Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Ben Ali's downfall and its precedents

Over the last few days, as an ordinary non-blogging citizen of the world, I sent a bundle of messages to various news organization (including the New York Times, the BBC and the Guardian) noting that Ben Ali is by no means the first Arab ruler to lose power because of street protests (they were all saying he was the first). None of them sent me a response of any kind, let alone acknowledged that they wrote too hastily. The latest example is here in The National Interest, where former US official Bruce Riedel writes:  "the Arab world has never seen a dictator tossed out like Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali". The precedent I cited was of course the overthrow of Sudanese President Jaafar Nimeiri in 1985 after one million Sudanese filled the streets of Khartoum demanding that he go. The best description of events I could readily find was this (from his obituary in the London Times): "In early 1985 antigovernment discontent, mainly over rising food and fuel prices, resulted in a general strike which paralysed Sudan. Massive demonstrations followed and the army — Nimeiri’s traditional source of support — could no longer be counted on to restore order. The end came on April 6, 1985, while Nimeiri was on the way home from an official visit to Washington. He was deposed in a bloodless coup led by his Defence Minister and backed by the army. Nimeiri diverted to Egypt where he was to spend the next 14 years in exile." The only serious response was from one reader who argued that in Sudan it wasn't really people power because the army took over (rather than who in the Tunisian case? The RCD with clandestine army support?). But the army only stepped in when it was clear that Nimeiri's presidency was untenable, exactly as in Tunisia. Interesting, at least as things now stand, the Sudanese army did a much more thorough job of purging the state than Ghannounchi seems likely to do in Tunisia. The interim cabinet was led by an independent physician, Al-Jazuli Daf'allah, and, as far as I recall, none of Nimeiri's entourage stayed in power. Restrictions on political activity were waived very rapidly and the elections in 1986, exactly one year later as promised, were exemplary.
    I could not help wondering why the Sudanese example has received so little attention as a precedent (with the honourablee xception of Al Jazeera). Some possibilities occur to me:

* Maybe in the media's collective memory twent-five years is just too long to be relevant

* Maybe they do not consider Nimeiri 'an Arab leader' for some reason, though he meets all the criteria I can think of.

* Maybe the media couldn't resist the hyberbole of 'unprecedented' and trusted that none of their readers or listeners would challenge the epithet.

* Maybe they believe that if a popular uprising isn't fully televised, then it doesn't really happen. Nimeiri was overthrown in the telex age, when television footage took days to emerge, and there was hardly any pan-Arab media to amplify the effect.

* Maybe they subconsciously mean that the overthrow of Ben Ali was the first overthrow relevant to the greater Middle East, that is the first model applicable to present-day realities, which may or may not turn out to be the case. If it was Bashir who was overthrown last week instead of Ben Ali, would they have drawn the conclusion that it wasn't very relevant to other Arab countries, given Sudan's very special circumstances (imminent southern secession, the Darfur rebellion, Bashir's status as an ICC indictee, his failure to monopolize Sudanese politics)?

I would welcome any other ideas on the thinking here.

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