The autocratic leader had utterly dominated politics for decades, placing his men in positions of power and sending opponents to jail or into exile. It was also not clear how far Mr Mebazaa would go in inviting the opposition into the government. He has been part of the ruling apparatus for years, including leading parliament for two decades.
Amid the official to-ings and fro-ings, a fire at a prison in the Mediterranean resort of Monastir killed 42 people, and inmates staged a mass breakout. Sporadic gunfire was also heard in Tunis. Black smoke billowed over a giant supermarket as looters torched and emptied it. Shops near the main bazaar were looted. There were also a number of drive-by shootings.
As night fell, suburban neighbourhoods were being guarded from looters by impromptu militias formed by residents armed with clubs and knives. Later, there were reports that Mr Ben Ali's head of security had been arrested. However matters turn out, yesterday there was a palpable air of achievement among the protesters. Hamdi Kriaa, an accountant from Tunis, told the BBC: "We are living through special days, historic days. Yesterday I was protesting in front of the Interior Ministry together with some 10,000 people. The sensation was incredible. We are very proud to be Tunisian because we showed the whole world that we want to live in freedom."
Tunisian airspace reopened yesterday, but some flights were cancelled and others left after delays. Thousands of tourists were still being evacuated from the Mediterranean nation, known for its sandy beaches, desert landscapes and ancient ruins. Most, if not all, of the 3,000-odd Britons holidaying in the country are now expected to have arrived home.
Tourism is vital to Tunisia and is one of the reasons why Mr Ben Ali's country did not seem especially vulnerable to uprising until very recently. He managed the economy of his small nation of 10 million better than many other Middle Eastern states, turning Tunisia into a beach haven for tourists. Growth last year was at 3.1 per cent, but unemployment was officially measured at 14 per cent, and was far higher – 52 per cent – among the young.
But there was a lack of civil rights and little or no freedom of speech, and all it took to ignite the unrest was an educated but jobless 26-year-old committing suicide in mid-December after police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling without a permit. His desperate act hit a nerve, sparked copycat suicides and focused general anger against the regime into an outright revolt. He was the touch-paper for Tunisia. Will that country now be a fuse for other countries in the region?
Eyewitness accounts: 'Snipers pointed their guns down on us'
Lizzy Roe, 18, from Epping, Essex, is due to marry her Tunisian fiancé in two weeks: "They got my fiancé. He's in hospital now in a wheelchair. Where we live was safe, but in the towns there are people lying dead in the streets. There are people with half their heads missing. I didn't want to leave my fiancé, but I was told I had to come home."
Natasha Kent, in her 20s, from Wembley: "We wanted to stay but when we heard the petrol station go up, we wanted out. We hadn't left our hotel for four days. We were under curfew after dark. I went out once and was told by an army officer to go back. There was army everywhere."
Ross Wiseman, from Sunderland, was less than 36 hours into his holiday when he and his family were brought home: "On the journey to the airport there were armed soldiers on the streets, and that was intimidating. You could see the snipers on the top of buildings with their guns pointing down on us. But even though this has happened I would definitely go back. It was one of the nicest and most friendly places I have ever been to."
Patrick Cockburn: Troubles like these are brewing all over the Middle East
Is it a real revolution in Tunisia or will another member of the ruling elite succeed in replacing President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali who took flight yesterday?
It is a crucial question for the rest of the Arab world where other corrupt police states face the same political, social and economic problems as Tunisia.
A striking feature of the whole Middle East for more than 30 years has been the unpopularity of the regimes combined with their depressing ability to stay in power. Most have found ways of preventing revolutions or military coup d'etats through ferocious security services protecting rickety state machines that mainly function as a source of jobs and patronage.
In Tunisia, Mr Ben Ali, along with other Arab leaders, presented himself as an opponent of Muslim fundamentalism and therefore won tolerance if not plaudits in Western capitals.
But the revolution that is brewing across the Middle East is of a traditional model springing from high unemployment, particularly among better educated young men, and a ruling class unable to resolve any of their countries' economic problems. The most obvious parallel with Tunisia is Egypt where the sclerotic regime of President Hosni Mubarak clings to power.
Will the present so-called "soft coup" work whereby Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi takes power and calms down protesters by promises of reform and elections? It does not look very likely. The declared State of Emergency is not working. There is not reason to suppose that a political leader so closely associated with the old regime will have any credibility with people in the streets.
Conditions vary across the Arab world but there is plenty in common between the situation in Tunisia and that in Algeria, Jordan and Egypt. Economic and political stagnation is decades old. In some states this is made more tolerable by access to oil revenues, but even this is not enough to provide jobs for educated youths who see their path blocked by a corrupt elite.
There are echoes of the Tunisian crisis in other countries. In Jordan the security forces have been battling rioters in Maan, a traditional site of unrest in the past where the government has difficulty coping. In Kuwait there was an attack by security forces in December on academic and members of parliament. Food prices have been going up.
Yet all these regimes that are now in trouble had a carefully cultivated image in the west of being "moderate" and anti-fundamentalist. In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, President George Bush and Tony Blair made much of their democratic agenda for the Middle East, but when one of the few democratic elections to take place in the region produced victory for Hamas among the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank, the US did everything to thwart the outcome of the poll.
The Middle East still has a reputation for coups but a striking feature of the region since the early 1970s is how few of the regimes have changed. The forces behind the Tunisian events are not radically new but they are all the more potent for being so long suppressed.
Western governments have been caught on the hop because explosions of social and economic frustration have been long predicted but have never happened. The extent of the uprising is yet to be defined and the Tunisian army evidently hopes that the departure of Mr Ben Ali may be enough for the government to restore its authority. The generals could be right, but the shootings over the last month failed to work. There is no particular reason why the same tactics should start to work now.
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Hundreds of soldiers manned the streets of the Tunisian capital today where the prime minister was meeting opposition parties to try to form a coalition after protests swept the president from power.
In a dramatic climax to weeks of violent protests against his rule, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia's president for more than 23 years, fled to Saudi Arabia on yesterday and Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi took over as caretaker president.
Tunisia: Gang violence mars celebration of popular uprising
The sudden flight of ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has left a mood of confusion and fear. Soldiers and tanks controlled central Tunis but armed gangs continued to loot and burn amid fears that the ex-dictator's militia were behind the violence
As hundreds of soldiers and tanks locked down a deserted central Tunis today, the debris on the city's main avenue told the story of a brutal repression which some feared had not come to an end.
Amid the teargas cartridges, smashed-up shops and scorched pavements lay a sea of strewn shoes: one left flip-flop, a pair of torn baseball boots, a woman's fluffy slipper, a shiny black brogue. They had been left by people fleeing as police charged them, or dragged and beat them, during the peaceful protests that toppled the region's most repressive despot.
Tunisia, the small Maghreb country famed for low-cost package holidays and miraculous economic progress, made history this weekend when a spontaneous people's uprising toppled Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the president who had ruled for 23 years and was today in exile in Saudi Arabia. Members of his family failed to join him with prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi confirming reports that several relatives had been arrested as they tried to leave the country. He did not say who they were, but described the arrests as a "provisional measure".
Tunisia's population of 10 million people, known for their high levels of education and civic pride, became the first people in the Arab world to take to the streets and oust a leader.
While the second interim president in 24 hours – Fouad Mebazaa, a figure from the dictator's regime – moved to form a hurried temporary coalition government, bringing in the opposition politicians who had been repressed, jailed and weakened under Ben Ali's rule, a mood of trepidation, confusion and fear for safety tempered the joy of the "Jasmine revolution".
In the capital, Tunis, and other areas of the country, residents reported knife-wielding and balaclava-clad gangs attacking flats and houses. Organised groups were said to be attacking shops and factories. Many had piled into stolen hire cars and careered around the city and suburbs, stopping only to smash and burn. One young lawyer who hastily left his office in the centre of Tunis for the quieter southern suburbs said: "There's complete confusion and everyone is trying to understand who is behind this, whether it's Ben Ali's militia clinging on. Yes, there has been isolated looting of shops. But the gangs seem organised; they are inciting thieves.
"They seem to be making trouble to convince public opinion that things were better under the dictatorship. Joy has turned to extreme caution and fear for people's safety."
Throughout the day, sporadic gunfire was heard in Tunis, while the main train station was torched and smoke billowed over a supermarket as it was burned and emptied. Groups of Tunisia's notoriously brutal plain-clothes police, described as a kind of "north African Stasi", barricaded the Avenue Bourguiba near the Interior Ministry and stood guard on corners swinging clubs and batons. More than 40 people died in a fire at a prison in Monastir. One Tunisian prison director let 1,000 inmates escape after protests.
As military helicopters hovered over Tunis and soldiers manned checkpoints on roads out of the city, intellectuals wondered how great a role the army was playing behind the scenes and whether there was a standoff between them and the police.
"We don't know if the army are in total control; we don't understand if there are altercations between security forces or if there could be an insurrection," said Sana Ben Achour at the offices of the democratic women's movement.
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The failure of governance in the Arab world
Protests in Tunisia and Algeria are part of a rising tide of popular dissatisfaction with illiberal, unreformed Arab rule
The official response to unrest on Tunisia's streets comes straight out of a tyrant's playbook: order the police to open fire on unarmed demonstrators, deploy the army, blame resulting violence on "terrorists" and accuse unidentified "foreign parties" of fomenting insurrection. Like other Arab rulers, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali seems not to know any better. For this murderous ignorance, there is less and less excuse.
The trouble started last month when Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, an unemployed graduate, set himself on fire outside a government building in protest at police harassment. Bouazizi's despairing act – he died of his injuries last week – quickly became a rallying cause for Tunisia's disaffected legions of unemployed students, impoverished workers, trade unionists, lawyers and human rights activists.
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Anonymous has joined Tunisian activists to call for end to the government's stifling of online dissent.
Violent clashes continue in Tunisia
Protests over unemployment continue to spread across the country as the government forces try to curb growing unrest.