In the chaotic death throes of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, he blamed “hostile elements in the pay of foreigners” for the unrest sweeping across Tunisia.
His words seemed desperate. Pathetic even.
Which foreign elements did he have in mind? Who exactly had something to gain by fomenting trouble in one of the region’s most stable, albeit politically repressed state?
Radical extremist groups like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) certainly had a motive. Most observers though say it’s highly unlikely they had the support within Tunisia’s moderate-to-the-point-of-secular middle class.
Ben Ali’s well-practised knack for silencing dissent and opposition helped make his country something of a sterile recruiting ground for extremists.
And the manner of the protests bore little resemblance to AQIM’s explosives-heavy modus operandi. While radical groups may well be delighted to see the back of Ben Ali, few believe they were pulling the strings.
So could Tunisia’s regional neighbours be the “foreign elements” Ben Ali was on about? Hardly. The threat of Tunisia’s unrest spreading has been well-documented. There has been talk of a paradigm shift in Maghreb politics and even echoes of Europe in 1989.
Let’s not get too carried away but it is reasonable to assume the leaders of Algeria, Libya and Egypt among others will have been keeping a close and anxious eye on developments, as The Economist does an excellent job of explaining here.
So barring an audacious land-grab by the Sicilian Mafia, let’s put the regional neighbour theory to one side.
If anything, Ben Ali’s long rule owes much to foreign elements. As a December Wikileaks publication shows, Washington has been aware of “serious human rights problems” in Tunisia for years but has been too busy installing democracy in other regions to do much about it. The United States was seemingly following an “if it ain’t broke too bad, don’t fix it” approach towards Tunisia and its neighbours.
France has also emerged red-faced from Tunisia’s ‘Jasmine Revolution’. Paris stood right behind Ben Ali until he actually fell. The deposed dictator was denied entry into France after fleeing Tunisia, with Nicolas Sarkozy perhaps feeling that, on balance, upsetting hundreds of thousands of Tunisian nationals in France, to whom he is not exactly enamoured anyway, may be more risky than upsetting an old friend.
The unrest in Tunisia exploded despite foreign elements rather than because of them.
It exploded because unemployment, high prices and a corrupt ruling clan brought people to the point where they were prepared to set themselves on fire. A generation of young Tunisians, many of them university-educated, were sick of the lack of opportunities in their country.
Silenced for over two decades by the secret service and the organs of state propaganda, Tunisian anger boiled over after the self-immolation of an unemployed university graduate whose fruit and vegetable cart was confiscated by police.
If protest was new to the people, it was also new to Ben Ali. His rule up to that point had been so uncontested, he had little idea of how to tackle a revolt. Similarly, his security forces were not sufficiently trained or practised in dealing with raw and widespread outrage. Their mistakes stoked a fire that was also being fuelled by the internet, the closest thing one will find to a “foreign element” in the ousting of Ben Ali.
The involvement of social media has led some web-savvy commentators to talk proudly of a Twitter Revolution but that could be seen as a ridiculously short-sighted assessment of something that has been decades in the making. In the past it was enough simply to refer to the event in the context of where it was staged. The American, French and Russian Revolutions were all fairly momentous chapters in history without the need for a more colourful moniker.
Twitter, or Facebook or Youtube or any other social website on the other hand, can not take the credit for overthrowing Ben Ali. Few people though will deny that social media have played a role in Tunisia’s uprising, although to what extent remains the subject of fierce online debate (if that’s your thing, try starting with Evgeny Morozov, author of ‘The Net Delusion’).
Let’s take the internet out of the equation. Groups of Tunisian protesters would not have been able to organise themselves so quickly; images of unrest in other towns and cities across the country would not have been there to galvanise the ranks of rioters by showing them their compatriots were taking the fight to the authorities; Ben Ali would have found it easier to kill the unrest in its infancy as state television would have spoon-fed viewers the official line while international channels would not have been able to broadcast mobile phone footage they retrieved from the web. Word would have spread more slowly, buying Ben Ali precious time.
But word would have spread in the end and 23 years of frustration would have eventually been spectacularly vented with or without the interference of any “foreign elements.”