Tunis 2011 – Has the Long Awaited Change Come?

Tunis 2011 – Has the Long Awaited Change Come?

What is the problem in Tunis? The corrupt dictatorship has been going on too long. Have the people been hoping and relying for too long on the US and the UN to bail them out of trouble? The people of Tunis have now taken matters into their own hands and after month long demonstrations they are in the process of ushering in long-awaited change. No longer cowering in his palace, Ben Ali has fled his nation while his people, now desperate, are forcing the wheels of power to usher in a new era.

The mass demonstrations did not just happen overnight; resentment has been brewing for some time. Millions of desperate angry Tunisians face poor employment prospects and food inflation while enduring their corrupt authoritarian government.

The same style of corruption, harshness and mismanagement that characterises most Middle Eastern regimes is also the hallmark of Ben Ali’s regime in Tunis.

The trouble started on December 17, 2010 when a young man from the city of Sidi Bouzid attempted suicide by setting himself on fire to protest against chronic unemployment and police brutality and Tunisians throughout the country swore to avenge his death; a symbol of their own hopelessness and hardship. Tempers flared, frustrations spilled over into the streets and protests and demonstrations spread from the poor interior to the more prosperous coastal cities. Police cracked down on dissenters using tear gar, bullets and batons to beat and force their own people into submission. It did not work. The government says the death toll is now two dozen, but opposition groups say it is several times higher.

By January 14, masses of protestors prevailed as President Ben Ali dismissed his government, and fled the country while violence and opposition escalated. The tyrant dictator was welcomed into Saudi Arabia along with his wife whose family is well-known for its corruption.

Tunis is not the only country to have been at risk of an uprising. Other Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt, are suffering from similar ills; an outdated autocratic regime, injustice, governmental corruption, forged elections, price rises and unemployment.

On January 11th, when protests reached the centre of Tunis, the capital, Ben Ali responded by ordering in the army and imposing a night-time curfew. The people remained determined and tens of thousands took to the streets the next day in Sfax, Tunisia’s second city.

This is the first time Ben Ali has faced protests of this magnitude. The ubiquitous presidential portraits that adorn many buildings have been ripped down and burned, while protesters chant insults aimed at Ben Ali and his wife.

In an attempt to deflect blame away from his government’s mismanagement, at first Ben Ali claimed the protesters were “extremists” working for unnamed foreign powers.  Then in a desperate bid to reclaim some authenticity, on January 10th he promised to create 300,000 jobs for unemployed graduates within two years, but without giving any indication of how he would do this. He has also promised to release detainees arrested in recent weeks.

The president was forced into action and sacked his interior minister, Rafik Belhaj Kacem, who had been accused of authorising excessive force. The president also promised to investigate corrupt officials, but the protesters were not satisfied with empty promises as their real target is Ben Ali himself and his wife and her family. The business interests of the president’s in-laws, – described as mafia-like – known as the Trabelsi clan, extend widely across the country.

With the massive difference between the few wealthy elite and the masses of poor, ordinary Tunisians find this discrepancy absolutely unacceptable as many have had to endure years of unemployment and some even go hungry.

The US is not racing to rescue the situation in Tunis. In fact, it summoned the US ambassador earlier this week, angry that he had condemned the violent tactics used against protesters that have claimed about 60 lives to date.

The US has merely expressed concern at the violence and has refused to support Ben Ali, at least publicly. The EU has issued empty calls for a return of calm and has urged the government to show more restraint. But the real catalyst of change is coming from the people themselves.

When there was nowhere left to turn, and playing for time,  Ben Ali dissolved his government, calling for fair elections in six months. But as the nation wide state of emergency continues protesters are determined to get rid of him.

WikiLeaks has once again shown the real feelings of US diplomats. “Tunisia is a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems,” a July 2009 cable reads.

But whether or not the protestors succeed in ousting their iron-fisted president for good, other Middle Eastern regimes will not sleep comfortably until it is all over.