Tunisia

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Remembering the fruit vendor who sparked a global revolution, the Arab Spring | 

Wikimedia

Tunisian stamp honoring Mohamed Bouazizi

A year ago Saturday, a poor Tunisian fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi killed himself.

This sparked public protest in his village, which then spread to all of Tunisia and became a successful call for the country’s corrupt President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to step down. Tunisia’s success inspired similar protests in neighboring countries.

Thus was launched the Arab Spring, which continues today with clashes and deaths of protesters in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere.

Bouazizi didn’t intend to make a political statement. He wasn’t known to be political at all. Bouazizi reportedly set himself on fire in an act of desperation, some might say emotional instability, due to a life of constant harassment and humiliation by officials. Whether he intended it or not, his death sparked a global revolution. Continue reading

Arab Spring flares up | 

Flickr, Jonathan Rashad

Egypt's Tahrir Square, at the start of the uprising

The popular uprising across the Middle East has intensified this week with the eruption of violence in Egypt and the resignation of Yemen’s president President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

As the Washington Post reports, the level of violence in Egypt has reached levels unseen since the original protests which nine months ago forced President Hosni Mubarak out of office. Protesters are demonstrating against what they see as the military’s attempt to hold on to power. So far, 38 people have been reported killed and the UN has condemned the interim government’s response.

Meanwhile, Time magazine says, the UN has announced that Yemen’s President Saleh has agreed to step down if he is allowed to flee to Saudi Arabia and avoid prosecution.

In Syria, the government has continued to crack down on protesters with a death toll so far estimated at 3,500. As Reuters reports, many believe Syria’s violent response to the popular uprising could foment widespread bloodshed and violence for the entire region.

The only bright spot right now is Tunisia, where the Arab Spring started, sparked by the suicide of a fruit seller long abused by the authorities. As the AP reports, Tunisia’s first fairly elected political assembly went to work this week:

Tunisia’s newly elected assembly held its inaugural meeting Tuesday, and begin the yearlong process of shaping the constitution and the democratic future of the country that sparked the Arab Spring uprisings.

And it didn’t take long for the legislators to feel one result of free speech: hundreds of people protested outside Parliament, demanding everything from women’s rights and a crackdown on security forces to limits on Qatar’s influence over Tunisia’s affairs.

Yeah, democracy is messy. Whether the rest of the Middle East and north Africa follows Tunisia’s promising lead remains in question.

Analysis: Could the Middle East “Jasmine Revolution” spread to America? Should it? | 

Flickr, Megan Skelly

Grass fire

The grassfire Arab revolt sparked last December in Tunisia by the self-immolation suicide of a poor, abused fruit seller is now being called the Jasmine Revolution, apparently because the media likes to color code these kind of things.

Like Iran’s green revolution (which failed) and Ukraine’s orange revolution (which succeeded).

Right now, most of the attention is on Libya where Muammar Gaddafi (or Gadhafi, or Mallomar Godzilla, however you want to spell his name) is waging war on his own people, trying to turn back the tide of political reform. Continue reading

Wikileaks on Libya, Tunis and Egypt | 

Wikileaks

The Telegraph published a worrisome article today about Libya, based on its interpretation of a Wikileaks diplomatic cable. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, the cable says, Libya’s popular revolt may be fueled by extremist Islamic elements.

Former jihadi fighters who underwent “religious and ideological training” in Afghanistan, Lebanon and the West Bank in the 1980s have returned to eastern towns in Libya such as Benghazi and Derna to propagate their Islamist beliefs, the cables warn

Of course, this was much the same rumor that accompanied the revolution in Egypt — with the media focused on the Muslim Brotherhood — which so far appears to have been not the case.

Still, it’s worth remembering that the Arab revolt’s launch in Tunisia may have been prompted in part by Wikileaks making public the excesses and corruption of the former regime of President Ben Ali.

Here’s a somewhat amusing 2009 cable from the US Embassy in Tripoli about Gaddafi’s children getting in trouble overseas and fighting among themselves for power.

Here’s a less amusing, perhaps revealing, 2008 cable from the US Embassy in Cairo that describes the Egyptian military as having great economic and social influence but also in decline.

Diplomat Matthew Tueller writes of the military’s “decline” in terms of its influence within the Mubarak power structure. What Tueller could not have predicted, of course, is that the military’s declining influence among the power elite may have been what contributed to the military’s identification with the popular revolt:

Recently, academics and civilian analysts painted a portrait of an Egyptian military in intellectual and social decline, whose officers have largely fallen out of society’s elite ranks….

Contacts agree that presidential son Gamal Mubarak’s power base is centered in the business community, not with the military. XXXXXXXXXXXX said officers told him recently that the military does not support Gamal and if Mubarak died in office, the military would seize power rather than allow Gamal to succeed his father.

Tonight at Seattle Town Hall: Tunisian-American Rajaa Gharbi on the Arab Revolt | 

Rajaa Gharbi

Reminder: Local Tunisian-American artist Rajaa Gharbi will speak tonight at Seattle Town Hall on the democracy movement spreading across much of the Middle East.

The event is called Tunisia, Egypt and Beyond: Protest, Politics and Change. As Gharbi told me, we should remember that the Arab Revolt began when one man in Tunisia just couldn’t take the abuse any longer.

“This is a real revolution and we should dare to call it that. It’s about human rights, people reclaiming their dignity.”

Gharbi hopes that by encouraging community dialogue on what’s rocking much of the Arab world right now we will be able to move beyond stereotypes, simplistic “us versus them” mindsets, and seek ways to support what may be one of the world’s greatest democracy movements in recent history.

CBS 60 Minutes on Sunday did a report out of Tunisia about the 26-year-old fruit seller, Mohammed Bouazizi, who killed himself by setting himself on fire as a desperate statement of protest against abuse by Tunisian officials:

Tunisian artist seeks to paint accurate picture of the Arab revolt | 

The eyes of the world are now on Egypt, but it’s worth remembering that the Arab revolt began in Tunisia.

“This is a real revolution and we should dare to call it that. It’s about human rights, people reclaiming their dignity.”

Rajaa Gharbi

So says Rajaa Gharbi, a Seattle artist who moved here many years ago from Tunisia. She has been active in many efforts aimed at trying to bring a more accurate, more balanced, perspective to our view of the Arab world and North Africa in general.

Gharbi will host a forum on what’s rocking much of the Arab world right now on Feb. 21 at Seattle Town Hall. The event is called Tunisia, Egypt and Beyond: Protest, Politics and Change.

NOTE: Here’s some of the latest news out of Tunisia: Risk of chaos.

Q What is the main message you hope to get across to people about the Arab revolt?

“This is not a religious uprising. This is a revolution by people who want to govern themselves, to live in dignity. Just look at the protests and what people are saying. It’s really important that we change the lens through which we look at the Arab world.

Q Why did this Arab revolt, now shaking Egypt and threatening to spread to other nations, begin in Tunisia?

“The swiftness and magnitude surprised most people, including me. Tunisians are highly educated. The authoritarian nature of the state was pervasive and affected everyone.  People were forced to accept so many indignities, making it a ticking time bomb. The self-immolation of Bouazizi (a young Tunisian man abused by authorities) set people off. It became too much.”

Q Why should we care?

“We are going to be affected economically, culturally and politically by what’s happening throughout North Africa. There is an effort everyday on the part of the old regime to maintain or regain power…. Tunisians are still protesting, nonviolently struggling to rid themselves of the authoritarian regime. We need to pay attention.”

Q Any thoughts on how the Obama Administration has reacted?

“Honestly, I think the reaction was very hypocritical. The Obama Administration waited until it was very clear that the government of (former Tunisian president) Ben Ali would not survive. It already looks to many Tunisians like there is a major effort behind the scenes to make sure the next leader will serve the interests of the U.S. government, as usual. It’s the same for Egypt.

The Arab revolt is not an Islamist revolt | 

Al Jazeera

Protesters in Cairo

I guess it’s only natural for some people — those of us who can only hold one idea in our head at a time — to conflate Arabs and Islamists in the current upheaval rocking Egypt, Tunisia and throughout much of the Middle East.

Many news stories can’t help but mention Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as poised to take over after the current regime of President Hosni Mubarak falls. The Financial Times, for example, quotes the highly qualified and objective political analyst Ayatollah Ali Khameni (Iran’s “supreme” leader … yeah, I’m being sarcastic) claiming what’s happening in Cairo represents an “Islamic movement.”

“The events have special meaning for the Iranian nation, Mr Khamenei told worshippers in Tehran’s Friday prayers. “This is what has always been said that an Islamic awakening [could] result from the victory of Iran’s great Islamic revolution.”

Interestingly, that’s the same claim made by conservative talk show hosts in the U.S. and by Mubarak as part of his effort to scare the Western powers into supporting his desperate attempt to hold on to power.

More reasonable people, those who actually know Egypt and Tunisia, say these protests are not at all inspired by radical Islamists but rather by the demands of regular people for freedom, fairness, democracy, jobs and a life free from political oppression and corruption.

Time magazine warns that Mubarak and his cohorts are pushing the Islamist threat in order to provide cover for an even more violent government response to put down the protests.

But even if these protests aren’t prompted by radical Islamists, couldn’t they take advantage of the chaos to take over as happened in Iran? NPR asks, and answers, this question in this great story by Alan Greenblatt “With Upheaval, How Large is the Opening for Islam?

Not very big, says Greenblatt:

Most academic and policy experts say an Iran-style scenario is far-fetched for Egypt and other Arab countries that are now seeing uprisings. There’s no doubt that Islamist parties will play a role in transitional governments and open elections, should they occur.

The Islamist parties, however, are not the dominant force behind protests in any country outside of Jordan. And, should they attain power in any country, their platforms are more likely to resemble that of the moderate Islamist party that rules Turkey in a secular fashion than those of the ayatollahs in Iran.

Let’s hope the American media’s natural tendency to think Arab=Islam doesn’t end up providing a despot with the excuse he needs to crush what is clearly a popular democracy movement very much in the same political and philosophical tradition that founded our nation.

Egypt in revolt | 

There’s plenty of news out there about what’s happening in Egypt, as a popular revolt against the Mubarak regime continues despite a crackdown on the protesters, media and social media tools.

I won’t add a list of my favorite news reports, other than to say perhaps the best bet for up-to-date and comprehensive coverage of the uprising is from Al Jazeera.

Here, for as long as it lasts (given government actions to restrict media) is Al Jazeera’s livestream video:

Al Jazeera