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AFTER THE REFERENDUM: THE CHALLENGE FOR SOUTH SUDAN – Pages 10 -11
FEBRUARY 2011 N o 1102
THE ARAB WALL BEGINS TO FALL
The impossible happened
Political leaders often claim a situation is so complex that any attempt to change it would be disastrous. This is not always the case. After 9/11, President George Bush offered a clear choice: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” According to President Sarkozy, the choice in Tunisia was between a friendly dictator and “a Taliban-type regime in North Africa” (1). This suits both sides: a dictator can claim to be the last bastion against militant Islam, and the Islamists can claim that they alone oppose the dictator.
But if there is a social or democratic movement, and new players, the scenario suddenly changes. The embattled authorities look out for subversive activity among the protesters. If they find it, they exploit it. If not, they invent it.
In an interview with the Tunisian ambassador to Unesco, Mezri Haddad, on 13 January (the day before Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled), the opposition leader Nejib Chebbi criticised “development in which low pay provided the only comparative advantage in international competition” and “provocative displays of illicit wealth in the cities”, and claimed that “the people are all against the regime” (2). Haddad responded: “The people will ransack your fine house in La Marsa, that is what people do in societies where there is no fear of the police …
Ben Ali saved Tunisia from the fanatics and fundamentalists in 1987 … He must remain in power, come what may, because the country is under threat from the fanatics and their neoBolshevik allies.”
A few hours later, Haddad called on the man who “saved Tunisia” to stand down. On 16 January, Chebbi became the new minister for regional and local development. Revolution in Arab nations is rare but rapid. Less than a month after Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide drew attention to the grievances of unemployed graduates, the Trabelsi family houses in Carthage had been seized, political prisoners had been released and Tunis was full of peasants demanding the abolition of privileges.
The historic events in Tunis have a familiar, French Revolutionary feel. A spontaneous movement spreads, widely diverse social strata are brought together, absolutism is vanquished. At which point, there are two alternatives left: take your winnings and leave, or double your stakes. Generally, one section of society (the liberal bourgeoisie) tries to stem the flood; another (peasants, employees in dead-end jobs, unemployed workers, poor students) backs the tide of protest, in the hope that the ageing autocracy and the monopolists will be swept
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Freedom makes you giddy
Part way through a revolution, only one thing seemed certain in Egypt: there is no longer an Arab exception to the worldwide desire for dignity, human rights,
and possibly democracy
BY ALAIN GRESH
Hosni Mubarak’s decision to replace his cabinet and appoint a vice-president (Omar Suleiman, 74, head of army intelligence), something he had refused to do since he became president in 1981, had no effect on the hundreds of thousands of Egyptian demonstrators who want him to relinquish all power. His vague calls for dialogue with the opposition, and for economic and social reforms, were also ineffectual. The tension on Egypt’s streets did not abate.
Mustafa al-Fekki, head of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Egyptian parliament and a member of the ruling National Democratic Party, called on Mubarak to make “unprecedented reform” to avoid “a revolution”. He told Al Jazeera on 28 January: “The security option alone is not sufficient, and the president is the only one who can put an end to these events.” The heart of the establishment was visibly disintegrating, just as opposition spread to all classes and ages; even clerics from alAzhar, previously a pro-government institution, joined in the demonstrations.
All repression (100 deaths in four days), and extraordinary measures to detach 85 million people from the world (AFP said the shutdown of the internet was a world first) failed to deter the demonstrators. They went on shouting “Mubarak Must Go!”. Mubarak’s eventual promise to stand down in September looked unlikely to stop the protests.
Meanwhile thousands of people took to the streets in Jordan, Yemen, Algeria and Sudan, demanding that their countries follow Tunisia’s example. Each has a specific context: in Yemen, tensions between North and South; in Jordan, frictions between Transjordanians and Palestinians; in Sudan, the secession of the South (see Sudan’s south succeeds, page 10); in Egypt, the Coptic question. And yet they exploded because of the same longstanding problems and frustrations, the same shared aspirations.
The authoritarian regimes of the Middle East and North Africa failed to take their people into account.These regimes are – or rather, were – the Arab exception: regimes of an unprecedented and astonishing longevity that remained immune to the great wave of democratisation which has swept through eastern Europe, Latin America and Africa. Mubarak has ruled since 1982; Ali Abdallah Saleh has governed Yemen since 1978; Abdullah II has ruled Jordan since 1999, succeeding his father Hussein who came to the throne in 1952. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad replaced his father, who seized power in 1970; in Morocco,
Muhammad VI succeeded his father, crowned in 1961; in Libya, Ghadafi has ruled since 1969 (and is grooming his son to succeed him). Ben Ali had ruled Tunisia uninterrupted since 1987.
Irrespective of the differences between conditions in these countries, the personal and political rights, and freedom of expression, of their citizens had been systematically abused, often through the use of emergency laws that were kept in place for more than 30 years. The mukhabarat (secret police) remain allpowerful and ill treatment, torture and death in detention are not uncommon, in Egypt and beyond. WikiLeaks’ publication of cables from the US embassy in Cairo complaining of police brutality and detention of political dissenters only confirmed what we already knew. Iran was severely criticised for similar practices, but no one challenged Egypt’s status as loyal ally of the West. The Mubarak regime’s disregard for its citizens, with security forces ever-present, left them hungry for dignity and fed the revolt.
These regimes had grabbed not only political but economic power, and become predators of national riches, as in Tunisia. States that had been founded upon independence from colonial rule, and had promised basic protection, social welfare and education, rotted under the effects of corruption, globalisation and infitah (opening to the free market). Even access to university education, which in Egypt once opened the way to decent civil service jobs, no longer offered opportunities to the frustrated young, who watched nouveaux riches spend their wealth. A demographic increase put millions of the young on the job market, with no prospects other than emigration to the Gulf or Europe, neither of which could absorb the growing tide of unemployed.
The growth figures brandished by the champions of neoliberalism – Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan were often praised by international financial organisations – did not mask worsening poverty. In Egypt, social movements have been protesting for years with strikes, struggles by agricultural workers, and demos on the outskirts of the big cities, as in Tunisia (Gafsa), Jordan and Yemen. But never before had the demand for political change been openly and massively expressed.
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Alain Gresh is vice president of Le Monde diplomatique inside this issue Arab world on fire: fear is gone and repression is failing Page 3 Tunisia: why a revolution started here, and why it succeeded Page 4 Algeria: riots and demos by people tired of being poor in a rich country Page 6 Standoff in Ivory Coast: why the leadership contest continues Page 7
In need of electricity: Democratic Republic of Congo could supply Africa Page 8 Why Europe’s far right is becoming dangerously popular Page 12 Female voices: in the most improbable places, women are being heard Page 14 Last men standing: America’s footballers keep the flag flying Page 15
AMEL BENNYS – ‘The big Yes’ (2007)