Tunisia is in a state of turmoil. Located in North Africa, recently, the country has been rocked by massive civilian street protests. Having lived under the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali for the past 23 years, the people of Tunisia had had enough and took to the streets. This conflict was brought to a head last year on December 17th, when an unemployed Tunisian youth, attempting to sell vegetables, had his produce confiscated by the government. In order to protest, this young man unfortunately ended up committing suicide by lighting himself on fire. His death became a catalyst for the many Tunisians who have also suffered troubling high unemployment, while living under the restrictions that come with life in a dictatorship. According to AlJazeera English “in the past month, protests have swept across the country over unemployment, food price rises and corruption.” In the face of giant civic demonstrations, on January 14th, Ben Ali ceded power and fled the country.
The international headlines are on fire, and many Western states are urging peace, at the same time calling for democratic principles to be implemented. But, as in many places around the world, the Western “peacemakers” calling for calm have themselves been complicit with the autocratic Ben Ali regime that had been in place for more than two decades. Tunisia is a former French colony, and much to France's approval, the Ben Ali regime had stifled the influx of North African immigrants heading for Western Europe. Ben Ali had also been a stalwart champion of U.S. anti-terrorism policy – cracking down harshly on “Islamist” groups. The regime's corruption has been laid bare by Wikileaks in a released U.S. State Department cable that labeled Tunisia a “police state” and characterized the ruling family as being “Sopranoesque.” Some are calling this the first “Wikileaks Revolution.” So essentially, Tunisia under Ben Ali has been the model Western-backed Arab dictatorship. But who is most troubled by the recent developments in Tunisia?
If you are the Saudi Arabian king or Hosni Mubarak, and you're watching this massive social upheaval in not-too-far-away Tunisia, what thoughts might be running through your head? That's precisely the sentiment among heads of state in the Arab world today. If this overthrow is successful, it will be largest since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, in which the Western-back Shah was overthrown by the Islamic Republic. Arab leaders are holding their breathe. And among all this chaos, where is the former Tunisian President Ben Ali you might ask? He has sought refuge in none other than Saudi Arabia. France did a 180 on Ben Ali, and they have refused to grant him asylum, fearing that this may provoke anger among the large Tunisian population that lives in France.
As of Saturday, Fouad Mebazaa – former president of the lower house of the Tunisian parliament has assumed the position of interim president. Mebazaa has ordered the assembly of a unity government, including space for an opposition – something that had never been done under Ben Ali. Yet, some Tunisians still remain apprehensive of the current government officals who are leading efforts toward a unity government because many of them had been a part of the Ben Ali establishment. It remains to be seen how these events will unfold, but even currently, the uproar has yet to subside, as the the state police continue to clash with protesters. Amid this chaos, looting has been reported, and there are fears that militias could start roaming the streets.
We as Muslims all pray for peace in this peculiar situation that has taken ahold of Tunisia. Although, some Muslims living in the West may try to limit their exposure to current events overseas (in order to avoid the “depressed ummah syndrome”), political events such as this in Tunisia are critical to pay attention to for many reasons. Although, not all Tunisians are monolithic in their resentment of the Ben Ali government, his ouster is significant because the people have had enough, and many have risked their lives to make a bold statement. Imagine if this starts happening all over the Arab world? Furthermore, since Iraq and Afghanistan have been in the forefront of the minds of many Muslims, it can be easy to overlook other Muslim majority countries, such as Tunisia, that have also been embroiled in oppression – but are on the fringes of international scrutiny, out of sight, out of mind. Hopefully, peace and calm will descend on Tunisia soon, and the outcome will be something that is welcomed by the majority of its people, who have suffered for so long.
Part II: Sudan and the election…
Al Jazeera English. (2011). “Army on Streets Amid Tunisia Unrest.” http://english.aljazeera.net/news/africa/2011/01/2011115135844457245.html
Al Jazeera English. (2011). “Tunisia Swears in Interim Leader”. http://english.aljazeera.net/news/africa/2011/01/201111513513854222.html
Salon.com. (2011). “Tunisia Primer: What lead to Today's Upheavel?” http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2011/01/14/tunisia_riots_protests/index.html
HuffingtonPost. (2011). “Tunisian Revolution News (Latests Updates)”. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/14/tunisia-revolution-live-u_n_809294.html