Last night (Thursday, January 13th) Zein al-`Abideen Bin `Ali addressed the Tunisian people and said: انا فهمتكم, “I got you,” or more literally, “I understood you.” I started writing this post while watching his address, and titled it “Too Late.” But I did not imagine what would transpire directly after the speech, at least not the speed in which it took place.
Watching the brutal Tunisian regime unravel at 9:30 pm (2:30 pm, Washington DC time) from the Syrian capital, Damascus, is surreal to say the least.
As most readers know by now, after nearly two weeks of social protest in which more than 66 protesters were killed, the Tunisian regime began gradually to unravel. After a meek speech by president Zein al-`Abideen Bin Ali last night (January 13th) in which he promised policy reforms that address the protesters’ demands—including calls for employment, ending corruption, reducing food prices, and providing basic freedoms—and in which he asserted he would not run again for president in 2014, protesters pushed forth with their demands, rejecting his overtures, and calling for his immediate resignation and the holding of elections at all levels.
After 24 years of oppressive rule, tonight, at around 8 pm Syria time, President Ben Ali leaves Tunisia headed to Malta (though at 10 pm, Malta denies that he landed there), transferring executive power to Prime Minister Muhammad Ghannushi (according to section 56 of the Tunisian constitution), dissolving the cabinet, and announcing a state of emergency. Legal consultants challenged the legality of this transfer because the Prime Minister spontaneously announced—himself—the transfer of power. This is an academic issue at this point, and might prove more moot than consequential come tomorrow.
· ~8:00 pm: Ben Ali leaves Tunisia towards Malta and the Prime Minister assumes executive power
· 9:15 pm: a Tunisian pilot refuses to fly Ben Ali’s family out of Tunisia
· 9:45 pm: Tunisian private TV, Nasma, reports that Ben Ali’s brother-in-law and some relatives are arrested in Tunis (not clear by whom), belonging to the Tarabulsi family, relatives of Laila Tarabulsi, Ben Ali’s wife.
· 10:05 pm: news that Ben Ali’s plane is headed towards an Arab Gulf country, perhaps Qatar, according to some news sources. If so, Zein al-Din is not going to enjoy al-Jazeera coverage down the street in Doha. [update: now they say his plane and helicopter entourage landed in Sardinia to refuel. They don`t know where it`s headed. Kind of like Saddam trying to find refuge, but only a hole would take him]
· 1:00 am: apparently, Ben Ali`s plane landed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Fitting.
As matters develop, there’s speculation as to who is actually in control at this point, the army or the security services (who are closer to Ben Ali), and the extent to which internal schisms within various institutions of the regime are fomenting.
Arab leaders are watching more closely than anyone on earth, fearing a similar fate sooner or later. The US administration and the UK government continued their unprincipled and hypocritical stances by not announcing anything of value in support of the protests for democracy, dignity, and freedoms, until, that is, news of Ben Ali leaving Tunisia was at hand. At that point, US officials declared that the Tunisian people have the right to select their leaders. Ben Ali was an exemplary leader for successive US administrations who considered him, and Tunisia, a model for liberal “economic reforms.” Merci. You are too late too. خرية و مقصومة . The British outdid the Americans. In an interview with a spokesperson for the British foreign ministry, the official refused to answer the question of whether the UK supports the developments in Tunisia. He said that the situation is “complex.” And that was after Ben Ali’s departure.
But wait, one Arab leader after another is suddenly respecting the right of citizens to select their leaders. Tune in to Al-Jazeera to watch the line up.
Most encouraging is the news from different Arab countries reporting that people are flocking to Tunisian embassies in a show of support for the Tunisian people.
Facebook and SMS were the means by which opposition groups and protesters mobilized. Anticipate more restrictions on new social media in the region. Facebook is already banned in Syria.
Finally, for now, as much as this seems to usher in a new era of sorts, in Tunisia and beyond, it is important not to get carried away, if only not to be disappointed, because the unraveling of such regimes is one thing, and the creation of better ones is another. Though, admittedly, things are rotten enough around the region that this development is not likely to be bad in the long run.
[Update: January 14, 2:30 am, Damascus time]
The 30 minute interview with the effective head of the Tunisian government, Muhammad al-Ghannushi, on al-Jazeera, is not encouraging. Ghannushi couldn`t just say "no" to the anchor`s question: "Is it possible that Ben Ali might come back to rule Tunisia" once the dust settles? The point here is not whether he might, but that what has been left behind is not too promising.
[Update: January 15, 11:50 am, Damascus time]
Tunisians demonstrate against the transfer of power to regime lackey, Muhammad Ghannushi. Shortly after, there has been an "official" announcement to the effect that the head of Parliament has become the interim President of Tunisia until elections are held in the not so distant future. This announcement cancels some of the plans that were slated for the day, involving meetings between Ghannushi and some of the opposition leaders. I started this other post using the quote "Mukhtaruna al-jadeed jiddan yatakallam" (from the mid-1970s critical Syrian play by Muhammad al-Maghout) which speaks to the quick succession of leaders at one point of time in Syria (in the 1940s). I had not anticipated that this will actually unfold in this manner in Tunisia:
Bin Ali - - - Ghannushi - - - Head of Parliament - - - what/whom next?
This post will be constantly updated. If you have news, send it to email@example.com