Tunisia: Exemplary lesson for kleptocratic dictators

Tuesday, 25 January 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Zeine al-Abidine Ben Ali until a few days ago, for more than 23 years, was dictator in chief of Tunisia. Now he is in exile in Saudi Arabia with his family. Ben Ali seized power in a ‘medical coup’ against his sick and ageing predecessor in 1987 and turned Tunisia into an even more repressive brutal police state. Now he is history.

The ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in Tunisia (Jasmine is the national flower) is the first time ever an Arab dictator in North Africa has been driven out by a popular uprising.

It is the Arab world’s first popular uprising in 50 years. The Internet, Facebook and Twitter played a major role in mobilising young Tunisians for the demonstrations and keeping people abreast with the fast breaking news, especially of Ben Ali’s abrupt departure.

Mohamed Bouazizi’s story

A young unemployed youth, Mohamed Bouazizi, one among thousands, who was unable to find a job consonant with his qualification, did the next best thing: He started a business. He rented a cart and brought some fruits and vegetables from a wholesale trader with some borrowed capital and started a retail business in a one of Tunis’ markets.

Things went well until the city’s municipal market inspectors came on one of their regular rent seeking raids. The young graduate trader refused to pay them a bribe, the inspectors assaulted him brutally and seized and took away his fruit and cart. Frustrated, the young man doused himself in petrol and set himself on fire in front of the Tunis Governor’s Office in protest. This was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.

Riots broke out against the repressive dictatorship of President Ben Ali. This made even more historic and stunning by the fact that Ben Ali was a military man, but he made the fatal error of distancing himself from the professional army and used a more politicised Special Presidential Police Force as his tool of choice for the brutal repression of the people of Tunisia, at the same time indulging in a particularly extreme type of venal crony capitalism to enrich his relatives and cronies. It is reported that McDonalds, of Big Mac fame, had decided not to invest in Tunisia as it was being compelled to have a sleeping partner from Ben Ali’s family!

An increasingly educated population, between half and two thirds are under the age of 25, was hostile to the Ben Ali kleptocracy. Economic hardship combined with high youth unemployment and food and fuel price inflation was the trigger that ignited the firestorm in an environment which was metaphorically tinder dry with frustration. Huge banners of Ben Ali’s face festooning Tunis’s streets are being torn down and burnt by angry crowds.

Day of reckoning

Dictators and autocrats the world over are pouring over the sequence of events which drove Ben Ali out and looking at their own states wondering whether the day of reckoning is around the corner. There have been copy cat self immolations in other Arab cities following Bouazizi’s example in Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania.

The ailing President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt is one such autocrat. He is trying to have his son Gamal succeed him. But Gamal is not a military man unlike the father and the Egyptian armed forces may not fall in line.

Egypt is a dictatorship, the President was last elected in 2005, and his opponent Ayman Nour was defeated as the incumbent Mubarak received 88% of the vote. Nour was jailed after losing the election. When Mubarak took power 30 years ago, 39% of Egyptians were in absolute poverty; today 43% are absolutely poor.

Populist uprisings

Populist uprisings against corrupt dictators are not something new to us in South Asia. The Nepali people did it successfully against their autocratic King. But they are having some difficulty in working out the system under which they wish to be governed subsequent to the King being ousted.

Afghanistan has done it repeatedly, albeit with the help of the USSR’s KGB, the CIA, Pakistan’s ISI and India’s RAW doing their bit also that was open civil war. They are still at it with a vengeance, this time with the US, NATO and Iran also involved.

The Burmese tried their hand in removing their military kleptocratic rulers, but were brutally put down. However, with their icon of democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, now being released from house arrest and given more political space, a possible peaceful revolution is being touted as a possibility. The rulings generals better think of Tunisia and move a little proactively, if they wish to get into exile alive!

Bangladesh was created through a people’s revolution, fuelled by a west Pakistani anti Bengali arrogance and India’s RAW’s unseen hand, led by the Durga Queen Empress Indira’s determination to dominate South Asia. That redoubtable lady got India involved in a somewhat similar fiasco in a neighbouring island, and big brother had to pull out, but the unfortunate Rajiv was sacrificed together with a large number of Jawans and officers of the Indian Army.

The place to watch

But in the short term North Africa is the place to watch. Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt Sudan, Ethiopia are vulnerable to popular eruptions. Colonel Gadaffi of Libya has said that the Tunisians were too hasty to get rid of Ben Ali. May be his throne too is heating up?

With worldwide food shortages being predicted, economic hardship might trigger people into the streets against dictators and even other rulers who cannot deliver goods and services at affordable prices to their people.

In most of these South Asian and North African countries, the only organised force with any capacity to maintain law and order and any semblance of an administration in the face of waves of civic unrest are the armed forces. Rulers do everything they can to feed the greed of the generals. But in times of economic hardship this may become a challenge.

The Tunisian Army had taken control of Tunis, the capital city, which for a few days had seen clashes between the ex presidents personal security force and the police. The Head of the Special Presidential Police, Ali Seriati, has been arrested.

Citizens had barricaded their areas and were checking vehicles entering. But those measures are now being dismantled with the Tunisian Army taking control. As virtually the only institution of government still intact, the Army will play a critical role in determining whether a new dictator or the first Arab democracy emerges in Tunisia. The Tunisian military is smaller, less political and more professional than others armies in the region.

Tunisia was an attraction for European tourists, who were being rescued and taken home in special charter flights set up by their governments. One positive aspect of the Tunisian developments, for our region, other than discouraging dictatorial tendencies among our leaders, may be that some of these holiday makers may now think of South Asian vacations. Every cloud has a silver lining.

Building democracy from dictatorship

A functioning democracy in a North African Arab state will be a real achievement. The latest news coming out of Tunis is that a national unity government has been announced, including opposition politicians and some members of the old regime. The view seems to be that this is the only way to avert a descent into chaos or military rule given that the popular uprising was essentially leaderless.

However, some opposition leaders in exile have kept out, objecting to any connection to the present constitution. They say that basing the transition on the current constitution to build a democratic system is a futile attempt to build democracy from dictatorship.

‘Only God can bring out life from death,’ they are of the view that Tunisia needs to put an end to the authoritarian system and start a new one. Whatever happens, it certainly looks like Tunisians are going to experience that old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times!” The world and dictators worldwide will be watching.

(The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years experience as a CEO in both government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)

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