Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Domino Theory, Tunisia Style

It takes 29 days to topple a 23-year old regime. At least that’s the mathematics Tunisia taught the rest of us on January 14th.

It seemed to come out of nowhere. Tunisia was a stable, relatively prosperous, moderate Muslim state in North Africa. Its GDP per capita was the highest in the region and it had one of the lowest poverty rates in Africa. Its main trade partners were France, Italy and Germany. It had been a secular state since its independence from France in 1956, and the majority of the Islamic population was considered moderate [1]. Even those of us in the U.S. who keep up with international news would probably have described Tunisia’s state as stable and in today’s world, sustainable. But in defiance of the statistics, trouble was brewing. Despite the fact that Tunisia’s unemployment levels were low in comparison to some of its destitute neighbors, Tunisians had been feeling the economic squeeze much like the rest of the world. Unemployment was rising, as were food prices. The government’s corruption, which had been tolerated by the public in the name of relative prosperity and freedom, suddenly came into focus.

In mid-December, an educated but unemployed 26-year old named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire when police confiscated the food he was trying to sell on the street. Like Thich Quang Duc, the South Vietnamese monk who self-immolated in 1963 in protest of his government, Bouazizi ignited with him the rage of a nation, indeed a region long oppressed. Rallies became riots. Riots were joined by union strikes as a government scrambled to appease its people with promises of reform. Mere weeks later, president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country after the military refused orders to shoot its own citizens. It began, escalated and transformed the country so fast that many of us who followed it on the news couldn’t keep up.

It was branded the Jasmine Revolution – in accordance with the liberal practice of naming revolutions that were not directly sparked by communism after flowers and colors and other nice things – and it is battering down any reservations we might have had about the limits of popular power.

As fast as the Tunisian revolution began, crowds were gathering on the streets in Egypt, waving Tunisian flags even before Tunisia’s government collapsed. And it wasn’t just out of solidarity with Tunisians. Egyptians wanted what Tunisians were achieving. As the Egyptian government cracked down, mass protests against president Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-old, American-financed regime escalated, challenging police demands to disperse and violating subsequent curfews. International news sources described the crowds as diverse cross sections of Egypt, featuring young and old, men and women, secular and religious [2]. Realizing the severity of his problem, Mubarak sacked high-ranking members of the government and reshuffled his cabinet. But it was too late for that. Protests grew. Within a week the Egyptian Army stated on national television that they would refuse to fire on peaceful protestors. Mubarak immediately opened the government up to negotiation, but with only their rejection of corruption and their demand for economic rights to unify them, it is unclear with whom the president thinks he can negotiate. In response to the government’s invitation, organizers announced an imminent “march of millions” and unions called for a general strike.

As Tunisia was being transformed and Egypt stood on the brink of a revolution, tens of thousands of protestors were massing in the capital city of Yemen, another Western-allied country in the Middle East. The Yemeni demonstrators held a “day of rage,” demanding the resignation of their own autocratic president of 30 years, Ali Abdulah Saleh. Again, the issues were the same: corruption, unemployment, poverty, and political rights. Again, protestors waved Tunisian flags and rejected reformist offers.

Even now thousands of demonstrators are gathering in Jordan, demanding an end to their corrupt government. Protesters against corruption and poverty, waving the Tunisian flag have also gathered in Lebanon and Algeria, which is in an official state of emergency over popular unrest.

“The Will of the People”

These revolutions not only demonstrated the speed with which social change can inspire and spread, but also provided the world with a 21st Century model of a participatory, egalitarian and political movement. Though some of the protests have been endorsed by opposition candidates and parties, none of them was organized by political factions. Most of the participants are not members of political parties or radical groups, and many of the protestors had not previously been politically active [3]. Furthermore, the demands of the protestors have not been at all religious in nature. In Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, demonstrators received help from supporting mosques, often using mid-day prayers as hubs to gather, organize and pass information, but the protests and demands were explicitly secular. The issues were simple and timeless. Anti-corruption, anti-poverty. Pro- employment, pro-rights. All of it was contained within the simple, unofficial slogan of the Tunisian uprising: the will of the people.

Transcending Nationalism

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of the movements in Egypt and Yemen is that they publicly invoked the Tunisian revolution with slogans and Tunisian flags without a trace of nationalism. National pride is one of the favorite tools oppressive governments use to keep their people insulated from positive social change elsewhere in the world. Each of our governments can tell us that people elsewhere who are rising up against their rulers are barbarians or uncivilized or violent by nature or brainwashed by radicals. Our governments tell us we are better than them, and we are certainly better off for not making their causes our own. The narrative of national supremacy couched in patriotism is so ingrained in many people that they no longer even need to be told of it.

But when Tunisians rose up and declared together that they were through being ruled by cleptocrats, the Egyptian people looked and did not see others, they saw themselves. Egyptians took to the streets in the thousands, demanding social and economic justice and an end to their corrupt government’s rule. Yemenis looked, and they saw themselves. Tunisia’s flag is being waved in protests across the Middle East and North Africa. Now solidarity rallies in Tunis bear Egyptian and Yemeni flags. In this context flags barely mean countries – they symbolize the all-powerful will of the people.

The Role of Media

We should look at the events in the Middle East and how the Tunisian revolution started and spread, and we should be inspired. As always though, we should also look with our eyes open, and see what factors contributed, who helped the revolution spread, and who tried to squelch it. The most significant help the movement received was from news agency Al Jazeera. Lately, when “legitimate” media is either unable or unwilling to report in political crises, social media has become a powerful tool for global communication – Iran’s “Green Revolution” was broadcast via twitter, and the world saw Chinese tanks patrolling the streets of Lhasa on YouTube. Likewise the Tunisian revolt was broadcast via twitter and Facebook using personal computers and cell phone cameras. But it wasn’t just transmitted by activists. Al Jazeera aggressively sought and published information on the uprising and spread it across the region [4]. If the American “Tea Party” movement has taught us anything it should be how effectively media can encourage political dissent and participation in rallies and protests. The difference is that to a large degree Fox News fomented the Tea Party rallies in the first place. The Tunisian revolution has shown us the potential of a legitimate, indigenous social movement covered by a mainstream news source that at least tacitly endorses it.

The United States

When the Tunisian people exercised their will over their own country, the United States applauded in the name of democracy and freedom (what else?). A reference to the Jasmine Revolution even made it into president Obama’s “State of the Union” address. But when trouble kicked off in Cairo, the U.S. was less than enthusiastic. They “called on all parties to show restraint,” which is the hair-trigger message governmental spokespeople vomit out when they want to hide the fact that their interests lie on the wrong side of a dispute. The violent, dictatorial Mubarak regime in Egypt is a key ally of the United States and has a stable peace treaty with Israel. According to Reuters, Egypt gets about $2 billion every year from the U.S. since 1979, most of it intended for military and police purposes. In addition to the cash, the U.S. military annually supplies Egypt with hundreds of millions in surplus equipment, including fighter planes, attack helicopters and tanks [5]. The only other countries receiving anywhere near that amount of American aid are the similarly violent and oppressive governments of Israel and Columbia, both of which, like Egypt, serve critical strategic purposes for American neo-colonialism in their respective regions. Predictably, the “internationalist” government of Barack Obama has commented cautiously and ambiguously on the situation in Yemen, and they haven’t touched the concept of these revolts being connected.

Of course, the democracy movement we are seeing now is just the sort of thing that the government of George W. Bush had predicted (hoped, pretended) would sweep the Middle East following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Instead, the Iraqi people resisted the foreign occupation, radical Islam swelled its ranks all over the globe, and world opinion of the U.S. hit all-time lows. Now, eight years later, people are rising up against U.S.-sponsored dictators, but that won’t stop the American propaganda machine from twisting history and facts in an attempt to portray this wave of popular progress as somehow validation of American foreign policy or Western-style “democracy” and capitalism.

The United States government might start out shy its with words when it comes to these types of crises, but it is not shy when it comes to action, both behind the scenes and right out in public. Days after protests forced Mubarak’s hand, Obama spoke directly with Mubarak, saying he would “review” billions of dollars in support for the Egyptian government [6]. From now on the United States is sure to play a central role in this wave of revolutions half way around the world. Israel won’t miss a step either. Egypt is a crucial partner for Israel, and Israel’s defense strategies depend heavily on a quiet Egyptian border [7]. Furthermore, Egypt borders the embattled Israeli-owned and Palestinian-governed Gaza Strip.

Other Challenges

As much money and influence as the United States has, the government of Saudi Arabia can never be overlooked when considering matters on politics in the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia has its own security and profit concerns, especially when it comes to Egypt, which is both a major oil producer and a partner of Saudi-despised neighbor, Israel. There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia will play a role in how the Egyptian conflict unfolds.

Not entirely related, but not unrelated either is the issue of radical Islam. While Tunisia’s revolution came off without interference from fundamentalists, Egypt cannot hope to be so lucky. The Muslim Brotherhood, a rhetorically non-violent transnational organization whose goal is to revive a Muslim empire capable of conquering the world, was founded in Egypt, and despite being officially banned since 1954, is heavily active there (much of their financing comes from donors in Saudi Arabia). When the recent protests started in Egypt they closely mirrored those in Tunisia, but as the movement gained momentum, the Muslim Brotherhood has been throwing more of its weight behind the uprising. In the biggest rallies reports of men assumed to be members of the Brotherhood organizing and leading crowds were common, and people’s attitudes toward the group’s involvement seem to vary widely. Radical Islam is brewing under the surface (and often in plain sight) throughout the region, and their organizations would surely not miss as opportunity to attempt a coup in the wake of a mass revolt.

The third, and again, not unrelated challenge facing the movement that is sweeping an entire region of the world is extreme violence, failure, or worse, both. Tunisia was the catalyst for the movement, and many eyes will be on the transition period there. If the Tunisians’ successful ousting of the their president turns to sectarian politics or violence, much energy and inspiration will be lost. This challenge is related to the ones previously mentioned in that historically neither the American government nor the Israeli, nor radical Islamist groups have been above inciting violence to achieve their goals. A porous border with Algeria makes Tunisia ripe for incursion by foreign insurgents, whatever their motives may be. Tunisians must organize and defend their revolution against foreign powers that would seek to destroy the powerful message it is becoming.


A spark can start a prairie fire, but it takes organized effort to prevent the fire from burning everything down. Tunisia has reminded us of the tenuous hold governments have over their populations – and let corrupt and cruel leaders everywhere shudder, for that message is sure to be heard by the unemployed, hungry, destitute people of the world. But our current governments are not the only ones we should be worried about. For example, toppling the regime of George Bush would not have been joyous for long if Jerry Falwell had subsequently seized power. When a state is dissolved, especially in the case of countries with a history of authoritarian leaders, it leaves a power void, and there are others who would seek to fill that space, many of them less than beneficent. It takes the sustained mobilization of the people to ensure a revolution leads to a just, egalitarian and democratic outcome.

Those of us involved in political organizing should hear this loud and clear. The moment is approaching. The closer it gets, the more we should feel a sense of urgency to create and strengthen “alternative institutions” capable of accommodating a structure shift. The more and the better we prepare, the easier we make it for us and the harder we make it for them.

We are witnessing an historic moment. Before January 14th no Arab dictator had ever been overthrown by a popular uprising of his own people [8]. The shock waves created by this event have opened eyes and inspired many thousands of people to take to the streets for their rights throughout the region. And it isn’t just the Arabic language or Muslim religion connecting Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and other protestors to Tunisia – they are being inspired by fellow people. The unemployed, the workers, the hungry, the youth, the marginalized, all shoulder to shoulder, taking a stand against those who have taken what belongs to all of us. Tunisia’s revolution has sparked uprisings across their own region, but it has also lit a guiding beacon for oppressed peoples everywhere.

Arundhati Roy said, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing.” Now, we just might be hearing footsteps. We beckon her by protesting and disobeying and striking, and we welcome her into the institutions we’re building.


[1] CIA World Factbook
[2] BBC News:
[3] New York Times, January 31, 2011
[4] “Al Jazeera Makes Waves with Tunisia Coverage” Reuters, January 22, 2011
[5] Reuters:
[6] Reuters:
[7] New York Times, January 31, 2011
[8] The Daily Beast:

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