Algeria: Tunisia Leads The Way Into The Unknown

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January 18, 2011: There has been some large demonstrations in cities in the last week or so, but nothing like what happened in neighboring Tunisia. Algerian security forces have been able to keep the demonstrations under control, but Algerian leaders are nervous. All Arab dictators and monarchs are nervous. Such general uprisings are rare, but they usually end up with the same small (from a few dozen to a few hundred) group of powerful families back in charge. True dictatorship is hard to sustain, as the family coalitions prefer some kind of police state that makes it easier for the powerful families to retain, and expand, their wealth. It has been this way for thousands of years, and the Arab "old rich" are big fans of tradition. There were some large demonstrations in other Arab states, in reaction to those in Tunisia, but nothing large enough to scare the governments into escalating as happened in Tunisia.

A month of escalating demonstrations in Tunisia left about 80 people dead. The Internet, particularly Twitter, was mentioned as a key organizing tool for the demonstrators. Cell phones able to access the Internet were another key factor. These forms of mobile, and difficult to block, communication are making it possible for the unrest to continue, in an effort to prevent the ruling families from organizing a new government that will keep the same crowd (that supported Ben Ali) in power. Some countries, when faced with this sort of thing, simply shut down the cell phone systems. But government troops are dependent on cell phones as well, and the army and police radio systems are not sufficient.

Keeping the ruling families from taking over again will be difficult, because the opposition parties are a varied lot (from communists to Islamic conservatives) that lack experience, financial and organizations resources, unity and money. But the interim government is doing whatever it can to quiet things down, including dropping all restrictions on media and political parties. The interim government is also arresting the most unpopular members of the Ben Ali government, a move that is clearly aimed at defusing popular anger. The prisoners know the drill, that they can later buy their way out of jail. But for now, it's best to look contrite and go along.

The Tunisian uprising is similar to the pattern that played out in Eastern Europe (in 1989), when growing dissatisfaction with communist rule led to more and more demonstrations. The army commanders, leading lots of armed conscripts, knew that ordering the troops to open fire could result in mutiny and civil war. So the generals told their bosses that it was time to shut down the communist police states that had dominated Eastern Europe since the late 1940s. In Arab states, the arrangements are a bit different. There is no communist theology, and Big Brother Russia (Soviet Union) to mould and guide the communist nations. In most Arab countries, a group of able politicians make deals with the wealthier families and agree to run the place for their mutual benefit. Senior government and military officials come from this same small group, that represents a few percent of the country. It's all very medieval, with the rest of the population considered ignorant peasants, to be manipulated and taxed indefinitely. But in the last half century, radio, TV, cell phones, the Internet and more education have made the "peasants" all too aware of their situation, and how it can be changed. Once enough people in a dictatorship become desperate, and bold, enough to rise up and throw off their unelected (at least by a fair vote) rulers, the ruling families have a big problems to deal with. This is the first time this has happened in the Arab world (the 2005 uprising in Lebanon was against Syria, not the local ruling clans). Previous uprisings were military takeovers, or one faction of the ruling class forcing out another.

The looted homes of the departed Tunisian president, and those of his extended family, were open to the public. The orderly crowds filing through these palatial residences were appalled at the wealth, especially compared to the poverty most Tunisians have to contend with. Meanwhile, neighborhood militias are forming, mainly to keep gangs of looters out. There aren't enough soldiers and police to guard everything, and priority is being given to state owned buildings (especially utilities and places where weapons are stored.) Some weapons have been stolen, and the government is anxious to placate most people before armed militias appear, and threaten civil war.

January 17, 2011: After several days of attempts, a new, interim (until elections can be held in a few months) unity government has been formed. Political prisoners have been released from jail and the new government contains a number of long-time opposition figures. Lots of agendas, lots of opportunities, lots of possibilities. In some prisons, internal unrest has led to all prisoners being let out.

January 14, 2011: The president (for life) of Tunisia (Zine al Abedine Ben Ali) resigned and fled the country. Ben Ali had been in charge (via a coup) for 23 years. Although there had been escalating demonstrations (against rising prices, and unemployment), Ben Ali believed he could survive it. But when he asked the army to use more force (killing more people) to break up the demonstrations, the army and presidential security commanders refused, and advised Ben Ali to flee.

Former president Ben Ali had banned political parties that would not follow is leadership, and no faction within his group was immediately able to take control. The people want real democracy, and government officials promptly said that would happen.

January 13, 2011: President Ben Ali promised to step down in three years, when he is up for another rigged election. This did not calm things down, as Tunisians are really, really angry at years of corruption and bad government.

January 11, 2011: In Tunisia, the government tried to reduce the rioting by closing the universities. But the unrest has spread far beyond the students. Anyone with a cell phone can get connected to demonstration groups leading the unrest.

 

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