Tunisia between Democracy and Anarchy

Tunisians woke Saturday morning to delirious joy at the advent of political liberty, but many worried about the simultaneous advent of social anarchy.

The fall of the government of dictator Zine al-Abedin Ben Ali after 23 years left behind a number of political and social vacuums. As for the security breach, it was gangs and Mafia that attempted to step into it. Friday afternoon and into the evening witnessed systematic looting in Tunis and in some other cities. Men in masks attacked civilians. Some Tunisians on the internet accused the police of going rogue. One tweeted, “many policemen have been arrested by the army, many gunshots around presidential palace.” Some tweets are calling the rogue police “counter-revolutionaries.”

Aljazeera says that cars with no license plates cruised the streets looking for opportunities for larceny. Helicopters dropped paratroopers in some towns to combat the looters. One Tunisian interviewed from a quarter of Tunis said, “There is complete disorder here. Families are afraid.” One eyewitness tweeted, “… what a night in Bourj Louzir, robbers still doing their things, and locals keep fighting them, at 3:45 am.” Some tweets report the formation of neighborhood ad hoc militias to patrol for safety. One warned that forming factious militias had been the downfall of Iraqis under US rule. (Iraq is thus a negative, not a positive, example for Tunisian oppositionists). The central train station and some supermarkets were set ablaze late Friday afternoon.

The interim president, Mohamed Ghannouchi, ordered the army on Friday afternoon to take control of the airport, and the military closed Tunisian air space. Aljazeera is reporting that members of the Trabelsi clan of Leila Ben Ali, the former first lady, were being arrested by security forces. Nepotism and corruption having to do with Madame Ben Ali had been a major theme in the popular protests.

A curfew was announced from six pm until six am.

As for the political crisis, Ghannouchi is seeking to form a government of national unity in preparation for the holding of new elections. He may reach out to opposition leader Najib Chebbi, who heads the Progressive Democratic Party. This moment is a dangerous one for Chebbi. If he joins the government and popular demonstrations bring it down, he will be seen not as an opposition leader but as a collaborator.

As it is, some Tunisians argue that the prime minister cannot take power (as Ghannouchi has) when the government has fallen. Only the speaker of parliament can do so, and then for only 45 days before there must be new elections. There were scattered demonstrations against Ghannouchi, seen as a Ben Ali ally and as too much a part of the old regime, around the country on Saturday morning, according to Aljazeera. Some tweets say that there will be a major demonstration against him in downtown Tunis on Saturday.

Opposition leader Munsif al-Marzouki demanded presidential and parliamentary elections “in the shortest time possible.” A Tunisian tweeted Saturday morning that al-Marzouki says he will be a candidate for president. Another said that he pledged that the revolution would continue and that Ghannouchi would be rejected.

Some observers are alleging that Wikileaks helped bring down the Tunisian government. A US embassy official in Tunis wrote in June, 2009, after meeting a member of the opposition,

‘ XXXXXXXXXXXX is extremely well respected and considered an upstanding member of the community. While we might doubt the veracity of some of the rumors that he shared with us, we have no reason to doubt his account of his conversation with President Ben Ali, in which he described the President as seeking a 50 percent stake in his private university. We routinely hear allegations of corruption, and such allegations are inherently difficult to prove. XXXXXXXXXXXX anecdote strikes us as credible. It is also significant in that it implicates Ben Ali himself, while so many other reported incidents of corruption involve his extended family.’

Demonstrators pointed to the cable this winter in denouncing Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali as corrupt, and the regime’s attempts to suppress the document led to crackdowns on the internet that further angered young people and the opposition. As Ben Ali fled the country on Friday, a protester tweeted, “I’m Tunisian, and i thank #Assange and #WikiLeaks for helping exposing the corruption in my country.” But another riposted, “the ppl who led the uprising in Tunisia knew nothing about #wikileaks. It was a hunger uprising – like French Revolution.” What can be said is that a similar spirit, of defiance of governmental authority, animates many of the revolutionaries in Tunisia as animates the Wikileaks volunteers.

Demonstrators in the southern city of Qabis invaded a government building and found and released documents of the police state.

But much will depend on which way the army goes, whether the officer corps decide they want more political openness or not. With all the hype about Wikileaks and Twitter, it should not be forgotten that most democratic transitions succeed only because the military allows them to or splits and becomes too divided to intervene.

Posted in Tunisia | 10 Responses | Print |

10 Responses

  1. Astonishing who the U.S. continues to choose as its allies in the Islamic world in the War on Terror. Any wonder they’re losing?

  2. Obviously a very fluid situation (like alot of revolutions I suppose) so the best we can do on the outside is simply to make vague observations.

    1) I would say it is obvious that police forces have been doing some of the looting. Fits in with Counter-Revolutionary tactics, the several different reports of looters travelling in unmarked cars also seems credible. Also if you looked at any footage from Al Jazeera of the riots you can clearly see plain-clothes police officers beating protesters, it looks like they infiltrated the protesters (one of the police officers dressed as a protester was wearing the famous checkered Palestinian scarf as he beat a young man on the floor with a baton).

    2) Doubt the military will give up power to the protesters without either a show of force by the protesters or mass desertions by the Army. This revolution promises to frighten other regimes in the region and the military will probably be under pressure from neighbouring countries to get control back.

    3) Viva Tunisia and the protesters for showing us all how to bring down corrupt governments :D

  3. The question that should concern the USA at this moment is: Why all Arab nations celebrate the fall of Tunisian dictator and did not celebrate the fall of Iraqi’s? The answer should also be clear of how this change came to place!
    Auburn, AL

  4. With all the hype about Wikileaks and Twitter, it should not be forgotten that most democratic transitions succeed only because the military allows them to or splits and becomes too divided to intervene.

    Getting to be maybe even true of and applicable to our own “democracy?” Follow the progress of the long interpenetration of the War Lovers and War Industries and our Republic’s Elected and Appointed Leaders and politicization of the US MIC and general officer corps and “service academies?” All those gluttonous eaters of Real Wealth? I wonder if the rank and file GIs who profess their love for Freedom and Liberty and sign up to Protect the Homeland and Their Families and recite that “oath” to support and defend the Constitution will, when putsch comes to shove, place that “obey all orders” thingy ahead of the other phrase.

    Here’s what OFFICERS swear or affirm or aver:

    “I, (state your name), having been appointed a (rank) in the United States (branch of service), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the office upon which I am about to enter. So help me God.” [Scalia’s Constitution, or Jefferson’s and Adams’s?]

    Nothing about “obeying orders.” A little different take from what the enlisted yokels have to say (which they usually do en masse in a large room with other guys who are a little nervous about what they are getting into or are itching to get their hands on REAL guns and Go Light Up Some Hajjis to Even The Score For 9/11:

    “I, (state your name), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

    You, the guy with the battle gear on and boots on the ground, got to go to secondary sources to learn that “obey the orders” only includes, supposedly, “lawful” orders, and that you might have the “duty” to disobey “unlawful” orders (not consistent with the Uniform Code of Military Justice, written by guess who?) As pointed out in thousands of places, ‘Military discipline and effectiveness is built on the foundation of obedience to orders. Recruits are taught to obey, immediately and without question, orders from their superiors, right from day-one of boot camp.’

    So what happens if there’s a Seven Days In May kind of crisis, or some concatenation of failings in our economic and political hierarches, or maybe just that butterfly’s OOooohh, They-have-a-stealth-jet wingbeat in Peking, that rises to the level of a critical failure of the sense of “government” legitimacy? Or one of these? link to en.wikipedia.org

    Don’t think for a minute that our War Planners in the War College have not gamed all this out. link to youtube.com! Remember, the MIC runs on MONEY and OIL and you have a huge number of people who will obviously do anything to protect their careers and retirements and power and the source that feeds that insatiable mindset that has to define everything in terms of threats and force structures and power projections and daily increasing the lethality of all those War toys…

    And about all we ordinary creators of Real Wealth can do is sit back, stay low, and try not to be enslaved or crushed by the Juggernaut…

  5. Mr. Cole, thank you for continuing to write articles that are so intuitive and informative. I just wanted to say that I appreciate your thoughts and discussions.

  6. Given how fast things are moving, can we get an update, Juan? It seems the Speaker of Parliament is the leader now. Any insights?

    • This shows that things are moving very fast. As one Tunisian commentator said on al-Jazeera “we had three leaders in 50 years, but now we have had three leaders in a single day”.

      However, as Juan has rightly pointed out, this is a very delicate situation and the country is poised between democracy and anarchy. Crowds have prevented some members of Ben Ali’s family from fleeing the country and they have already killed his wife’s nephew. They have set fire to the railway station in Tunis and scores of other buildings, especially those belonging to Ben Ali and his family have been looted and destroyed. Although understandably emotions are running very high, this is the time for the friends of Tunisia to urge caution. It is difficult to believe now that the Iranian revolution was initially progressive and called for greater freedom and democracy, but during the subsequent chaos it was hijacked by the clerics and resulted in a theocracy.

      Some people seem to downplay the possibility of the Islamists taking power. Like most countries that have suffered from pro-Western secular dictatorships Islam seems to provide a welcome alternative, and religion has deep roots in all Islamic countries.

      What should also alarm other Arab countries is that demonstrations are continuing for a second day both in Cairo and in Jordan. The events in Tunisia could have made a breach in the dam of Arab frustration and anger and it may engulf many other Arab countries. That could be a welcome development only if it leads to more freedom and democracy.

  7. I question why anyone reading the wikileaked cables would interpret it as a evocative contributor, instead of recognizing within it’s contents the statement of U.S. interests, and further investigating the potential of U.S. supported / funded involvements. Investigating AFRICOM influences, for example, and if there is any connection therein to the odd behaviour of the Tunisian military as events have unfolded (did not defend outgoing leader). Especially as repeat mention of targeting youth, massaging cultural influences, and access to technologies is stated as an explicit concern in the leaked cables. Too, the liberalization of the telecommunications sector is rather a recent development, and may be cited as contributing far more to recent events than the wikileaks cable release…

  8. The simplest definition of a revolution is the overthrow of a government by those who are governed.

    But that doesn’t mean much at the grassroots unless the overthrow is accompanied by a significant change in policy. (You won’t change the flavor if you don’t change the recipe.)

    Judging by last year’s events in Honduras, the Obama administration will seek to maintain the hegemony of the Tunisian oligarchy.

  9. From your fellow historian, Barbara Tuchman:

    “Every successful revolution puts on in time the robes of the tyrant it has deposed.”

    And as regards the most recent American “revolutionary” presidential election, the putting-on of the previous tyrant’s robes took hardly any time at all.

    Just a cautionary note …

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