Facebook and SMS messages on mobile phones helped Tunisian young people organize an unprecedented revolution, which led to the overthrow of the 23-year-old Zine Abidine Ben Ali dictatorship and his flight with his family to Saudi Arabia. Arab satellite TV news stations, led by Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia, allowed the population of Tunisia to bypass Western media and get vivid commentary in their own language as the revolution gathered force. General Rachid Ammar, who heads the country's small professional army of 35,000, saved the day by proclaiming that his troops would not fire on the crowds and by advising Ben Ali to leave of the country at the peak of the revolt. He is now a national hero and a possible future arbiter of power.
The success of street demonstrations in forcing the old guard prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, to reshuffle his recently appointed cabinet and eliminate key ministers from the old regime represented a major victory for the revolutionaries. They are demanding a clean sweep from the past, new elections, and a social order built on human rights, a free judiciary, an open press, real TV debates, and the end to widespread corruption, which milked the country of billions of dinars and impoverished at least 30 percent of the population and left many young people jobless.
When the Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi (no relation to the prime minister) returned to Tunisia on January 30, after 22 years of forced exile, thousands of his followers met him at Tunis' airport. His return adds to the political drama. No one knows the strength of his movement, al-Nahda, and how many seats it may win in projected parliamentary elections. The question remains whether the military will allow an Islamist sweep of elections six month hence. Knowledgeable commentators believe that the Islamists may win between 20-30% of the vote, but that appears to be a guess, since no one really knows. At the last electoral test they participated in 22 years ago, they polled 17% of the vote. Many Tunisian women, who have liberated themselves over the last fifty years, and many of the secular youth who fomented the revolution, including emancipated women and trade union rank and file, will contest Islamist dominance and help mobilize secular forces unleashed by the revolution.
What took place in Tunisia is only the first step of what I expect will become a mass movement for change within the wider Arab world and beyond where dictators rule. The Information Age has provided young people everywhere with new means to organize and control their own media through mobile phone photographic technology shared on the social media that in the past they used for dating and meeting of friends. One Facebook site on the Tunisian revolution had 87,000 adherents!
At the end of the twentieth century, the sociologist Manuel Castells published a powerful work in three volumes on the Information Age and its implications for contemporary society. He argued it is as powerful, if not more so, than the transformative power of the first industrial revolution that began in Great Britain in 1750 when the old agricultural economy gave way to industrialization. The digital age has democratized access to information and has empowered the formerly powerless. Masses of people now possess new technology, which even the most adroit censors cannot entirely control.
I lived in Tunisia on and off since 1960. When I retired from Brooklyn College in 2006, I moved there to work on a book about the courage of Tunisian leaders under French colonial rule in the 1920s. On many occasions, I found my AOL e-mail account blocked because the Islamic radicals in the country used the site for their communications and the government decided to cut off access for everyone. I learned how to circumvent the blockage by learning some words of Japanese and logged successfully on to an Asian site to read my e-mail. Over the years, I have exchanged information with young Tunisians on how to circumvent censorship, about which they had become masters.
Everyone in the country knew about the cleptocracy of the president's and his wife's family, the Trabulsis.While I lived in Tunisia, rumors spread that the brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces of Ben Ali's wife, Leila Trabulsi, and their spouses were shaking down successful businesses for about 25% of their worth. In the past year, on a visit to Tunisia, I heard stories about "the family" taking over 50% of an industrial enterprise and confiscating rural land for their own use. Few successful businesses were safe from its reach. They had set up a mafia-like enterprise, which gave out import and export licenses to those who cooperated with them and denied these same licenses to those who refused.
In addition, if the police picked people up who had no protectors of importance they often ended up in the notorious Bou Chicha jail in Tunis. It often took a family several days to find out that their relatives had been arrested. They had to pay bribes to Bou Chicha police guards to find out if a son or brother was imprisoned there. Prisoners expected to be beaten and generally maltreated while there. Political prisoners, especially Islamists, faced brutal torture.
In rural small towns such as Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine, where the revolution began, people felt that the world had passed them by, leaving them without jobs of any value and scarcely any investments for development. On December 17, 28-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed high school graduate, immolated himself because a policewoman had confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling on the street. When he died on January 14, his hometown, Sidi Bouzid, erupted into revolt. Bouazizi became a martyr and the hero of the uprising. Kasserine blew up next and then the revolt spread through the country. For the first time the interior provinces, instead of Tunis or the coastal zone, fomented a mass protest movement. Tunisians, long cowed by Ben Ali's security forces, found the courage overnight to confront the 150,000 or so brutal police throughout the country of some 10.5 million people.
Governmental control had been enforced by putting family members of Tunisians who refused to cooperate with the Ben Ali regime at great risk, confronting the patriarchal authority of heads of households. Over the years, I heard testimony from several families of the regime losing the files of their children who had applied to the university, only to receive a phone call from the police in November, after classes had started, telling them that they had just found their files. By then it was too late to enroll and such students lost a year of their education. That was one of the milder forms of repression.
Police control affected most Tunisians. If a stranger appeared at a meeting, everyone clammed up out of fear that the person was a police informant. Anyone organizing a meeting had to have permission to do so from the Ministry of Interior. One could expect a police informant in the audience. Any person renting lodging had to report to the police and submit a copy of his/her lease, passport, or identity papers. Any non-relatives visiting a family and staying several nights also had to report their presence to the police. Penalties for non-compliance could lead to penalties of six months in jail. Intellectuals traveling to foreign conferences often had their passports taken away from them at the airport, thereby forcing them to cancel their trip. If they succeeded in passing police controls, they had to submit the texts of their presentations for censorship, sometimes receiving alternate texts in their place, which substituted for what they had written. Most people I knew feared that their homes and automobiles were tapped, to the point that in order to conduct meaningful conversations with some of my political friends over the years we had to walk along the beach in order to bypass police espionage.
A case in point of courage in the face of repression is that of Dr. Mustapha Ben Jaafer, who recently resigned from the first interim Tunisian government as Minister of Health. I've known Ben Jaafer since the 1970s when I worked with him and a group of courageous Tunisians to help found the country's first independent Human Rights Organization under the regime of the first president of independent Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba. Under Ben Ali, who overthrew Bourguiba, Ben Jafaar remained in the opposition. As the preeminent radiologist in the country, he headed the radiology department at Charles Nichol hospital, the leading public hospital in Tunis, and helped train a generation of doctors. The government could not kick him out of his job as a radiologist, but they prohibited him from practicing medicine and took away his office, his telephone, and desk and left him with a tiny room the size of a toilet furnished with a single chair. Ben Jafaar went to work every day for several years, bringing a book with him to read. I met him many times during that period and asked him why he did not open a private practice. He looked at me as if I was weird and told me that he believed in free medicine for the poor and that he would never work in the private sector. His persistence in facing down the regime led the faculty of radiology to elect him as the Chair of Radiology in the medical school. The minister of health and Ben Ali were furious, but they needed radiologists to care for their own families, so they were stymied and could do nothing to stop the election. In recent years Ben Jaafar was allowed to set up a newspaper, which he published using his own money. On many occasions, the censors seized his paper before it reached the newsstands. Ben Jafaar, and other opposition leaders who equally suffered, will play roles in the development of a new Tunisia.
My friends in Tunisia tell me that until January 31 life gradually returned to normal, with constant demonstrations taking place before the Prime Minister's office in the Kasbah to put pressure on him and the new government to keep their promises to organize free elections and guarantee freedoms. Schools have reopened after Ben Ali closed them at the beginning of the revolt. The government has also announced that every graduate with a professional degree who is unemployed will be given 150 dinars a month until they find work. The center of Tunis has become a forum for political debate. For the first time in decades, people can speak their minds without fear of the secret police picking them up and imprisoning them. Subsidies on key foods have been restored, alleviating some of the misery produced by the precipitous rise in the price of staples.
Starting on January 31 the police went on strike, demanding augmentations in their salaries and the formation of a police union. Young thugs carrying sticks took advantage of the withdrawal of forces of law and order on the streets and went on rampages through several neighborhoods, again frightening the population of Tunis. On the same day, Al-Jazeera also showed pictures of some policemen in downtown Tunis beating up demonstrators once again. Protesters wondered whether the army would intervene to protect the population under siege.
At no time did water, electricity, or garbage collection in Tunis stop. Buses and tramways ran slowly but continued despite the tumultuous events taking place. Many workers kept at their jobs and now most people have returned to work, while schools have reopened after being closed by the Ben Ali regime. The UGGT Labor Union rank and file joined the demonstrators and broke ranks with their leaders, whom the Ben Ali government appointed. They lent their experience learned from organizing May Day demonstrations on a large scale over the years. There seems to be a power struggle taking place between the leadership of the union and the rank and file for control of the labor movement, but at least the old guard faces a revolt from more democratic forces, which has a newly liberated society on its side.
In Morocco, the state announced up to 60% raises in December for the police force, plus other new benefits depending on the grade of officers, hoping to ensure their loyalty. The Minister of Finance later announced that 10% of the 2011 budget would be allocated for job creation. In the past, the former minister of finance told me that he could not create any state jobs because of opposition from the US, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. He added that he only had 2% of discretionary funds after paying the salaries of the top-heavy state bureaucracy. Because of the ongoing war in the Sahara between Morocco and the Polisario Liberation Movement, backed by Algeria, Morocco previously had announced that it was increasing its military budget by 25% to counter increases in Algeria's own military budget fed by growing oil and gas revenues. The US supplies both countries in a growing arms race.
The Moroccan monarchy concentrates most power in the Makhzen, the palace bureaucracy surrounding King Mohammed VI. Since coming to power 11 years ago, M6, as he is popularly called, has liberalized the political system to the point that the press is relatively free. Unlike Tunisia under Ben Ali, when you read newspapers and magazines published here you actually learn what is going on throughout the country. It is now very difficult to hide deals worked out by cabals or large-scale corruption without the press reporting on it. The Makhzen has intervened to close down some journals and fine others for overstepping established limits, but it continues to subsidize a relatively free press handsomely to ensure good reporting. Certain taboos exist that reporters have to respect: no criticism of the king, the army, or the Sahara is allowed. That still leaves a lot of room to speak about corruption, which is decentralized and nefarious at every level of the state apparatus.
Unemployed student-leavers have organized an association that demonstrates daily on the streets in front of the country's Parliament building in the center of the capital city, Rabat. For the past two years, they have begun to block traffic moving through the center of the city. About six months ago I witnessed something remarkable during a daily protest. The police were called in to push the demonstrators out of traffic. A police captain holding a billy club was about to hit a protester when the crowd at hand started hissing loudly. The captain froze, put his arm around the man he was about to hit and walked him to the sidewalk, while gently asking him to go home. The crowd represents a popular force, since most people no longer accept the brutal police tactics used in the past by M6's father, King Hassan II.
Myriads of other associations have formed around major issues of importance. Women's groups have proliferated, pressing their demands for further liberties. A new family law was instituted that gave women greater rights. Human rights organizations, free from state controls, branches of Transparency International, and other NGOs exist and criticize shortcomings in the regime. The press freely reports their findings.
Much more needs to be done to lessen the king's monopoly on power and the economy. However, Moroccans haven gone through nearly forty years of heavy-handed dictatorship under Hassan II and are relieved that repression has abated and they can now express some of the things on their mind. Many people here fear a mass revolt. Class tension is high, with rich people living in Beverly Hills-like luxury and masses of people living below the poverty line. Berbers (the original inhabitants of North Africa before the Arab conquest, numbering about 40% of the population) and Arabs have historic animosities, which M6 is trying to reduce. Most army officers are Berber, so a military takeover of Morocco would frighten the Arab majority. The poor are largely disdained by the haves, so that class conflict could erupt at the spark of revolution.
There are also organized Islamist movements, the largest of which, al-Adl wa al-Ihssane, is illegal but ever-present underground. The legal "moderate" Islamist Party, the PJD, has a block of deputies in the Parliament, but no members in the ruling coalition government. The king has initiated a policy of supporting traditional Sufi (mystical) brotherhoods as an antidote to Islamism.
Few Moroccans want to risk embarking on the Tunisian model for fear of unknown consequences. The question remains, however, whether a traditional monarchy can meet the demands of thousands of unemployed school leavers and a large mass of impoverished and illiterate people in a society marked by wide class divisions. Foreign investment to alleviate unemployment has been limited because of the high cost of labor throughout North Africa. The country inherited very progressive labor legislation from the colonial period. Workers with contracts have good benefits and decent salaries, making them much more expensive to hire than Chinese or Indian laborers. In a globalized world, it has been very difficult to compete with Asian economies.
REVOLT SPREADS TO ALGERIA, JORDAN, YEMEN, AND EGYPT
As in Tunisia, the rise in prices for food staples, high unemployment, especially for youth, and heavy-handed centralized political systems, led to mass demonstrations against state policies in Algeria, Jordan and massively in Egypt. Yemen had its own protests, demanding the removal of its long ruling president. Immediately, contested governments granted concessions to calm the crowds. Several people immolated themselves in imitation of the Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, hoping that their sacrifice would trigger mass revolts in their own countries. The Tunisian model became a potent force, but except for Egypt, where mass demonstrations continue since January 25 in an attempt to topple the 30-year regime of President Hosni Mubarak, all the other demonstrations momentarily died down, dormant perhaps until the results of the Egyptian drama plays itself out.
The world watched the Egyptians revolt on Al-Jazeera. They saw tens of thousands of fearless protesters in multiple cities facing down police officers who fired tear gas at them -- made in the US -- and water from canons on armored trucks. More than 100 demonstrators died, making the crowd angrier as the manifestations intensified. "Down with Mubarak" they chanted from one end of Egypt to the other. The President saw the problem, as he always did, as a security issue, reshuffled the government, placing trusted security specialists from the army and the police in key ministries, and for the first time named a Vice President. That only infuriated the crowds more and they called for a march of a million Egyptians to come out on February 1 to express their opposition to the regime. The army replaced the security police on the streets and physical attacks against demonstrators ceased. Instead, armed police in civilian clothes rode around the major cities on motorcycles, terrorizing the population. Youth brigades formed to protect their neighborhoods, capturing some of the thugs and finding police IDs on their person. Prisons were emptied, adding to insecurity, bringing Egyptian cities to the brink of anarchy. With ATM machines broken into, most stores closed, and petrol scarce, local solidarities developed to aid the most needy. At the end of January, groups of hundreds of supporters of the Mubarak regime began to demonstrate in various pockets of Cairo.
Machinations by the Mubarak regime only intensified the revolt. The population lost their fear, as they had in Tunisia, and decided to resist even if it meant death in a show of courage that the world watched on their television sets. As the protest gathered steam, the organizers distributed leaflets and spread the word through informal networks when the government cut mobile phone lines and most internet sites by January 30. The government also closed Al-Jazeera's Cairo offices and arrested six of their journalists for several hours, while state television showed pictures of a peaceful Egypt far from revolt.
At this point, the demonstrators expect more positive responses to their demands from the major foreign powers. However, the West has procrastinated in taking their side. So far, the US has refused to break with Mubarak, while warning him not to use force against the demonstrators. Gradually, the statements coming from Washington demonstrate a shift in favor of the demonstrators, meaning that President Obama has had to fight off pressures from right-wing Republicans, Democratic hawks, the Israeli lobby, and some bureaucrats within his administration to gradually change US policy. The Obama administration is petrified that the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel will be abrogated under a new radicalized regime. Oil prices have risen to over $100/barrel and stock markets around the world have declined in response to higher energy costs, which might trigger another global recession. The US says it would like to see a negotiated settlement, but do not say who the interlocutors should be. Mohamed ElBaradei, the 2005 Nobel Prize-winning former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has been named by a united Egyptian opposition as its negotiator with the regime. Neither the Americans nor the West Europeans have endorsed this selection, fearful that the illegal and powerful Muslim Brotherhood is part of that coalition.
The US supplies $1.3 billion in arms aid to Egypt yearly, second only to Israel, and therefore has leverage over President Mubarak and the military, whose head happened to be in Washington when the protests began. Wikileaks revelations reassert what historians already know: that the US intervenes at will to enhance its national interests. It is time that the US government catch up with the Information Age revolution and realize that a new world exists out there, which they or no other power can control. Under US pressure, President Mubarak announced on February 1, while a million people marched throughout Egypt, that he would stand down in September, 2011, the scheduled moment for presidential elections. The US does not fully realize that this concession is too little, too late, for Pandora has jumped out of her box and demands immediate attention. The crowd is telling the world that Mubarak must go now.
Stuart Schaar is professor emeritus of Middle East and North African History at Brooklyn College and co-author of The Middle East and Islamic World Reader. He now lives and teaches in Rabat, Morocco.
**The article will appear on Feb. 5 in India's Economic and Political Weekly.