[ed note: The author worked in Tunisia circa 1990. He managed the administrative, financial, and organizational issues of a University of Toronto project at the museum of Carthage, Tunisia, under the direction of Dr. Vanda Vitali.]
"O tempora o mores!"
(Swans - January 17, 2011) ACCORDING TO the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the price of food staples like corn, milk, oilseeds, sugar, wheat, and meats has risen 36 percent in recent months. The FAO food price index, which was created in 1990, reached 223 * points in December 2010, surpassing the peak of 213.5 points that occurred in June 2008 and provoked food riots in various countries around the world. Violent protests have erupted in the Maghreb, in several Algerian cities and regions, as well as in the south of Morocco. Other protests have taken place in Egypt and Jordan. In Senegal, according to the weekly magazine Jeune Afrique, the price of butane, used for cooking, has jumped 30 percent; flour has almost doubled in a matter of months; electricity, forty percent in a few years, with daily shortages; the unemployment rate could be as high as 30 to 40 percent, particularly among the youth. In Ghana, my African brother Femi Akomolafe tells me that electricity shortages are a daily experience. The entire region is plagued by rising food prices, high unemployment, in addition to being destabilized by the electoral crisis in Côte d'Ivoire that has been manufactured by the UN, France, and the U.S. (I hope to cover that crisis soon, but readers can visit this excellent entry on the Blog of Martial Frindéthié, an associate professor of francophone studies at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, and an Ivorian citizen.)
A TRIVIAL, THOUGH TRAGIC FOOD EVENT triggered the Tunisian riots that led to the toppling of the "democrature" of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, 2011. ("Democrature" is a contraction of the words democracy and dictature -- dictatorship in French -- that Africans use with a zest of irony). In 1987, then prime minister Ben Ali seized power by declaring the father of Tunisian independence, Habib Bourguiba, medically unfit for office. For 23 years Ben Ali governed Tunisia with an iron fist, all the while being "re-elected" every five years through sham elections, and plundering the treasury for his benefit and that of what Tunisians called "the family" -- a mafia-like faction including his relatives and close associates. There is some poetic justice in seeing his own prime minister and long-time right hand, Mohamed Ghannouchi, depose the autocrat! The next morning, and according to the Constitution, the speaker of parliament, Fouad Mebazza, became interim president. A presidential election should be organized within 60 days. Back to the food event...
ON DECEMBER 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a twenty-six-year-old Tunisian with a college degree but no job, was selling veggies and fruits in the streets of Sidi Bouzid, a small city located about 125 miles from Tunis. Having no license to sell his products the police confiscated his wares, Outraged and despaired, Bouazizi went to the local government office, douse himself with gasoline and committed self-immolation. He died of his burns on January 5, 2011. Incensed by the tragedy the youth took to the streets en masse and were met with violent police repression. Another young unemployed man electrocuted himself after shouting "no for misery, no for unemployment." A second young man self-immolated. The demonstrations escalated. The police fired live ammo at the protesters engendering many fatalities. The movement that could have been limited to a small city of just over 40,000 inhabitants and kept out of the muzzled news media spread all over the country thanks to the power of the Internet. The long-simmering dissent to the regime turned into liberating chants of what Pablo Neruda once called, "come and see the blood in the streets." And come they did.
WHAT BEGAN with youth was followed up "by students, teachers, lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, trade unionists, and opposition politicians." They "took to the streets in several cities, including Tunis, to condemn the government's economic policies, its repression of all critics, and a mafia-style corruption that enriches members of the president's family." (Source: Christopher Alexander, "Tunisia's protest wave: where it comes from and what it means," Foreign Policy, January 3, 2011.) In exactly 23 days following the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian people overthrew 23 years of authoritarianism -- a first in the Arab world -- without any help from the "international community." They did it on their own (though they apparently received the help of General Rachid Ammar, the head of the armed forces, who refused to give the order to shoot at the crowds). As a demonstrator said, "the street has spoken." Ben Ali and his wife have found refuge in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
NO ONE was taken by surprise more, aside from the Ben Ali regime, than the French government. France has long had a privileged relationship with her former protectorate. The governments of François Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac, and Nicolas Sarkozy -- the latter having a very close relationship with the strong man -- had always unconditionally supported Ben Ali. At first, Sarkozy's reaction was very muted, only calling for the return to calm and hoping that Ben Ali would take care of business. However, as the protests grew, Michèle Alliot-Marie (known as MAM), the French foreign minister, suggested that France could engage in police cooperation and dispatch anti-terrorist units to help the Tunisian police. "Calming [the demonstrators] can rely on techniques to maintain order," she said, to the consternation of Tunisians. (Note, by the way, that MAM is the same individual who in 2004, when she was defense minister, gave French troops the order to shoot at Ivorian protesters in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, killing over 60 people.) During the entire crisis French diplomacy kept supporting Ben Ali. They welcomed the reforms proposed by the embattled Tunisian president (parliamentary elections and the vow that he would not seek re-election at the end of his mandate in 2014) and kept offering police cooperation and financial aid. One day later, Ben Ali was gone -- to the dismay of the Elysée Palace. Once the deed was done, a short communiqué was issued: "France acknowledges the constitutional transition announced by Prime Minister Ghannouchi. Only dialogue can bring a democratic and lasting solution to the current crisis. France stands side by side with the Tunisian people in this crucial period." In other words, France got caught with her pants down and got a good whipping!
TO ADD TO THE HEIGHT of hypocrisy, Sarkozy said: La politique de la France est fondée sur deux principes constants : la non ingérence dans les affaires intérieures d'un Etat souverain, le soutien à la démocratie et à la liberté. ("The politic of France is based upon two constant principles: no interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, the support of democracy and freedom.") This from a man who has been openly and intensely meddling into the internal affairs of a sovereign state -- namely Côte d'Ivoire -- by instigating a judicial coup to bring to power his favorite neo-liberal puppet, Alassane Ouattara, at the risk of causing a civil war in that bereaved country and destabilizing Western Africa. O tempora o mores!
IT WON'T TAKE LONG before France interferes again in Tunisia. After all, France is the largest trade partner by far (almost 30 percent of Tunisian exports and 20 percent of imports), followed by Italy and Germany. France is also one of the largest investors in the country. About 22,000 French people reside there (600,000 Tunisians live in France). There are also old cultural bonds, but as always money talks. For France, Ben Ali's corruption and authoritarianism were well known, but he kept the country stable and safe for French interests. "Better the devil you know," as the saying goes...
SO, WHO WILL BECOME the next devil? Both the interim president and the prime minister are "Benalists." Fouad Mebazza won't be able to run due to his age (he is 78). Mohamed Ghannouchi, 69, could. Ghannouchi is a neo-liberal economist (like Alassane Ouattara in Côte d'Ivoire) much appreciated in Paris and Washington, but he has no political experience. With anxiety and uncertainty growing I would not be surprised if General Rachid Ammar flew to Paris for private talks with Sarkozy and his advisers. There already are calls in Tunisia and on the Internet for the general to become the next president. Again, better the devil you know...at least from the perspective and interests of the moneyed class.
ONE WOULD SUSPECT that the leaders of Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Jordan, Egypt, and beyond -- all corrupted autocrats -- must be worrying sick about these events. In the age of the Internet and videos on demand (cf. YouTube) it is becoming increasingly problematic to start shooting at your own people under the eyes of the entire world. That the combination of steep rises in the prices of food staples, high unemployment among the disconsolate youth -- especially the educated ones, ever greater immiseration of the many, the fool-proof confirmation (thanks to WikiLeaks) of the corruption and obscene enrichment of the elites, and the deep lack of hope among the masses erupted in a countrywide revolt should not have surprised any careful observer.
AND ALL IT TOOK for the powder keg to explode was not Bin Laden or a terrorist attack -- just a little spark lighted by a young man who out of despair, not even permitted to scrape a poor living out of a food stand, self-immolated. May streets and squares be renamed "Mohamed Bouazizi!" And may our Tunisian brothers and sisters not succumb to the sirens of the powers-that-be, "the murmurings of the little harp-girl's song in Heinrich Heine's 1844 poem, Germany, A Winter's Tale."
ALL THAT IS CALLED FOR IS A MORE JUST AND EQUITABLE WORLD.
. . . . .
C'est la vie...
And so it goes...
* Ed. In the first paragraph the author stated that the FAO Food Price Index had reached 214.7 points in December 2010. That was not the correct number. It should have read 223 points. The error was corrected on February 13, 2011. (back)
La vie, friends, is a cheap commodity, but worth maintaining when one can.the life line won't hurt you much, but it'll make a heck of a difference for Swans.
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