by Zafar Bangash (Editorials, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 12, Safar, 1432)
The Tunisian dictator, General Zine el-Abidin Ben Ali has been driven from power. The leaderless uprising that forced his departure has been dubbed a “revolution” and Ben Ali’s flight has aroused hopes among people in the Middle East that they too can get rid of their dictators, most of them aging and in power for far too long.
The Tunisian dictator, General Zine el-Abidin Ben Ali has been driven from power. The leaderless uprising that forced his departure has been dubbed a “revolution” and Ben Ali’s flight has aroused hopes among people in the Middle East that they too can get rid of their dictators, most of them aging and in power for far too long. Conditions in almost all Middle Eastern countries are virtually identical to Tunisia: corrupt dictatorial regimes, high levels of unemployment, rising prices and a widening gap between the rich and poor. So what enabled the Tunisians to get rid of their dictator who ruled with an iron-fist backed by a vast network of spies as well as the West that people elsewhere in the Middle East have not been able to achieve? The simple answer is that the Tunisian army chief, General Rachid Ammar refused to order his troops to open fire on demonstrators when asked by Ben Ali to do so. This created a crisis within the ruling circles forcing Ben Ali’s departure. There is speculation that the ousted Tunisian dictator and his thieving family, currently ensconced in Jiddah, might end up in Canada! Some, like his son-in-law Sakhr el-Materi, already owns a huge mansion in Montreal and five of his relatives arrived in the city on January 20 causing much unease among the Tunisian community in Canada.
Let us get the facts straight. While the dictator has fled, the uprising in Tunisia is not a revolution; it is only a change of faces. The old oppressive system is still intact even if some cosmetic changes have been made, fortunately seen for what it is by the protesters who refuse to give up. They continue to demand the dismantling of the ruling Destourian Party structure that controls virtually every facet of life in society. Many of the old guard are still entrenched in the corridors of power despite announcement by the interim President Fouad Mabezza and Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi that they have resigned from the party. The 180,000-strong police force and thousands of intelligence agents crawling the country that served the old regime are also still in their posts. Protesters continue to be fired upon and not all political prisoners have been released. Amnesty for political prisoners announced by the interim prime minister does not extend to members of the banned al-Nahda Party that offers the only genuine alternative to the entrenched system. The legal opposition parties and trade unions were all co-opted by the old regime to serve its interests. They may have gained a little more space to operate in the present environment but it is unrealistic to expect much from them. They are interested only in getting into power. True, if they come to power, initially they may be slightly better than Ben Ali’s brutal regime but it is unrealistic to expect a radical departure from the oppressive past.
Hopes aroused for the quick departure of other Middle Eastern dictators are also unfounded. Opposition parties in those societies are even more disorganized and offer no credible alternative to the entrenched systems. While the aging dictators are rightly worried because their rule is built on shaky foundations, it will take more than a few protesters setting themselves on fire à la Tunisia to usher in meaningful change. Rhetoric, however, attractive, is no substitute for action. Unfortunately people in the Middle East are prone to getting carried away by their own rhetoric. Besides, the US (and the West) has more at stake in places like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia than it did in tiny Tunisia (population 10 million) sandwiched between Libya and Algeria. So the fight for these countries will be much harder and bloodier. Control of Egypt and Jordan is important for the protection of the Zionist State of Israel. Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam and who controls it can have profound impact on the entire Muslim world. This is not to suggest that these countries are immune to change; only that change will not come about so easily despite massive protests in Egypt on January 25.
Meanwhile, the situation in Tunisia remains fluid. With protests continuing and the ruling Destourian Party in retreat, a military coup cannot be ruled out. Further, what steps are taken to organize elections and the rules under which they will be held will also affect developments. The most crucial player in Tunisia remains the banned al-Nahda Party whose infrastructure was completely dismantled and whose members in the thousands were imprisoned, exiled or killed. Many still remain in jail despite the “amnesty”. Al-Nahda leadership is trying to project a softer image, talking about plurality, working with other political parties and issuing assurances to the West, especially Europe that it will act responsibly and protect the West’s interests. This is problematic. Al-Nahda’s responsibility is to the people of Tunisia; its role should not be to serve the interests of the West. Perhaps its leadership feels it has little choice in the present circumstances. Unless it offers a clear alternative to the people, it risks becoming another political party with an Islamic tag, much like the Jamaat-e Islami in Pakistan. That would be a pity because.
al-Nahda has the potential to offer a genuine alternative that can make a clean break with the past and the oppressive system that is currently in place.