It was not that it happened but the manner of Zain al-Abedin Ben Ali’s departure from Tunisia which took everyone by surprise. The extraordinary speed, the humiliation and the reactions all told a story. Three momentous messages were delivered from the dictator’s toppling in Tunisia; one to the autocracies of the region, the second to their oppressed people and the third to the Western backers of dictatorships.
For all, the message is written in bold; freedom may be denied for decades, but when the people’s patience is exhausted, they take what is rightfully theirs. To paraphrase Franz Fanon, freedom is never given by dictators it is taken from them, an often bloody process.
Ben Ali, like so many in the region, including the Zionist occupiers of Palestine, tried initially to dismiss the people’s protest as the work of “extremists” and “terrorists”. This was an insult to the intelligence and dignity of his people and only infuriated them further.
The Tunisian uprising has demonstrated the limitations of military power and security-fuelled repression against people who are hungry for freedom. For 23 years state repression was wielded ruthlessly while the people of Tunisia displayed great patience and love for their country. In the twisted logic of many “leaders” in the Middle East and their Western supporters this is treated with disdain, as if the Arabs are unlike others in that position. They will, this mindset believes, put up with humiliation, degradation and repression for eternity. The message from Tunisia slays this misconception; like their fellow human beings across Africa, Asia and Latin America, Arabs are capable of throwing off the yoke of oppression when it becomes too unbearable.
When the end came, the fugitive dictator was left to his own devices. France, the former colonial ruler of Tunisia refused to host his exile. When Nicaraguan dictator Somoza Debayle was overthrown by the Sandinista revolutionaries in July 1979, he fled to Miami and was denied entry by US President Carter; he ended up in Paraguay. Later that year, the US refused entry to the fugitive Shah of Iran; he was later granted permission to enter the country for cancer treatment before being bungled on a plane to Egypt, where he died. Saddam Hussain was “our man” but once he had outlived his usefulness to the West he was overthrown and executed for offences which had taken place with the full knowledge and tacit approval of his US and European allies. Not for the first time, therefore, a dictator has been abandoned by his “friends” and hung out to dry.
To the neo-colonials, Tunisia makes it clear that not all regional dictators are going to die in office. A new generation of Arab youth have come of age which is capable of mobilising and bringing an end to the nightmare of western-backed despotism. Obviously wary of yet another military intervention in the Arab world and massive civilian casualties, they did not follow the Iraqi model and invite foreign support to liberate them. They played it safe, did their own thing, and surprised many in the West.
The American administration is now showering praise on the Tunisian people, paying respect to their will and tribute to their courage, as if Ben Ali was never one of “our guys”. Where were these Western leaders when Tunisians were being killed in Ben Ali’s jails? Did they not read any of the many reports about human rights abuses in Tunisia? If they had genuine respect for the people, why didn’t they rally to their side in their hour of need? They could have forced Ben Ali to make life easier for his people as he denied them a decent standard of living while filling his private coffers. His “concessions” came about only when it became obvious that he had to do something; what he did was too little too late.
The foremost of the oppressed people to whom Tunisia sends a powerful message are the Palestinians. Washington’s response suggests that they respect those who stand up for their principles and make sacrifices to defend them but do the Americans feel the same way about Palestinians and their struggle? What the Tunisians have done has been described as their second independence. The Palestinians, who have not yet tasted freedom, are reminded that the dark night of oppression, no matter how long, will be followed by the dawn of liberation.
Tunisia was central to the chain of US bases across the region. General Ben Ali was an integral part of the regional security apparatus and the “war on terror”. Yet, with all their intelligence operations in Tunis, the Americans never saw it fit to condemn and bring an end to the suffering of its people, just as the US security advisers who have been foisted on the occupied West Bank, aid and abet the Israeli oppressors.
The message to the Palestinians is clear: the destruction of your homes will not continue forever; the uprooting of your olive trees will be stopped, as will the humiliation of your women at Israeli check points and the murder of your elderly men in their beds. The occupation and oppression will end, but don’t wait for the Americans to bring this about; it took the Obama administration 23 days before they made a statement on Tunisia.
No one doubts that the Tunisian people were the makers of their own revolution in a classic example of people power in action. They did not wait for American tanks to rescue them, or sterile UN debates and resolutions. Shamefully, those agencies were silent, perhaps hoping against hope that Ben Ali would survive.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is lecturing Arab leaders on the virtues of democracy. Ask her about democracy for the Palestinians, though, and the discussion will descend into sophistry about Israel’s “security needs”; hence, the recent deployment of the notorious Blackwater mercenaries to the West Bank. It will be up to the Palestinian people to seize their freedom from the Israelis and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority which collaborates with Israel.
The messages from Tunisia will continue to reverberate; if Palestinians want to be part of the solution of their problem, they have to mobilise. History will then take its course. As for the Western powers, they must now realise that their regional interests will only be preserved through genuine respect and support for the people of the Middle East, not by helping to subjugate them under the jackboots of occupation and dictatorship.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.