From 9/11 to the Arab Revolutions

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    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    Thoughts and Opinions About the New Arab Revolutions
    A Tunisian View

    The popular uprisings in many Arab countries have made deep and important changes. They have overthrown corrupt, autocratic regimes and jolted Arab history out of its stupor and lethargy.

    On Saturday, December 18th 2010, only two days after my return from Cairo, where I participated in the Arab Novel Conference held there every other year, I was scheduled to introduce the Tunisian poet Awlad Ahmed – currently one of Tunisia’s most renowned poets – at the International Cultural Centre of Hammamat. Everything was calm that day. In the city of Hammamat, which is the site of a major tourist resort, the weather was beautiful; it seemed that spring had arrived unseasonably early. Foreign tourists of various nationalities were lying on the soft sand of the beautiful beach, basking in the sun, while most of their homelands were suffering from snowstorms.
    Before the poetry event, I sat with Awlad Ahmed in a restaurant called Le Condor, where we plunged into a deep discussion of things unrelated to poetry. I was really delighted to be introducing Awlad Ahmed at the International Cultural Centre in Hammamat, because he is the poet who has addressed Tunisian social and political issues since the beginning of the 1980s and continues to do so. His poems, bitingly satirical essays, and daring positions with regard to some political events have won him wide recognition among young poetry lovers, especially those who reject the mummified official culture.
    Awlad Ahmed, a native of Sidi Bouzid, which is in the centre of the country, came to the capital at the beginning of the 1980s. From the start he was able to distinguish himself on the Tunisian poetry and culture scene. The essays and poems he published in newspapers and magazines criticised the country’s corrupt political life and attacked government officials and their repressive and despotic agencies clearly and unambiguously. Six years after taking power, in 1993 Ben Ali appointed Awlad Ahmed director of the House of Poetry of Tunisia. In 1998, however, he was removed from this post, because officials of the Ministry of Culture considered his conduct ‘deviant’ once his opposition to the Ben Ali regime intensified and he started to attack it openly.

    The first spark

    We – Awlad Ahmed and I – were preparing to leave for Hammamat’s International Cultural Centre when his phone rang. From the shock and alarm registering on his Bedouin face I realised that he was receiving bad news. Once his conversation ended, Awlad Ahmed told me, ‘Listen: there are serious disturbances in my birthplace, Sidi Bouzid. A young man named Mohamed Bouazizi has killed himself in protest over the lack of jobs. Now people are furious. They’re on the street clashing with the police.’
    That painful and tragic incident – the suicide of the youth Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in front of a government building in Sidi Bouzid – was the first spark in what is now called the Jasmine Revolution. As a matter of fact, the overwhelming majority of Tunisians thought then that calm would soon return to Sidi Bouzid, especially after President Ben Ali offered his condolences to the family of the young man who had killed himself, promised political reforms, and offered to find jobs for the unemployed, especially those with advanced degrees. But this was just a fantasy. The flame of popular anger quickly spread to other villages and cities in the governorate of Sidi Bouzid, then to the region of Kasserine (in the centre of the country) and al-Mahrouma, and eventually to other areas of the country. This flame continued to spread quickly until it reached the capital and its suburbs, which are called the ‘poverty belts’. As the uprising spread, the regime seemed indifferent to it. Indeed, Ben Ali and his advisers may have thought that it – the intifada – would be extinguished as quickly as the uprising known as ‘the Revolt of the Gafsa Mining Basin’, which had erupted three years earlier in Gafsa and had been severely and violently suppressed while Tunisian public opinion remained silent.
    The revolt continued to expand, but official information services operating through various media outlets continued to ignore it while young people revealed its daily events via the internet and Facebook in particular. Following their normal procedure the daily newspapers came out each day with the same photo of Ben Ali, his face smiling and relaxed, posing with his wife Leila, who was the subject of gossip by Tunisians of all ages who discussed her, her scandals, intrigues, and shenanigans, as well as the corruption that she inspired and that had begun to undermine state agencies. Some people compared her to Imelda Marcos and also to Eva Perón. Others referred back to ancient history, in particular to the Byzantine era, to find someone comparable: the actress Theodora, wife of the Emperor Justinian I (482-565 CE). That beautiful woman began life as a dancer. When Justinian I married her, she started to direct the Empire’s affairs as she saw fit, dismissing high church officials from their posts and exchanging thoughts and opinions with learned men and prelates. She directed some conspiracies against her husband, who was totally subservient to her and never rejected any of her requests or orders. Ben Ali married Leila at the beginning of the 1990s after an affair that had lasted for many years. Leila, who came from a poor family and who began her career as an assistant in a hair salon, began to take a direct role in the country’s political and economic affairs. She capitalised on her immense influence, which she started to enjoy, and opened the doors wide for her brothers and members of her large family, allowing them to plunder the wealth of the country and to take control of vital sectors like banking and tourism. The voices of some Tunisians were raised from time to time to criticise the conduct of those they began to call ‘the Trabelsis’, that is, members of Leila’s family, although President Ben Ali did not pay much attention.

    ‘I get you and your demands.’

    Within the compass of a few days, the revolt that began in Sidi Bouzid spread to all regions of the country, including wealthy and privileged areas like al-Sahel and al-Watan al-Qibli. In a challenge to spoken and visual government propaganda – the Deaf and the Mute – young people began to trade information about the uprising and its developments hour by hour and even moment by moment via the internet and Facebook, urging continuation of the revolt and posting poems and texts in Arabic and French to glorify the uprising and to sing its praises. In imitation of Bouazizi and out of loyalty to his spirit, some young men proceeded to immolate themselves as well. Confronted by this dangerous situation, President Ben Ali made another move and, on January 9th 2011, delivered a speech that was tantamount to a calamity for him and his regime, because the Tunisian people saw him on the television screen looking not only glum and tense but even disorientated. At the beginning of his speech President Ben Ali threatened to use force against the demonstrators and to throw the book at those he termed ‘veiled terrorists’. Then he presented some reform measures and promised to offer jobs to unemployed youth, to pay special attention to the deprived inner regions of the country, and to end press supervision and censorship. Tunisians, however, were not convinced by this. In fact, they grew even angrier at Ben Ali and his regime. The next day they descended to the streets again to protest the resorting to force that Ben Ali had threatened in this speech. Circumstances continued to deteriorate once the trade union federation, which is the second most powerful group in the country after the ruling party, threatened a general strike. Other political forces including opposition political parties, civic and youth organisations, and cultural and artistic communities moved to proclaim their unqualified support for the popular uprising and demanded that Ben Ali and his regime undertake genuine and radical reforms in all fields – political, economic, cultural – and in the media and so forth. Attempting to rescue himself and his regime from a situation that became more critical by the day, Ben Ali appeared on television a third time on Thursday, January 12th 2011, to tell Tunisians – in Tunisian dialect Arabic – what de Gaulle had told the rebels in Algeria: ‘I get you and your demands.’ He promised to carry out radical reforms within his regime, to establish an independent commission to investigate cases of corruption and bribery, and to grant the media total freedom. Regime loyalists assumed that the moderate, pacific tone adopted by Ben Ali in this speech would extinguish the flame of the uprising. So they took to the streets in the capital and some other cities shouting, ‘Long live Ben Ali!’ However, the driving force of the revolt – the youngsters – greeted Ben Ali’s speech with derision and resentment. Citing the fraudulent promises he had repeatedly floated ever since assuming power on November 7th 1987, they were able to convince the majority of Tunisians to take to the streets again under the slogans: ‘Tunisia is free and Ben Ali’s out’ and ‘Ben Ali, dégage, quit!’ On the evening of Friday, January 14th 2011, the regime collapsed, and accompanied by his family Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia.
    The fact is that the regime that collapsed did not heed the lessons of modern Tunisian history, which says that all the popular uprisings Tunisia has witnessed from the nineteenth century to the present have been almost all the same – the difference of eras notwithstanding – in their goals, aims, catalysts, and causes too. The thread tying all of them together is the fact that these revolts have exploded when the country’s people – especially inhabitants of the central and southern regions – have felt that the state is neglecting them, acting as if it is indifferent to their problems, concerns, and troubles.

    The ‘Bedouin’ revolt

    The ‘Bedouin’ revolt led by Ali Ben Ghedhahem against the Bey in 1864 was cut from this cloth. In that year the Bey abrogated the Tunisian constitution that had been promulgated for the first time in 1858. He pursued a tyrannical, autocratic policy of imposing prejudicial taxes on citizens and sending his soldiers to torture those who refused to pay. This unjust policy incited a popular uprising led by a tribal chief called Ali Ben Ghedhahem in the region of Kasserine (in the middle of the country). The Bey attacked the rebels forcefully and brutally.
    The rebellion ended with the execution of Ali Ben Ghedhahem and his supporters and the total suppression of this revolt, which had almost swept the Bey off his throne. In the 1960s, residents of central, coastal, and southern regions of the country rebelled against the socialist policy of cooperatives imposed by the regime. Confronted by this widespread uprising, President Bourguiba chose to fire Minister Ahmed Ben Salah, who was primarily responsible for this policy and who was then tried on the charge of high treason. In 1978 there was a violent and bloody confrontation between the government of Prime Minister Hédi Nouira and the trade union federation in response to the declining standard of living of Tunisians and the lack of public freedoms; there were hundreds of casualties. Early in 1984, because of the government-imposed increase in the price of bread, another popular revolt exploded that also resulted in hundreds of casualties. The uprising that rocked Tunisia at the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011 and became a mighty revolution that toppled Ben Ali’s regime did not differ much from the uprisings that prefigured it. After twenty-three years of absolute rule, all factions of Tunisians could no longer bear the false promises, policy of procrastination, autocracy, rampant corruption in all state agencies and institutions both large and small, and the control of Ben Ali’s and his wife’s families over vital sectors of the nation’s economy. Tunisians were also fed up with the lack of freedoms and the arrogance of the president’s wife, who acted as if Tunisia were a private estate that she could exploit however she saw fit. Moreover, Tunisians were no longer interested in official statements, which they scorned and which repulsed them, especially once they noticed that this discourse ignored their very existence. The different media outlets similarly lacked the ability to keep pace with events on the ground in Tunisia with all the breaking news and multifaceted developments. Thus magazines, newspapers, public and private television channels and radio stations only rarely referred to the problems and issues that people confronted in daily life. Citizens were only remembered on national occasions when they were portrayed as grateful supporters of the benevolent regime. The social, economic, and political events that preoccupied society with all its constituent elements were missing and concealed. So the Ben Ali regime dug its own grave all by itself, as Tunisians point out.

    Who’s next?

    The moment that the Ben Ali regime fell in Tunis, people in all the other parts of the Arab world began to ask, ‘Who’s next?’ They were sure that the torch of the Tunisian Revolution would soon reach other Arab countries and topple their corrupt regimes and the rulers who had been clinging to power for long eras, refusing to relinquish their offices and using every means, especially illegal ones, to retain power and safeguard it. Actually, the same month that Ben Ali’s regime fell, the torch of the Tunisian Revolution spread to Egypt and removed President Hosni Mubarak from power after he had held onto it for thirty-one years. Then the flame spread to Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya, where a despot in the full ancient Oriental meaning of the word had ruled for more than forty years. I doubt that the other Arab countries will be able to escape the swift and profound changes that are currently occurring, because all Arab peoples now have their hearts set on freedom, dignity, and a future that will allow them to play an active role in each country’s political, economic, and cultural life after they were deprived of that participation by all the types of repression, violence, news blackouts, obstruction, and deportation that their regimes, whether republics or monarchies, practised. For this reason, some Arab and foreign thinkers and politicians think that it is now legitimate to speak of ‘the Age of Arab Revolutions’ at the dawn of the new millennium. Discussion was previously focused, particularly in the West, on the terrorist attack of the young fundamentalist extremists affiliated with al-Qaeda against the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.
    That attack, which terrorised and alarmed the United States of America and its Western allies, caused most people to affirm that the next struggle would be between Islam and the Christian, capitalist West. That was what the American thinker Huntington tried to establish in his book The Clash of Civilizations. Advocates of this new theory grew even more convinced after terrorist operations became commonplace in a number of countries including Arab and Islamic ones. Over the course of the first ten years of the twenty-first century, the West continued to see the Arab and Islamic world through the lens of extremist jihadist organisations like al-Qaeda, believing that this world was incapable of transformation or the production of anything that could discredit this view or refute it. The West relied on many arguments in its attempt to back up its belief. The first and most important was that Arab and Islamic peoples are helplessly wedded to the past and therefore disinterested in the future, and that they are servile bootlickers, and consequently incapable of acting to forge their destiny or set their own standards. The regimes ruling them were actually corrupt, tyrannical, and autocratic, but it seemed that they would last forever. Only a foreign force could bring them down – as the United States did when it ended Saddam Hussein’s regime. Cooperation with these regimes was therefore a necessity imposed by political and economic concerns, especially since Arab and Islamic countries like Libya and the Gulf States possess a staggering wealth of oil and gas that the global economy needs if it is to avoid severe crises that could lead to bankruptcy and financial collapse. The Arab revolutions that have occurred recently in Tunisia and Egypt and that have spread their influence to other Arab countries, however, have pushed political and intellectual elites in the West to review their positions and opinions concerning numerous important issues pertaining to the Arab and Islamic world. For this reason, these elites no longer see this world through the lens of extremist jihadist organisations but instead through the lens of its peoples, which have suddenly awakened from their lethargy and passivity to topple their corrupt regimes in the course of a few weeks for the sake of freedom, dignity, and social justice.
    These are the important characteristics of the new Arab revolutions. First of all, these revolutions were not anticipated by the ruling regimes, the peoples, or the great Western powers like the United States of America and the countries of the European Union. Unlike earlier revolutions like the Bolshevik, Chinese, and Cuban revolutions, these Arab revolutions were not plotted out in advance by leaders, strategists, and soldiers. Instead they exploded suddenly, taking everyone by surprise. Their leaders and organisers were young people from new generations enchanted by new technologies like the internet, and Facebook in particular. By utilising these, young people in Tunis and Cairo and other Tunisian and Egyptian cities were able to exchange news and information, to issue orders, and then to take to the streets to confront security forces equipped with the most modern weapons – while protestors sang anthems in praise of freedom and dignity.

    Bare hands

    Another distinctive feature of the Arab revolutions is that they have been revolutions in which bare hands confronted the forces of thuggery and tyranny, because by and large the young demonstrators have avoided any resort to violence or reliance on it, even when security forces have fired live ammunition at them. This is what the young people of Tunis did on Friday, January 14th – only a few hours before the Ben Ali regime collapsed. Policemen fired on the demonstrators – young men and women in their twenties shouting, ‘Ben Ali, dégage!’ (‘Ben Ali, resign!’) They bared their chests, preparing to die for the sake of freedom and dignity. Thus the noted French journalist Jean Daniel, in his weekly editorial for Le Nouvel Observateur [posted February 23, 2011], observed correctly, ‘What is most striking about these intifadas are the bare hands.’ What the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring are accomplishing is done without resort to weapons, especially in Libya where they have met bullets with chests bared. ‘What we have here are not kamikazes, not the zealous proponents of suicide attacks. They kill no one, leaving the sin of murder to their enemies. Their actions seem based on a comment that Albert Camus wrote for one of his heroes: “Each time an oppressed person takes up arms in the name of justice, he has taken a step toward injustice.”’ The revolutionaries of the Arab Spring ‘exert immense collective force through their very presence. This is exactly what differentiates us from extremist knights.’
    The popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and other Arab countries have made deep and important changes that were certainly not anticipated. They have overthrown corrupt, autocratic regimes and jolted Arab history out of its stupor and lethargy to create instead an evolving history that interacts with the present age and its changes to reflect the aspirations of young generations that dream of freedom and dignity. All the same, the future remains fraught with dangers. The destructive chaos that shows its ugly face here and there from time to time can demolish the revolution’s dreams and leave its champions frustrated and desperate. Radical, fundamentalist movements may exploit the atmosphere of freedom and openness to plunge this or that Arab country into civil strife and ideological and sectarian struggles. There are many other possibilities that must be watched carefully to avoid anything that could reverse the forward flow of Arab history. All the same, hope is well-founded. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and other Arab countries, political and intellectual elites are capable of confronting the difficult trials that await them. Elites like these are the ‘safety belt’ as new Arab revolutions accomplish their aims, goals, and objectives. This is what its innocent martyrs expect, and the first of these was an impoverished young man from Sidi Bouzid by the name of Mohamed Bouazizi.

    Hassouna Mosbahi,
    born in 1950 in Kairouan in Tunisia, is a well-known Tunisian novelist and intellectual. Many of his works are translated into German, English and French. From 1985 to 2000 he lived in Munich, Germany. He was the Arabic Editor of Fikrun wa Fann/Art&Thought for several years in the 1980s.

    Translated by William Hutchins
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2011

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