Antoun Issa

"The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say."
- Anaïs Nin
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Posts Tagged ‘Tunisia’

Arabs no longer an exception

Posted By antounissa on February 8th, 2011

My two cents on the Arab revolution sweeping from Tunis to Cairo, and hopefully beyond, published on the ABC’s Unleashed:

With Egypt on the cusp of a democratic revolution, it is clear to the world that the Arabs are finally having their awakening. This decade will mark a significant change to the post-colonial Middle Eastern order that has stagnated the region for much of the past century.

The Arab ‘street’, which has been sidelined in the political life of these countries by decades of autocracy, is about to take charge in determining the interests of their states.

As a generation of tweeters take to the streets of Egypt in a bid to oust their dictator, President Hosni Mubarak, it is fair to deduce that globalisation has at last reached the shores of the Middle East.

‘Arab exceptionalism’ no more

The democratic wave that swept through Eastern Europe, Latin America and parts of Asia post-Cold War failed to dint the authoritarian landscape in the Arab world. Rather, Arab regimes tightened their autocratic rule when the world was heading in an opposite direction.

Discourse on globalisation and development, thus, largely bypassed the Arab world. It became widely anticipated that the Assads, Mubaraks and Abdullahs of the region would continue their dynastic rule by gifting their rule to their progeny.

‘Arab exceptionalism’ was a phrase coined to normalise the region’s autocracy and lack of development, and justify the failure of globalised trends to penetrate the Middle East. Adherence to this perception of the Arab world blinded many to the realities on the ground, and consequently caused shock in the West and Israel when millions began pouring onto the streets of Cairo to demand Mubarak’s resignation.

Indeed, a week prior to the beginning of the Egyptian protests, Israel’s head of military intelligence Major General Aviv Kochavi was certain on the stability of the Mubarak regime.

Global communications

Albeit dormant, the Arab ‘street’ was not totally immune to the effects of globalisation. Despite living in heavily censored states, young Arabs connected to the World Wide Web and discovered a means to challenge the status quo. Social media – a global phenomenon of Facebook, Twitter and blogging – pierced the tightly held information censorship bubbles of the Arab world, and enabled locals to air their frustrations in an open space.

Popular Facebook pages were up a week earlier informing Egyptians of mass protests, a date was chosen, a Twitter hashtag was selected, and before you knew it, tens of thousands were in the streets.

This is not to detract from the core elements of the protests. Indeed, like most revolutions, Egyptian grievances are found in poverty, unemployment, and a lack of freedoms. Social media and the internet, however, have provided Egyptians and Arabs with a means in which to communicate such grievances, exchange ideas, and aid in collective action.

Internet is for Arabs what cafés were for the French in 1789, an open space where aggrieved citizens can share their frustrations and work together towards an alternative. Social media did not cause the protests in Egypt and Tunisia, but it facilitated them.

Globalised ideals

The use of the internet and social media is not the only indication of the effects of globalisation on the Middle East. Protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan are all chanting the same demand: democratic reform.

A globalised ideal that has made its way to all corners of the world is now on the lips of Arab protestors. Liberal democracy – a concept championed by the US seemingly everywhere but the Middle East – has been touted as the preferred alternative to authoritarianism.

In an era where the West feared an Islamist takeover of the region, that protestors are chanting for democracy should be a sign of comfort. Islamism infers that Arabs are still exempt from the global system, and are opting to pursue an antagonistic form of governance. However, the calls for democracy in Cairo and Tunis demonstrate an eagerness from the Arab ‘street’ to join the global system, and begin to receive the economic benefits promised by liberal democracy.

Indeed, liberal democratic reforms also include a redefinition of a nation’s interests. Sovereignty in the Arab world has long been confined to the selfish interests of despotic ruling families. This proved much easier for the US to manage in terms of finding allies to support its regional interests, such as containing Iran and protecting Israel.

Democracy, conversely, bestows sovereignty onto the people, and thus – as we understand from our own democratic traditions – the national interest becomes a complex and fluid concept driven by altering attitudes within the public.

At present, the Arab public remains hostile to Israel, and ambivalent towards Iran, and this poses a short-term dilemma for Washington. Long-term gains, however, outweigh any short-term costs, with a democratic and developing Arab world moving with the globalisation process and not against it. The social and economic pressures brought by despotic, corrupt rule will alleviate, and radical religious extremists will have a smaller pool of frustrated, impoverished youth to recruit from.

Using globalised means of communication to promote a globalised political system, Arabs have proven that they are no longer an exception.

Al Jazeera Listening Post – Social Media and Tunisia

Posted By antounissa on January 23rd, 2011

Myself and Global Voices colleague, Hisham Almiraat, on Al Jazeera’s Listening Post discussing the role of social media in the Tunisian Revolution, and poor Western media coverage.

Hisham’s segment can be seen at 8m30s, and I’m on straight after at about 9m0s.

Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution: Unprecedented, but uncertain

Posted By antounissa on January 15th, 2011

Tunisia’s ousted dictator President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was most likely unaware on the day police officers prevented 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi from selling fruits and vegetables on a street corner in rural Sidi Bouzid without a permit.

Frustrated and in total despair, Bouazizi self-immolated, and sparked a fire that would eventually topple Ben Ali.

After four weeks of mass protests and rioting across the country that killed up to 80 people, Tunisia is free of their dictator Ben Ali. In an unprecedented show of people power in the Arab world, Ben Ali is the first Arab dictator to fall at the hands of his citizens.

It has been heralded across the Arab world, whilst the Western media has been slow to capture the magnitude of what has occurred in Tunisia.

Global Voices has done an amazing job at collating blogger responses across the Arab world.

However, despite the jubilation, prudence is required as extreme uncertainties remain. Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution is a defining moment in Arab history that could spawn the first popular democratic system in the Arab world. It is not a given, however, that Tunisia will emerge democratic, despite public calls of support from the US and EU.

It is no hidden secret as to why democracy appears to have reached all corners of the globe bar the Arab world. Arab regimes, Israel, and the West alike see great benefit in maintaining authoritarianism in the region for a number of reasons:

1/ Israel’s regional hegemony: Israel moves to thwart any hint of major development in the Arab world, particularly those reflecting popular aspirations. It has subverted popular Arab nationalist movements by supporting Islamist groups in the past, and vice versa. Should other Arab peoples be inspired by Tunisia’s Revolution, chiefly Israel’s neighbours in Jordan and Egypt, you can be certain the Israelis will do all within its means to ensure popular democratic uprisings do not occur on its doorstep. It is watching current Jordanian protests with great intrigue.

2/ US and Western policy towards the Arab world: Much in line with Israeli policy, the US’ major interest in the region at present – although starting to be contested by American academics – is preserving Israel’s status as regional hegemon. Unfortunately, this brings it into conflict with other key American interests in the region such as containing Iran, and promoting liberal democracy. Liberal democracy has taken a backseat as a major policy drive, particularly since the debacle in Iraq.

Containing Iran, however, requires certain empowerment of America’s Arab allies, hence the large arms sales to the Gulf states in recent years. But in order to ensure Israel remains the regional superpower, the US has been forced to delicately empower Arab states enough to counter Iran, but not enough to threaten Israel’s status. Thus, it has shelved domestic democratic reform of Arab states, and instead continues to solidify Arab authoritarian regimes to prevent substantial regional development and empowerment.

3/ Arab regimes: A no brainer, every Arab king/dictator wants to preserve his seat at any cost. Sovereignty and national interests in the Arab world currently revolve around the dictator, and they collectively intend to keep it that way. You can be sure Arab dictators will put aside their differences to ensure people power does not usurp them as we have seen in Tunisia.

Whilst it may appear that Tunisia is on the verge of a democratic revolution ala la Revolution Française, there are great forces in the Middle East and beyond that are more than happy to fight for the status quo.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was equally democratic in its intention, only to be hijacked by Islamists at the final hour, some suggest with American support.

The West have a history of pulling the pin on popular movements in the Middle East, from the great opposition to the partition of the Arab world into a plethora of micro-states, to the creation of Israel. Their policy towards the Middle East has not changed, despite murmurings of support for a full-fledged Tunisian democracy from President Barack Obama.

Another important point brought forward by Michael Koplow at Foreign Policy is that the Tunisian uprisings were void of Islamists. Tunisians have benefited from Ben Ali’s free education, which inevitably came back to bite him in the rear. Mohamed Bouazizi had a university degree, yet was forced to work as an illegal street vendor to make ends meet. When that only avenue for income was stripped from him, he gave up.

Tunisia’s Revolution mirrors the roots of most revolutions, that of an angry poor fed up with a system that exclusively benefited the ruling elite Marie Antoinette style. But it was an educated, sophisticated poor that were becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of freedoms and the constant media/internet censorship. As Ben Ali squeezed, the bubble burst.

It is a lesson to all Arab dictators, there are limits to your authoritarianism. Gone are the days when Hafez al-Assad’s army entered a city and killed 20,000 people to prevent an uprising. Social media won’t allow for it.

Tunisians have given oppressed Arabs hope that change can occur in the region, and the miserable era of dictatorship and under development has an ending. But there are many road blocks ahead. Let’s hope the Tunisian people succeed against the forces that would otherwise not see a democracy reign in Tunis.

Tunisian unrest continues – Blogger Slim Amamou detained

Posted By antounissa on January 12th, 2011

My latest on Global Voices covering the Tunisian unrest and repressive crackdown by the regime on protestors.

The latest death toll is said to be up to 50, although authorities insist it is lower. As the protests spread to the capital, Tunis, one can only expect that figure to rise.

Many are being detained, including Tunisian blogger and activist Slim Amamou or @slim404 on Twitter.

His final tweets were on January 6th, but he was aware that the police were following him and his detention was imminent:

slim404 Slim Amamou
J’eleve mon niveau de menace a orange. les flics me cherchent apparemment. #sidibouzid #opTunisia

English translation: I raise my threat level to orange. The police are apparently looking for me.

I met Slim in Beirut 2009 at the Arab Bloggers Conference, and I’m bothered, but not surprised at his arrest. This is the Arab world, and bloggers and advocates of free speech are detained for uttering less than half of what we in the West have the privilege to write daily.

Slim is an enthusiastic individual, as we all are in the blogosphere, in our drive to expand the public space in the Arab world where ideas can be exchanged and discourse can take place without fear of imprisonment, or worse in Tunisia’s current case.

Western governments have been rather tame in their response to the Tunisian and Algerian crises, but who are we kidding? Western support for mass demonstrations is selectively based upon the country’s relative strategic importance. The unfortunate, but clear truth is that the Arab dictators withholding development in the region are bankrolled by the West, and they’re in no hurry to see a replacement.  This is no Belarus or Burma.

But where governments fail us, others pick up the slack. This is where media like Global Voices and other human rights and pro-democracy advocates in the West leap to the front and push the stories the mainstream would prefer to shun into the limelight.

It’s imperative to remind Tunisians and Algerians, and indeed all repressed peoples, that there is support, that we are writing for their struggles, and we’re keeping their voices afloat.

The below video was posted in the comments section of my Global Voices post. Warning, it’s quite graphic: