Tunisian Riots Signal a New Era for North Africa and the Middle East

To those of you who have not yet heard of what has been occuring in Tunisia, a North-African nation with little over 10 million inhabitants, here is an analysis of the situation.

Corporate media rarely mention anything about such events unless when it suits their agenda (this blog in The New York Times is one of few exceptions). If the cold-blooded murder of 50 innocent civilians (some of whom hold French and Swiss citizenship) by the security forces is not worthy talking about, then what is?

The unrest was sparked by the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed university graduate, who committed suicide to protest the confiscation by the police of his small stand of fruit and vegetables. Since then, other civilians descended to the streets, demonstrated peacefully and complained about the corruption that have characterized the Ben Ali regime since his ascent to power in 1987. The damage inflicted on the economy by this official policy can be measured by the unemployment rate, estimated by independent sources to be around 30% (the government claims that the official unemployment rate doesn't exceed 13%).

During the early days of the unrest, in a televised speech, Ben Ali accused "foreign elements" of sabotage and terrorism thinking that the outside world will be fooled time and again by this kind of claims. He was wrong. Thanks to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, it became clear in the ensuing days that this was rather a spontaneous popular uprising that was mostly organized by average citizens who had enough with the regime's nepotism. If this proves anything, it proves the following: people in these troubled regions of the world are people like us; they worry about unemployment, want fair access to jobs, want better education, want to express themselves freely, want unrestricted access to the Internet, and, most importantly, want to be treated equitably, justly and with dignity.

France, the closest ally of the Ben Ali regime, has so far been reluctant to criticize it. What is more shocking is that its media outlets took over a week to start publishing stories about the unrest. Today, I spoke by phone to a friend of mine in Tunisia about why he thinks it took the French press that long before mentioning anything about the events. He simply said "like usual they wanted to give Ben Ali enough time to finish the dirty job." My friend was referring to the crushing by the regime's security forces of other popular demonstrations that took place within the last few years.

The sentiment that my friend echoed over the phone is shared by many people in North Africa and the Middle East. People in the region now rightly believe that these regimes are being nurtured and supported by the West against the will of the locals. These random face-saving statements coming out of the White House or the Elysée Palace are only meant for public consumption. Our governments keep adopting double -- even multiple -- standards when dealing with issues related to democracy and human rights? As if democracy is fit for some people and not for others! One only wonders how would Western governments have reacted if these savage crimes were committed by the security forces in China or Iran?

To understand why these acts of violence against civilians is rarely condemned by Western governments, we have to understand the political dynamics in the region. Tunisia, despite the private criticisms targeted at the regime by the U.S. ambassador (as was revealed by WikiLeaks), is considered an important Western ally in the so called "war on terror." Ben Ali, the President of the "Republic," like the majority of the Arab dictators, have taken advantage of the American government's strong desire to build relationships with new allies to fight Al-Qaida and related groups. These police states, including Tunisia, exploited this post-9/11 trend in the American foreign policy which allowed them an increased grip on power. As a result, they delegitimized peaceful dissent further, put more restrictions on freedom of expression and heavily controlled Internet access. Also, because they have only been concerned about their own well being, and not about the well being of their constituents, these rulers have focused on increasing their own wealth and that of their family members through questionable business dealings and favoritism. It is no secret that the Ben Ali clan acts more like a Mafia, putting their hands on the majority of profitable businesses in the country.

Here is my humble prediction for the next decade: Unless Arab leaders implement serious political and economical reforms we will see more of this type of popular uprising in other neighboring countries. It is only a matter of time. The wind of peaceful change in Tunisia has given hope to the oppressed people all over the Arab World. Whether Western countries or their allies in the region like or not, this wind, with the help of the Internet, will eventually affect all these countries who have been thirsty for democracy and justice. Only then, when it is too late, the Western countries will regret that they have all along been on the wrong side of the fence.