Tunisian revolt: An eye-opener

Tunisian university graduate Muhammad Bouazizi never dreamt he could provoke a revolt in his country when he set himself alight on December 17 last year to protest the lack of jobs and confiscation of the vegetable cart that provided him with a subsistence. Never in his wildest imagination could he have foreseen that his personal protest, which turned him into an Arab hero, would also threaten other deeply entrenched Arab regimes.

Since the Jan 14 overthrow of Tunisia’s President Zine al-Abdin Ben Ali, at least a dozen other men have followed Bouazizi’s example. They have committed self-immolation in Egypt, Algeria, Uriania, and, even, Saudi Arabia to protest their governments’ lack of commitment to the well being of the citizens. Their choice of suicide by incineration, rare in the Arab world, demonstrates the depth of desperation for reform in countries where any hint of dissent is routinely crushed.

The two incidents in Saudi Arabia were particularly significant because the monarchy has been backed since the 1930s by the conservative Sunni Muslim Wahhabi religious establishment and the tribes. Therefore, the monarch has, in the view of many Saudis, God’s sanction.

The US’ hypocrisy

It was hypocritical of US President Barack Obama to praise the Tunisian people for their “brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold” because Ben Ali’s internal security agencies had close connections with its US counterparts.

Thanks to security assistance from the US and other western powers, these agencies kept Ben Ali and his predecessor Habib Bourguiba in power since Tunisia gained its independence from France in 1956.

The Tunisian story continues to be written. Mass protests, supported by trade unionists, are taking place against the figures who have assumed power until elections can be held, notably interim Prime Minister Muhammad Ghannouchi and President Fouad Mebazza, the speaker of parliament who was elevated in accordance with the constitution. Tunisians not only want to topple all the senior figures in the Ben Ali regime but also to sweep from the scene the ruling Rally for Constitutional Democracy.

So far Palestinians have remained calm and quiet in the wake of the Tunisian evolution. But there could be demonstrations against the Palestinian Authority which administers enclaves in the West Bank following the revelation by al-Jazeera satellite television that the Palestinian leadership had agreed to cede to Israeli control of most of East Jerusalem, occupied in 1967, as well as to token repatriation of Palestinian refugees.

The Palestinian Authority is widely condemned for mismanagement and corruption. But there is the more important national dimension, the struggle against Israeli occupation.

The Palestinian leadership cannot be seen as conniving in the continuation of the occupation which has deprived Palestinians of self-determination, national expression, economic and political development, and the basic freedoms most other Arabs enjoy.

Demonstrations emulating the Tunisian protests have been held in Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt, and Libya. In response, the governments have been scrambling to mollify their citizens/subjects by offering them economic sops. Jordan, which gained independence under a British installed king in 1956, has announced a $125 million package of measures to offset rising prices and boost salaries. Kuwait, independent in 1961 under an emir, has offered citizens a payment of $4,000 and free food. Syria, ruled by the Assad family since 1970, has backed off the imposition of austerity measures.

Egypt promises reforms and the introduction of accountability in government. Yemenis, the poorest people in the Arab world, have focused on the arrest of a female activist from a Muslim fundamentalist party. But there protests arise from worsening economic conditions, a tribal revolt in the north, and a secessionist struggle in the south.

An economic summit of Arab leaders held at Sharm el-Shaikh last weekend came up with $2 billion to provide aid to challenged Arab regimes but this injection of funds could be too little too late. Some 40 per cent of Arabs live below the poverty line of $2 per day while their rulers dwell in marble palaces with gold taps in the bathrooms.

Until Arab rulers begin to take into account their subjects’ needs and demands they could be vulnerable to sparks igniting people’s power revolutions. No one can predict if, when and where revolts could happen and no force — particularly security forces trained and funded by the US, seen by many Arabs as their enemy — can ultimately contain people’s power if the people are prepared to demonstrate and die.

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