The blank generation: what next in Tunisia

A momentous weekend, but what next in Tunisia? A weekend tweet from Channel Four News’ Jonathan Rugman (@jrug) from Tunis captured the sense of uncertainty very nicely. “Poster of Ben Ali being taken down to reveal a blank – who will fill it is the question du jour”, he said.  But with sporadic gun battles in Tunis and “tanks and troops on the streets” (Sky News’ alliterative rolling news refrain) it’s still anyone’s guess where this is actually heading. (See Amnesty researcher Diana Eltaway’s blogged account of the eeriness and unpredictability of events in Tunis).

Some rather over-excited commentators are talking up the first overthrow of a leader by the people in the Arab world, with protests in Jordan being seen as the first stage in a possible “domino effect” in the Middle East. Brian Whitaker’s al-bab blog details reports of “decent housing and dignified life” protests in the Libyan city of al-Bayda, and Gadaffi’s quick condemnation of events in Tunisia does suggest nervousness in Tripoli.  I don’t know though. There’s sometimes a lot of wishful thinking in early interpretations of unfolding events like these. Just calling the ousting of a deeply unpopular leader and his “bling” wife a “Jasmine Revolution” and expecting everything to fall into place (whatever into place might mean) is short-sighted and seems to me to betray the impatience of the news cycle itself. Rolling news expects to see things conform to a well-paced “revolution will be televised” pattern: angry people on the streets … leader chased out of country … people again on the streets, this time jubilant …temporary leadership announces democratic elections … everyone sits back satisfied … we all move on. I’d be more cautious. Whether or not this “revolution” actually brings about real, long-lasting improvements in human rights is uncertain. Yes, at first glance simply having protestors on the streets seems to presage greater openness. As long-time Middle East and North Africa watcher Roula Khalaf said last week, for decades any public protests in Tunisia have been extremely rare and these past weeks have been unprecedented.  We’re definitely in new territory, but what kind of territory? As my physics teacher used to say, for every action there is a reaction (I never did like physics much!) and we simply don’t know whether in a year’s time – or a generation’s time – we’ll be looking back and saying that the weekend of 15-16 January 2011 was when Tunisia ushered in a new era of human rights and freedom. (For background on how bad things in human rights terms have been in Tunisia, go here). Here’s another thought. How much does the international community want a freer Tunisia? Yesterday, hearing one of Sky News’ (seemingly endless) British ex-pat voices from Tunisia stressing how she was hoping “things would get back to normal soon”, was a reminder that tourism* (Tunisia’s biggest foreign currency earner) and wider international commercial and diplomatic imperatives toward autocratic countries like Tunisia often prize “stability” over democracy and human rights. Harsh but true. And back to Twitter. Two of the most eye-catching Tweets across the weekend were (1) a tweet that joked about how the tweeter couldn’t understand how Tunisians had managed to overthrow Ben Ali without an orchestrated twitter campaign and people changing their avatars (ah, so wounding: you’re twisting my melon man!); and (2) another speculating that with Ben Ali fleeing to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia (also the famous bolthole for Idi Amin) the next question is: where will the Saudi Arabian leaders go if/when their turn came (tweeter’s answer: Crawford, Texas. Geddit?) Hmm. I “heart” Twitter (!) and I support social and other online comms as much as the next IP account holder, but I haven’t seen much convincing evidence for how Twitter or WikiLeaks (with its famous cable describing extreme opulence in the Ben Ali circle) actually spurred Tunisians onto the streets (did they really need online media for that?). Maybe.

And, as I say, I’m not sure about the “domino-effect” logic of Tunisia being the start of something either. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves …


* Yesterday afternoon I heard a commercial radio station advertisement encouraging people to book for a fortnight's holiday in Tunisia in May (an “un-missable package, with tours to the Sahara desert”). Pre-booked ad slot or the company trading on optimism ……?!


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