Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Tunisian uprising

It took disgruntled Tunisians and the fall of Ben Ali to persuade me to resume blogging, something I did regularly and anonymously in the period 2004/5. I'm struck by several aspects of the uprising which have not received much comment elsewhere.

* Street protests don't appear to have much momentum at this stage. Maybe I'm mistaken but in a revolutionary setting you would expect more than 500 people to demonstrate in the capital against what could easily be an RCD attempt to hang on to power. What explains this? Possible answers: the Tunisian middle class (a much vaunted aspect of Ben Ali's picture-perfect Tunisia) is wary of turmoil that goes any further than this, or perhaps the capital is out of tune with the country as a whole (we have seen throughout that the provinces were more hostile to the regime than the capital), or perhaps the RCD's emphasis on the central role of the state really has sunk deep into the thinking of Tunisians (as it has in Egypt, for example) and they really do value continuity. The excluded politicians and activists are making a lot of noise, with good arguments, but do they have feet on the ground?

* It may be too early to dismiss the Islamists as a force to reckon with, as many pundits and observers are doing (Juan Cole for example, and Angry Arab). It's hardly surprising that after 20 years underground, they have been reluctant to show their faces. Don't forget that under Ben Ali the police kept tabs on everyone who merely went to the mosque to pray or whose female relatives wear headscarves. Back in the last relatively free parliamentary elections in Tunisia in 1989 (which I covered as a reporter) Nahda candidates, running as independents, won up to 17 percent of the vote by official tallies. Now it is possible that support for political Islam has declined over the last 20 years, but I can't see any obvious reason why it should have. After all, Ben Ali and the RCD didn't make secularism and state-control especially attractive. Individual Islamists might still be wary of coming out when it's still not clear whether the RCD will remain in control.

* The clumsy handling of the political manoevring over the first few days has been extraordinary, both by PM Ghannouchi and by the recognized opposition parties, especially the latter. Why did they not ask for a complete cabinet list before they agreed to take part? Logically, they should have felt in a strong position and could have demanded more concessions in the coalition negotiations. By agreeing to take part and then changing their minds the next day, they just look incompetent. Ahmed Bouazzi, a member of the executive committee of the Progressive Democratic Party, told the New York Times: “We — I, personally — did not realize the balance of forces, that the ruling party was so weak as a party” when the prime minister called about forming a unity government. 

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