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Sunday, 23 January 2011

Democratic ideals of internet-inspired revolution should be applauded

I’m not an expert on North African politics, but I broadly welcome the news that there has been an outbreak of democratic protest in Algeria. The Algerian police have been quick to break up demonstrations and there are reports that two people have been killed.

More positively, however, is the democratic contagion apparently moving across North Africa. Last week – in what is already being termed the Jasmine Revolution - President Ben Ali of Tunisia was overthrown following dramatic protests which rapidly spread across his country over four weeks until they finally engulfed the capital, Tunis.

It is worth looking into Tunisia’s recent history, the causes of the “revolution” and its unusual characteristics. Ben Ali’s Tunisia appeared to outsiders to be a model Arab republic; an oasis of progression in a desert of Islamic conservatism. Unlike other Islamic nations, Ali ensured Tunisia had a strong and inclusive education system. He protected women’s rights. He was opposed to the Islamic radicalism that is taking hold elsewhere across the Arab world. Ostensibly, Tunisia was a more liberal country than its neighbours and one of the most prosperous: Tunisia’s economy was among the strongest in Africa with a per capita income of $US 8,000.

But appearances can be deceptive. Even the benefits of Ben Ali’s dictatorship had a price and Tunisians paid for these comforts by surrendering their freedom. Opposition was suppressed. The media existed purely as a propaganda machine for the Ben Ali regime. This contract between the dictator and his people – the exchange of liberty for social and economic improvements – worked for a while. But in recent years as opportunities have diminished, unemployment has increased, inflation soared and the regime become more corrupt, it has become more difficult for the government to contain mounting frustrations.

It isn’t difficult to empathise with Tunisia’s people. A once thriving economy had found itself in freefall. Unemployment, particularly high among the youth, had taken hold. Living standards were falling. Curiously, the disaffected did not turn to Islamic radicalism as might have been the case elsewhere. Instead, their frustrations and grievances found expression in an unusual way as young people turned to the internet in the aftermath of what seemed a small and insignificant incident.

A young fruit seller named Mohammed Bouazizi – a computer technician struggling to find work – was slapped by a policewoman as she ordered him to pack up his stall. Bouazizi responded to this humiliation by demanding to see the governor, threatening to set himself on fire if turned away. He carried out his promise and, with a martyr, the Tunisian people now had a rallying point. His death unleashed the bottled-up, seething anger and resentment of a generation of young Tunisians. Bouazizi had unwittingly set off a time bomb on a very short fuse.

What happened next is more than interesting. Instead of turning towards an iconic leader as might be expected, Tunisians looked to themselves. And the internet. Many young Tunisians are computer literate and familiar with the likes of Twitter and Facebook. The government had, over the last few years, attempted to suppress expression on the world wide web just as they did the Tunisian press. But the younger generation understood the internet far better than Ben Ali’s elite and, in spite of their websites being regularly shut down, turned their expertise into a weapon. They were able to undermine the regime’s propaganda, effectively rendering state media irrelevant.

Here was revolution by text and twitter. There were no rallies, no leaders, no speeches...nothing on the basis of top-down organisation. Spontaneous demonstrations broke out; these were small at first but as the brutal government response was spread via mobile phone and YouTube - including beatings and shootings of protesters – the mood of the nation quickly changed. Sensing an opportunity for weakening the government, protests became larger and spread to Tunis, prompting President Ben Ali to announce that he would step down in 2014. If this was an attempt to appease the demonstrators it failed miserably. The momentum for change was unstoppable. Within hours, the President had fled.

The lack of a leader or figurehead may prove problematic in regards filling the power vacuum. The fact that there was no organised campaign means an absence of credible political representation to express the will of the people. There is no movement or party with the democratic mandate, or even the popular support, to reflect the mood of the country. The protests delivered a message to Ben Ali’s government: we want change and we want you out. However, what will replace it has yet to be seen. Given the lack of democratic channels in Tunisia, it is concerning that many of Ben Ali’s elite remain in power and a militant Islamic Party is demanding a role in government.

Whatever the future for Tunisia, the recent actions of its people have proved that revolution is possible in the Islamic world. The Arabic-speaking world has remained largely unaffected by democratic movements but suddenly other North African and Arab nations are worried. They have every right to be. Protesters in Algeria yesterday were waving Tunisian flags in reference to the “Jasmine Revolution”. Deep frustrations about worsening economic conditions and political corruption may find their expression as the Tunisian experience emboldens and empowers, inspiring hope among people who have been oppressed for so long.

The governments of Jordan, Yemen and Egypt are so fearful that they have already cut the prices of food and fuel. Whether that will prove sufficient to disquiet unrest remains to be seen. The Sudanese government has already come down heavily on proponents of Tunisia-style demonstrations and has jailed the ringleaders.

Sadly, in a Commons debate on Tunsia on 17th January, some MPs were already expressing fear about a potential “domino” effect and an unevidenced concern for the spread of Islamic militancy. Robert Halfron (Conservative) thought that “Tunisia will move out of the frying pan of dictatorship and into the fire of Islamism” while Richard Fuller (Con) asked: “Does my right hon. Friend agree that the right way to stop the violence, to push back against al-Qaeda and to create the basis for stability and elections is to support the interim Government behind Prime Minister Ghannouchi?” The misplaced obsession among British politicians with Al-Qaeda is blinding them to the reality that this was a spontaneous outbreak of rage at an undemocratic system rather than a stage-managed Islamic revolution. As for Britain supporting Ghannouchi (known to Tunisians as 'Monsieur Oui Oui' on account of his always saying yes to Ben Ali)...would that really endear the UK to the Tunisian people? Backing the man who had served as Ben Ali’s Prime Minister is hardly responsible (in any case, he survived only one day as president and was replaced by another of Ben Ali’s close circle, Fouad Mebazaa) and goes against the grain of encouraging for formation of a new democratic system in Tunsia. Admittedly, there may be a long road ahead in forging new democratic structures but it is wise to start by recognising Tunisians’ democratic right to choose their own leaders rather than backing the object of their rebellion simply to counter what is (so far in Tunisia) a non-existent terrorist threat.

We can not allow the future of North Africa to be determined by retarded attitudes and paranoid misconceptions. African people should not live under dictatorships simply because it is convenient for Western democracies to allow them to.

Besides, I have no truck for those who only view negatively the potential for unrest to spread across North Africa. I for one would not object too strongly with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi or Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika suffering the same fate as Ben Ali. Dictatorship (however “benign”) is no substitute for democracy, for which it is clear there is now an increasing appetite. Neither is it an effective bulwark against terrorism in the long-term. I have doubts that there will in fact be any major movement for democratic change emerging in North Africa; the very thing that made the Tunisian “revolution” so authentic – i.e. its spontaneity and its lack of either an incoming figurehead or cohesive organisation – will probably mean that the scope for it to have a major effect upon the Islamic world is minimal. However, change should not be feared. Those who speak against a “domino effect” should cast their minds back to 1989-90, when dictatorships in Eastern Europe fell, one after another. At the time of the revolutions in Romania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc, these countries had no more experience of democracy than Tunisia and arguably less capacity for creating new democratic structures. Noticeably, the attitude of UK politicians (and the media) in 1989-90 was broadly positive towards developments in Eastern Europe, largely because Soviet Communism was correctly perceived as a negative influence. Unfortunately, North Africa’s dictators are being supported (Ben Ali was an ally of the United States) because of the pathological fear of Al-Qaeda in the mind of western politicians.

The people of Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Libya and Sudan deserve their democracy as much as Eastern Europeans. Obviously Tunisia faces an uncertain future, but the role of international organisations should be in facilitating democratic change rather than supporting a discredited and unpopular regime. Nothing would be more certain to turn people towards radicalism than for their democratic ambitions to become thwarted.

Any expression of democratic revolt in North Africa is a welcome development. Its overall impact may be minimal; only time will tell. It is clear that the “revolution” lacked any clear goals other than the removal of the regime. But it signals a huge change: a willingness of the part of an oppressed people not known for their rebelliousness to stand up for freedom. This was almost the last place in the world where a revolution would be anticipated, least alone a successful one forcing the premier from power.

This was not so much a “Jasmine Revolution” but the first real “Internet Revolution”. It is the power of facebook and twitter that allowed a small-scale demonstration to develop into an expression of anger on a national level. Perhaps this will prove a turning point in history, as the internet becomes a more effective and powerful tool for spreading democracy than anyone could have predicted. In any event, the democratic appetite of Tunisia's unlikely revolutionaries - while not being overstated - should be welcomed.

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