Robin Yassin-Kassab

Changing the Air

with 3 comments

Zein al-Abdine Ben Ali is in Abha, Saudi Arabia. France wouldn’t have him. (Despots, note the speed with which a sponsor drops a client who has outlived his usefulness.) Arab activists are calling for protests outside Saudi embassies.

In Tunisia, the extent of the people’s sacrifice over the last month is becoming clearer. Reports describe Ben Ali’s police terrorising rural areas with punitive rapes and random murders.

And the terror continues. Since Ben Ali’s fall, Tunis and other cities have been plagued by violence. Some of it, such as attacks on Ben Ali family businesses, can be classed as revolutionary. Some more of it is the natural result of taking the lid off after so long; a mix of exuberance, criminality, and what Gazmend Kapplani calls an ‘orphan complex’:

Tyrants are merciless beasts, precisely because they leave behind distorted societies worn down by oppression and above all suffering from an orphan complex. Those who give themselves over to indiscriminate looting and destruction the minute the statues come down are like orphaned children robbing the corpse of a false and terrifying father.

But the most terrifying violence appears to be organised by Ben Ali’s militiamen. Tunisians report battles between army forces on the one hand and ‘police’ and other highly-trained, well-armed gangs on the other. Some of these gangs have been driving through residential areas shooting randomly at people and buildings.

Tunisians are forming neighbourhood committees to defend their homes. These spontaneously born groups have no sectarian or political agenda and pose no risk of transforming into militias, as some fear. There’s more danger of a military takeover. The army has expressed no desire to seize power (indeed its performance so far has been admirable, or the carnage would have been much worse), but a protracted period of chaos may induce it – a popular institution – to step in. At present this seems unlikely. The agents provocateurs are being arrested, and calm appears to be returning.

A unity government is to be announced. It will include opposition parties but figures of the Ben Ali regime too, including the Minister of the Interior. Given reports that Interior Ministry goons are involved in the counter-revolutionary violence, this is worrying. The Tunisian people still have the momentum, however, and are clearly not in a mood to be hoodwinked. The stated aim of the unity government is to organise elections within two months.

Israel’s deputy prime minister is worrying out loud that Arab democracy would threaten Israeli national security. The Arab regimes, particularly the Maghreb regimes, are keeping very quiet about the events, with the comic exception – as always – of Muammar Qaddafi. The Brother Leader pitied Tunisians for the fear they’d brought on themselves, and wondered why they couldn’t wait for Ben Ali to step down of his own free will. Meanwhile, there have been protests in the Libyan city of al-Bayda. Demonstrations supporting the Tunisians have been held on the West Bank and in Yemen. Lebanon’s Hizbullah has declared its support. And Arabs everywhere are wondering what the revolution might mean for the future.

If there is a domino effect, it won’t be immediate and it won’t proceed evenly. Current conditions in Iraq obviously will not permit a unified national uprising against the government. Such language is not even relevant. In Syria the president is reasonably popular, even if the regime around him isn’t. And if the president were to fall dramatically from popular grace, Syrians fear that revolution would lead to sectarian war and Israeli intervention – both real possibilities. Saudi Arabia is too tribally divided, and many sections of society are too comfortable, for revolutionary disruption. The angriest population in the kingdom is the oppressed Shia community, but any action on their part would be fiercely opposed by the Wahhabi heartland. Bahrain, with a politicised and intelligent Shia majority facing an oppressive Sunni ruling family, is a more likely candidate for change. Egypt is the unknown quantity. On the one hand, the failure of Mubarak’s gangster regime has been resounding. On the other, very many Egyptians do not have the leisure to think about anything except their next meal. They don’t follow events on Facebook or even on al-Jazeera. And we can be almost certain that any serious attempt at popular revolution in Egypt would result in thousands of deaths. (But that can play both ways – nothing generates a revolution like a series of funerals. See Ali Farzat’s picture above.)

Perhaps in six months’ time non-Arab commentators will decide that the Tunisian revolution was a mere anomaly in an eternally stagnant Arab world. But they’ll be wrong. The revolution will exert a long-term pervasiveness throughout Arab culture, as the Iranian revolution did before it. It will change the air the Arabs breathe and the dreams the Arabs dream.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 17, 2011 at 2:24 am

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