largestThe year was 2005 – not all that long ago – that Zine Ben Ali won his third term as president with a not especially credible 99% of the vote. At the time, critics dismissed the results as farcical, little more than yet another attempt to put perfume on the body of a police state known virtually universally for its smothering of any independent voice, democratic sentiment.
Tunisian dissidents viewed the 2005 results as a step in Ben Ali’s drive to make himself president for life, or worse, through a change in the constitution, open the door for his wife, Leila Trabelsi and her clan to seize power. Concerns of this nature, and widespread anger at the clan’s unbridled greed and treachery were a vital part of the mix that ignited the Tunisian revolt which began last December.
Tunisians also feared that his wife, Leila Trabelsi, would try to change the Tunisian constitution in such a way that should some mishap befall Ben Ali, that she would replace him.
Obsessed with a largely non-existent radical fundamentalist threat in the country the Bush Administration defended Ben Ali as an ally of the United States in its “war on terrorism.” But so pervasive was the knowledge of Ben Ali’s abuses that even Bush and Co. was uneasy and embarrassed by the charade – which is saying something.
Prior to the election, Bush Administration diplomats had expressed public concern that a 99% pro-Ben Ali victory would `send the wrong message abroad’ and `undermine arguments that the US wants to bring more democracy to the Middle East.’ Why not rig the results to a more credible, let’s say 75%, to at least give the illusion that democracy had not been completely snuffed out?
Unwilling to make compromises on a 99% victory, still, Ben Ali promised greater democracy would `soon come’ thereafter. But if anything, Ben Ali did just the opposite – tightening his grip on power, repressing the opposition as both the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans swooped up whatever independent economic assets they had not, until then, managed to bring under their control.
But democracy did `soon come’ to Tunisia albeit not the way that Ben Ali would have liked to see it. Last December, a young poor fruit and vegetable peddler without a license that he could ill afford, in the town of Sidi Bouzid in the Tunisian interior, Mohammed Bouazizi, lit the match that ended his life but changed the world. His immolation and subsequent death set off a regional explosion, the Arab Spring or Second Arab Revolt, fueled by a deadly mixture of high unemployment, low wages and political repression.
There was nothing new or even unique about Bouazizi’s exit from this world. While Bouazizi’s suicide somehow made it into the international media, he was not the first one to chose death by fire; another 50 young Middle Easterners, from Morocco to Egypt to Iraq had, without publicity, chosen a similar painful path. And after his death, more immolations followed.
By Rob Prince
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