The Arab Gdansk

Is Tunis the Arab Gdansk? Big things start small. In Poland, the firing in 1980 of Anna Walentynowicz, a shipyard worker, led to strikes and the formation of the grassroots Solidarity Movement that set in motion the unraveling of the Soviet empire. Walentynowicz, who was killed in a plane crash last year, once told me all they sought at the outset was “better money, improved work safety, a free trade union and my job back.”

By Roger Cohen

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Published: Wed 19 Jan 2011, 11:37 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:48 AM

All Mohamed Bouazizi wanted was a job, some means to eke out a living. Like many of Tunisia’s university graduates, he found himself unemployed while the coterie of the now-ousted president binged on the nation’s riches and titillated themselves with large felines. When police shut down Bouazizi’s informal vegetable stall in the central town of Sidi Bouzid, he killed himself. His self-immolation a month ago ignited an uprising.

Now, the Tunisian dictator of 23 years, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, has fled to Saudi Arabia, driven out by new social media and old-fashioned rage. Protesters communicating on Facebook and irked by what WikiLeaks had revealed of the Ben Ali family’s Caligula-like indulgence were roused to shatter the security state of yet another despot.

The unseating through popular revolt of a strongman is something new: It has already caused ripples from Amman to Cairo to Tripoli – and it will cause more. Unseating through US invasion – Iraq – did not work; it could never be a source of Arab pride. A homegrown uprising can.

This signal event, of still uncertain outcome, is long overdue. Many pro-US regimes have lost touch with young populations. Their ossified, repressive, nepotistic, corrupt systems have proved blind to the awakening stirred by satellite TV, Facebook posts, tweets, Web videos and bloggers.

They have proved skilled only at provoking guffaws at their regular “elections” and fostering the rise of extreme Islamism among populations left with no refuge but religion. Their “stability” has been sustained at the price of paralysis. It has depended on a readiness to terrorise and torture. These holdovers, moribund as the waxworks at Madame Tussauds, are ripe for transformation, the anciens régimes of 2011.

The US responsibility for this failure has been significant: America has preferred the stable despot to the Islamist risk of democracy (despite the fact that the only likely remedy to the seductive illusion of political Islamism is the responsibility of government). It is now imperative that the Obama administration and the European Union stand behind Tunisia’s democratic forces.

Just what those are is still murky in the Tunisian flux. But Obama made a good start – much better than his dilatory response to the Iranian uprising of 2009 and much better than France’s tiptoeing – by applauding the “brave and determined struggle” of Tunisians for their rights.

America and its allies, especially France, should do all they can to ensure this bravery does not end in some new iteration of despotism. Anything less than prompt free and fair elections organised by a national unity government should be rebuffed. What they need above all is accountability, transparency and modernity in governance, of the kind that encourages personal responsibility.

Last month, after a visit to Beirut, I wrote a column called “The captive Arab mind” about the psychological cost of repression in the region: the reflex of blaming others, the perception of conspiracies everywhere and the paralysing fear of acting or thinking for oneself. Tunis can be Act One in the liberation journey.

That will also require the West to cast aside tired thinking. You can’t be a little bit democratic any more than you can be a little bit pregnant. Holding free elections in Tunisia requires the lifting of the ban on Islamist parties.

Dealing with the Middle East as it is – rather than indulging in the “Green Zone politics” of imaginary worlds – demands recognition that facile terrorist designations for broad movements like Hezbollah are self-defeating and inadequate. Peace in Northern Ireland would have been impossible if Sinn Fein’s links to violent resistance had proved an impassable barrier to negotiations with it.

Western double-standards in the supposed interest of Arab stability have proved a recipe for radicalisation. The West should honour Tunisian bravery with some of its own. Dynasties rusting on their thrones are not the answer to disquiet.

Nor is democracy a one-way street. It is about give-and-take, not irreversible power grabs. Political Islam betrayed its liberating banner in Teheran by replacing secular repression – the Shah’s – with theocratic. Iran has proved more dynamic because the Islamic Republic has at times felt obliged to reflect the “republic” in its name – but only under an unelected supreme leader. Islamist parties must commit to democracy rather than exploit democracy for despotic ends.

Nine years separated Walentynowicz’s firing from the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bouazizi’s suicide proclaimed that the shelf life of despots can be no longer than that. Little Tunisia is a clarion call for awakening.

Roger Cohen writes The Globalist column for The International Herald Tribune

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