Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tunisia on the Brink

Issandr El Amrani eloquently writes of the mood among Tunisia observers:
"As I write these lines, a 7pm curfew has been imposed in Tunis, perhaps the clearest sign thus far that the wave of protests and discontent that has taken over Tunisia since 17 December is not about to end.

"I have spent the day following the scraps of news that come out of social networks and websites, being directed to the temporary websites where Tunisian online activists are storing videos of the protests--video-sharing sites are quickly blocked by Tunisian authorities and hence must change all the time. I spoke to a well-to-do young Tunisian from a prominent family who has effectively decided to give up what would have been a life of privilege by siding with the protesters and denouncing the corruption of the ruling family.

"I read the sometimes deeply eloquent, sometimes quite hilarious responses to the speech that Tunisian President Zein al-Abideen Ben Ali delivered on Monday, in which he missed the opportunity to calm the situation by insinuating that demonstrators were foreign agents, promising the creation of 300,000 jobs in two years (that’s 17 new jobs every hour!) for unemployed graduates and thanking Libyan leader Muammar al-Qadhafi for offering to make it easier for Tunisians to go work in Libya."

Brian Whitaker runs down today's developments here. At this point, it would seem that Ben Ali's only option for remaining in power is to bring down the full might of the Tunisian military, such as the Chinese did in Tiananmen Square. Both El Amrani and Whitaker report rumors that elements of the military are refusing suppression orders. Such rumors may represent only hope circulating through Tunisian society, but that hope is in itself significant. Someone who understand the sociology of the Tunisian military could best comment. It also occurred to me that with the only nationwide source of information being the discredited official media, there's no good way for the regime to use intimidation in selected areas as a warning to others. This could be like fighting a forest fire.

There is another option on the table, and that is the end Ben Ali's 23 years in power. This requires more knowledge of Tunisian political culture than I possess, but analysts should bear in mind that the result of social upheaval is often not democracy. How does a prospective fall play out? Do factions within the military decide the way forward is to stage a coup? Does Ben Ali's rule depend on elites outside his family who can throw their support elsewhere? Does Ben Ali just pack up and leave the place to whatever opposition exists? Tunisia has no visible Khomeini who can push a brand new system into place, and competitive electoral politics would likely emerge only if whomever succeeds Ben Ali can neither suppress nor conciliate rival centers of power.

Tunisia is on the brink of something, though I don't know what. As Marc Lynch demontrates, however, the Arab world is watching.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)



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