Thursday, 3 February 2011

14 January 2011

How much do you know about Tunisia? Small country, North Africa, nice tourist beaches? Oh yes, and Carthage, of course, three millennia old and definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area.

Or, alternatively, “a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems ... Corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising ... Anger is growing at Tunisia’s high unemployment and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime’s long-term stability are increasing.”

Take a bow, former US ambassador Robert Godec, who got it pretty much dead right in a cable to Washington 18 months ago, now released by WikiLeaks.

Last night (Thursday), President Zine al-Abidene Ben Ali tried to put a stop to a month of street protests against his 23-year rule. Food prices reduced, security forces ordered not to use live ammunition, a pledge to stand down in three years’ time.

Will it be enough? The next few days will be critical, and it’s not only the people of Tunisia who are watching anxiously.

Arab leaders have a habit of sticking around. As Blake Hounshell pointed out in Foreign Policy this week, Muammar Gaddafi has been in charge in Libya for 41 years; President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen for 33 years; Hosni Mubarak in Egypt for 30 years. You could add the Assads, father and son, in Syria, 40 years.

Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, east Asia – all of them, over the past 30 years, have seen a flowering of democracy. But not the Arab world, where, with the partial exceptions of Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon, democracy is conspicuous only by its absence.

Just yesterday, the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was in Qatar, delivering some home truths to Arab leaders: “Across the region, one in five young people is unemployed. And in some places, the percentage is far more. While some countries have made great strides in governance, in many others people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order. They are demanding reform to make their governments more effective, more responsive, and more open.”

She didn’t mention anyone by name – she didn’t need to – but the message could hardly have been clearer: “Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries’ problems for a little while, but not forever. If leaders don’t offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum. Extremist elements, terrorist groups, and others who would prey on desperation and poverty are already out there, appealing for allegiance and competing for influence.”

To which some in the Arab world will reply: Huh! Who’s been propping up these sclerotic regimes all these years? Who’s been backing Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the al-Sauds in Saudi Arabia – and yes, Zine al-Abidene Ben Ali in Tunisia? As ambassador Robert Godec reported in his WikiLeaks cable, there’s been substantially increased US military assistance to Tunisia in recent years, as well as joint counter-terrorism programmes and strengthened commercial ties.

So Arab leaders are nervously watching events in Tunisia, just as they’re watching the slide towards a new political crisis in Lebanon, a country that all too often can act as a touch-paper throughout the Arab world.

The government in Beirut has collapsed, and tensions are rising rapidly ahead of the expected publication of a report by a UN-backed special tribunal which has been investigating the murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Hizbollah thinks the tribunal will name some of its members as likely culprits, and is gearing up for a major row.

It all adds up to a worryingly combustible mix. Stir together high unemployment, especially among the young, corrupt government, repression, jihadi ideology, oil wealth – no wonder Hillary Clinton is concerned. And she’s not alone.

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