Message from Tunisia
“Very important message! State of emergency announced throughout the country; what now? The end is nigh! Others gripped by fear. #AREN #Sidibouzid”
As punchy polemical political analysis of what is happening in Tunisia and the Arab world, this alarmist post from the Twitter account #Sidibouzid sums up the impending revolution that took place in a short amount of time in Tunisia. The role of technology in political mobilization should not be underestimated, with Wikileaks’ role in the downfall of President Ben Ali, but the West’s enthusiasm for democratic activists around the world for toppling a corrupt regime requires a bit more than 140 characters.
Dissident intellectuals and writers living in the region have been writing their own messages for a while now, in books and journals. Theirs are the voices of those who have lived through many hollow slogans of a tyrannical government and dissected them in their works.
The young Tunisian novelist Kamel Riahi writes in a now appropriately named story, Revolt: “A massive silence links the arch of the Sea Gate with the enormous clock-tower where Muhammad V Street crosses Avenue Habib Bourguiba. The tranquility of the deserted capital city is shattered by its well-known nutter: a suspicious man is circling the tower for the last time…He then starts to throw stones, pieces of iron, houses, trees, crows and goats at imaginary enemies; things that are invisible to anyone else.”
The well known nutter might well have been 26-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi who on December 17 doused himself with petrol and lit himself up in front of a local police station in the small rural town of Sidi Bouzid (hence the Twitter name) or another young man who climbed up an electricity pole and electrocuted himself. Both were protesting against their decrepit working conditions and the government’s blindness to their countrymen’s woes. The constant rioting and protesting of the past two weeks led to the demise of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. Riahi’s literary observations are instructive because they grasp the social frustrations of energetic and intelligent youth who want to lead meaningful lives but ultimately can’t.
President Bourguiba, also mentioned in Riahi’s story, was ousted in similar circumstances by Ben Ali back in 1987. Citing article 56 of the constitution, Ben Ali declared that Bourguiba was unfit to govern on medical grounds and he had taken upon himself to lead the country towards a more prosperous future. Bourguiba had anointed himself president for life — not a popular decision for Tunisians facing years of socioeconomic downturns.
The same empty political rhetoric and citing of article 56 has just been used by the prime minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, and (very) temporary president, who said on state television: “Since the president is temporarily unable to exercise his duties, it has been decided that the prime minister will exercise temporarily the presidential duties.”
Ghannouchi himself was one of Ben Ali’s closest allies and is the face of Tunisia in foreign circles, serving as prime minister since 1999 (and minister for international cooperation and foreign investments). And in yet another stunning governmental shuffle dressed up as a democratic move to abide by the Tunisian constitution, the speaker of the lower chamber of parliament, Fouad Mebazaa, has become the interim leader. It is hard to predict if he will last as well.
All of these events have taken place rapidly, with identical declarations, but it is not clear who exactly has decided to pass the baton of governance from one elite to another. The struggles for reform by civil society groups and ordinary Tunisians have been overlooked as media coverage concentrates on how Twitter and other social media helped bring down yet another morally bankrupt Arab oligarch. Comparisons to the “green movement” activist events in Iran in 2009 have been made, along with calls for a fragile Egyptian society already rocked by sectarian strife to follow suit.
In the haste and excitement and revolutionary fever, it is worth returning to another Tunisian writer, Albert Memmi (author of the award-winning Pillar of Salt). Fifty years after publishing his definitive psychological book The Colonizer and The Colonized (1957), he felt compelled to publish a sequel, Decolonization and the Decolonized. In this latest book Memmi mourns the disastrous results of vapid political movements and warns that even though “there has been a change of masters…like new leeches, the new ruling classes are often greedier than the old.” This might be a pessimistic outlook in the world of Twitter overload but it is an adage that is coming true by the hour.
Farid Farid is a final year doctoral candidate at the University of Western Sydney and freelance writer.