By George S. Hishmeh – Washington, D.C.
The Jasmine Revolution, as the popular and unarmed Tunisian uprising that ousted the corrupt and autocratic president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, is known, will go down in history as the first successful attempt by Arab masses to topple a onetime senior military officer and director of national security and who may now serve as a pacesetter for confronting others, similarly inclined.
The first Arab regime to be toppled in a military coup on April 11, 1949 was led by Gen. Husni al-Zaim, Syria’s former chief of staff that was encouraged by the U.S., as reported on a blog by Syrian Ambassador to the U.S., Imad Moustapha. The uprising followed the failure of several Arab armies, who also could not regain Palestine from the Israelis after they usurped the Arab country, prompting the disbursement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. But al-Zaim was overthrown 137 days later by another military coup after initiating secret peace talks with Israel and an eye-popping relationship with U.S. oil company.
Thereafter several Arab military officers similarly usurped power in at least six Arab countries again because of their failure to win back Palestine from the Israelis and their inability to establish genuine democracies in the region. The most prominent of these officers was Gamal Abdul Nasser, the Egyptian leader, who unlike most of the other military officers, remains very popular even to this very day, primarily for championing the Palestinian cause and urging Arab unity.
Adding fuel to the widespread anger in Tunisia was the release of secret U.S. diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization. These cables, reported the New York Times, revealed that American diplomats there had “alarms about popular resentment of the blatant corruption of the country’s first family … help(ing) fuel the anger on the streets that culminated (last) Friday” in President Ben Ali and his family fleeing to Saudi Arabia after 23 years in power.
But what inflamed the confrontations with the armed Tunisian police was the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, a young university graduate who was jobless. His only recourse was to establish a fruit and vegetable stand in a city square. But his failure to acquire a permit led to a confrontation with police who destroyed his stand. In protest and despair, he set himself on fire, a horrific scene that electrified the country.
The other shot in the arm was the decision of Aljazeera, the influential Arabic-language network, to give full and continuous coverage of the clashes, a decision that also helped to rally demonstrators in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world in sympathy of the revolt. Equally effective were the Internet facilities such as Twitter and the like.
What has been eye-catching about the spontaneous Tunisian revolution has been the amazing absence of any visible leaders of the insurrection. Equally surprising was the continued presence of several top officials who remained behind in the apparent hope that they could once again reclaim power bring and bring back the ousted president. This was particularly noticeable in the persons named to the new “unity” government where the key ministers, including the prime minister and acting, were members of the unpopular old guard.
The first embarrassing scenario in this respect involved Prime Minister Mohammed Ghanoushi, a staunch ally of the discredited Tunisian president for the last 12 years, who was compelled to quit his assumption of the presidency less than 24 hours after his public announcement to this effect. The speaker of the Parliament, Fuad Mebazaa, had stepped in to claim that he was entitled to the top position in line with the constitution.
But the more resented developments was triggered by the appointment of three former ministers who took over the key ministries of defense, interior and foreign affairs, and the refusal to allow other key opposition groups to be included in the interim “unity” government, especially the Islamists, pending national elections in the next few months. This touched off continued demonstrations in Tunisia, demanding the sacking of all former officials from the ruling party of Ben Ali.
All eyes in the Arab world are now focusing on how all this would influence several other Arab states run by former military officers, especially in neighboring Egypt and Libya. The first serious development so far has been that immolation of more than a handful of demonstrators setting themselves on fire in these neighboring countries – – Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania – – replicating what happened in Tunisia.
Meanwhile, the western powers could not remain silent despite the fact that many Arab leaders depend on American or French protection from the wrath of their people, as has been the case with Tunisia under Ben Ali. Once western interests are affected, as happened nowadays, these autocrats must now be aware that they can be abandoned instantaneously. Here is what President Obama had to say, belatedly, applauding the “courage and dignity of the Tunisian people …in this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold.” He stressed that “we will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard.”
One popular poetic image created about one hundred years ago, by a young Tunisian poet, Abul al-Qasim al-Shabi, rings a loud bell:
“If one day, a people desire to live (freely), then fate will undoubtedly comply to their call.
“And their night will fade, and their chains (handcuffs) will undoubtedly break and fall.”
No doubt the Tunisians have succeeded in their first step but they still have to keep their eyes wide open in the days ahead.
– George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. Contact him at: [email protected].