From Tunisia to ‘the Arab world’: anger, dangers and progress



Ever since the evening of 14 January and the announcement of the unexpected departure of President Ben Ali, putting an end to his 23 years of absolute rule, in the midst of a shameful flight which reduced him to the rank of a bank robber, the world has been paralysed by the tidal wave which has hit – or seems to be hitting – the Arab world.


The press always likes simple ideas and empty slogans. In the vast majority of cases it is crowing over the legend and the future of the so-called ‘Jasmine Revolution’ which, it tries to persuade us, should not see the people deprived of its benefits. This is a curious romanticism of the barricades which holds that everything going on in the street is good, just and, so to say, sacred.  It is important to recall that, putting aside the notable exceptions of the French and American revolutions, in the past 250 years the people everywhere and always, especially in the ‘third world’ has been deprived of the fruits of the sacrifices to which it agreed to turn out a hated regime.  In comparison, the path which led from 1789 to 1871 was long, painful and bloody


It is hard to see what divine force or new rule will cause things to turn out differently in Tunisia.


Always courageous when the winds of fortune turn against them, the political class is fleeing in closed ranks. It suffices for one to re-read several pages written by the titans Winston Churchill and General de Gaulle to be persuaded that there is a nearly absolute rule in play here; regrettably they don’t have political and moral heirs. Ben Ali?  Did you say Ben Ali ? Don’t know him. Never met him ! We always distrusted him. Or : no, I didn’t know.


Yesterday, Ben Ali was the ’friend’ of many European countries (and not just of France!). Today, we celebrate the departure of the Tyrant. If he had the slightest illusions about human nature, Mr. Ben Ali was obliged to shed them in several minutes during the evening of 14 January. The socialists were not the least ludicrous: the Socialist International excluded Ben Ali and his nearly monopolistic party the day after his fall from power (before that would have been impolite, even risky…) and, since then they preach to the city and the world far-reaching moral lessons, rendering severe judgment on the ‘support’ formerly given to a ‘dictator.’


Neither Tunisia nor the ‘Arab world’ and its problems merit this blindness and this cowardice.


Mr. Ben Ali was certainly not the greatest democrat that our planet has seen, but he was certainly not the depraved dictator described today: he modernised his country, protected and developed the rights and freedom of women, educated young people and created a robust middle class. Although it may displease the editorialists of the Left Bank to hear it, his deposition was not because he flouted the intellectual liberties of some folks (including many living in the mirages of the same Left Bank), but because he allowed the criminal clan of his second wife, the Trabelsi – nicknamed in Tunis the ‘Sopranos,’ for reasons you can imagine! – to control the economy like racketeers and pillages its social base; the middle classes. And then, of course, he engaged in too much propaganda, was too grotesque in staging popular loyalty, became too remote from reality. And there was too much hogra, that Arab word which can be translated as contempt and which depicts the feeling often felt by the Arabs towards their masters. But it is a contempt which leads to despair.


The worst is never certain (but, in the end, it occurs frequently) and the most likely to happen in Tunisia is that the political Islam of Mr. Rachid Ghannouchi and his ‘Muslim Brotherhood’  take the lion’s share in the months to come.


Compared to the former accomplices of the President, now recycled in an almost ludicrous manner into ‘resistance fighters,’ compared to a legal opposition which is poorly organised and discredited after having played the stooges of the authorities, the Islamists are the only ones able to boast that since independence they never were associated with the authorities and its mistakes, either near or far. This ‘purity’ (which, of course, is only an illusion, as we will discover when they come to power…) and the climate prevailing in the Arab-Muslim world should pay off handsomely for them.


There is, to be sure, one unknown factor: Tunisian society is profoundly secular and that is to the credit of Mr. Ben Ali, who continued the intelligent and enlightened policy of the father of independence, Habib Bourguiba. Therefore, it has no doubt great capacity to resist the fundamentalist adventure. In any case, that is what we hope for.


But from Tunisia, the malaise is said to be spreading to the entire Arab world, as the events in Cairo seem to prove. Once again, the editorialists take the stage; put Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen and Lebanon in your inkwell, stir well and what comes out is always a strong idea that will let you hold forth for a couple of minutes on the television screen.


Indeed, there is a crisis in the Arab world, or rather several crises.


Certain countries, like Morocco or the Gulf States, have built upon a legitimate government (but often reviled by our blind and simplistic press) which is recognised as such by the vast majority of their population, what may be called solid regimes – even though they are no impervious to crises or revolutions. Other countries have sown the seeds of violence.  


One thinks of Algeria, which could be the richest country in Africa and but instead finds itself in the hands of a contemptible kleptocracy. One thinks of Lebanon and of Iraq, the hostages of Iran and of its local clients (encouraged by our betrayals and our errors). One thinks of Yemen, worn down by tribalism and the incompetence of its rulers.


Everywhere the crisis threatens. Everywhere the crisis is there, with its violent temptations and dramas which can result therefrom, and which will be still worse than the injustices they claim to correct, as we saw in Iran in 1979. 


But everywhere as well men and women, intellectuals and simple and honest people are fighting with difficulty for social and intellectual progress – which does not at all mean that they want to copy in a servile manner our Western model which has its own limits – and to bring the Arab world into the modern age. Sometimes they are (often discreetly) supported by the authorities; sometimes these same authorities fight against them.


We must reject simple ideas which can only give rise to complicated and insoluble situations and remind ourselves that, as De Gaulle said, ‘the East is complicated.’ And he went on to say:  ‘I knew that in the midst of confused factors, an essential party was operating. That’s what one must be.’


© ESISC 2011




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