Tunisia’s Superpowers Faux Pas

January 19, 2011
5 mins read
Demonstrators carry banners and flags during a protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied in Tunis, Tunisia May 15, 2022. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

People Power chased out long time kleptocratic Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, last Friday, when the Tunisian army refused to shoot on the protesters on the streets of Tunis. It was the climax to weeks of massive demonstrations led by the educated youth and the working class movement that had been at the receiving end of the punishing economic reform regime which the Western powers had imposed and repeatedly praised. Ben Ali was a darling of the imperialist superpowers, especially as he repressed the Islamist political movement inside Tunisia, and used his country for extraordinary renditions, which is the euphemism for illegal detention and torture of suspected Al-Qaeda operatives and Islamists from around the Muslim world. Everybody knew that Ben Ali was rogue, but as the Americans once said of the S.O.B. of Chile, Augusto Pinochet, “he is OUR S.O.B.”! Ben Ali served the tactical interests of imperialism and so the apostles of human rights chose to look the other way. Not even the uprising and the shootings on the streets will kindle their indignation.

It was instructive that on fleeing Tunis, Ben Ali at first made for Paris, afterall, France is the “mother country”, and is often so willing to offer a comfortable retirement for dictators out of employment. Or didn’t a certain Baby Doc Duvalier, a cut throat killer from good old troublesome Haiti, run into its welcoming embrace, when thrown out in the 1980s? The loot is safe in the metropolis for as long as the dictator can spend most of it helping to shore up the economy. But gestures are also handy, when they are caught pants down, and the possibilities emerge, of a political or moral crisis. So this week, for example, the Swiss government ordered a freeze of all funds held by the former Tunisian dictator. The Swiss Foreign Minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, after a cabinet meeting, announced that the decision to freeze Ben Ali’s loot was as a result of domestic political pressure as well as legal action taken by Tunisian exiles in Switzerland. “The government decided at its meeting today to freeze any funds in Switzerland of the ex-Tunisian President and his entourage with immediate effect”. Adding further, that “Switzerland wants to avoid our financial centre being used to hide funds illegally taken from the populations concerned”. That was a classic of being wise after the event.

Another country that has tried to fish favourably in the waters of the Tunisian uprising is the United States of America. As we stated at the beginning of this piece, it turned a blind eye to the atrocities of Ben Ali, even when American diplomats were writing memos about the rapacity of the regime, as Wikileaks was to show. Gordon Gray, the American Ambassador in Tunis, described the uprising as “work in progress” and a “new phenomenon”, in an interview with ALJAZEERA. Gray said “I think what we have in Tunisia is a situation where…this democratic expression is work in progress”. The protests he called “a constitutional right that we cherish and we engage in”. A slumbering United Nations, which, arguably, is not much better these days, than an extension of the foreign policy interests of the United States, also weighed in, apparently shaken out of its slumber by the din of the protest from Tunis. On Wednesday, this week, it stated plans to send a team of human rights officials to Tunisia to look into weeks of violence and “advice the new coalition government”. Navi Pillay, the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the UN, said “the team should be on ground by next week”; he then estimated that more than 100 people have died in bloodshed linked to the protests.

It was clear that the big powers were wrong-footed by the events of the past few weeks in the Maghreb and further afield. Arab bloggers were reported by Aljazeera to have welcomed the events as “the African revolution commencing…the global anti-capitalist revolution”. The Tunisian “Jasmin Revolt”, became a severe warning for the “sclerotic and autocratic” Arab leaders that are faithful clients of the United States. The French newspaper, LE MONDE described the scenes on the streets of Tunis as being “unimaginable only days ago”, but were now unfolding with dizzying speed. The power of the Tunisian example is reverberating in the client states of the United States, especially in Egypt, where citizens have celebrated the Tunisian uprising and began chanting “Kefaya”, and  they add “We are next, we are next, Ben Ali tell Mubarak he is next”. The toppling of one of the world’s “most entrenched dictators”, in the words of Aljazeera is threatening to have a domino effect and that will worry the puppeteers in Washington, Paris and London. This is because they did not read the portents, content to stay within their arrogant contempt for the ordinary people of these countries.

American Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton expressed that contemptuous arrogance in a very fortuitous setting. She was in the Middle East meeting Arab political and civil society leaders, at the moment the Tunisian events took a dramatic turn. And asked directly about the protests the day before the people chased away their dictator ally, Clinton answered that “we can’t take sides”. As Mark Levine, the history professor at UC Irvine noted, “her answer said volumes about the mentality of the Obama administration and the larger US and European foreign policy establishments to the unfolding situation”. He described as “tone deaf” such a response going further that “this was a moment when the Obama administration could have seized the reins of history and help usher in a new era in the Arab/Muslim world”. That the American administration did not take that step was because Ben Ali’s despotic regime was considered an ally in the war on terror; it was secular and was implementing the neo-liberal policies of the Washington Consensus. The European powers even supported the regime more strongly, “with successive French governments openly declaring their preference for stability and cooperation against illegal migration and the threat of terror to supporting the kind of democratic transformation that would have gone much farther to securing those goals”, in the words of Mark Levine.


So on that visit to the Middle East, which coincided with the removal of the Tunisian dictator, Hilary Clinton chose to emphasize ‘economic empowerment, rather than political change’, in tune with the old  but discredited social contract between the Arab dictatorships and the people: securing material welfare but constricting the political space. It is that old contract which served the regimes very well in the past. They could then go on to do the biddings of the colonial masters. The state structures were afterall created within the wombs of colonial society and colonial dictatorships. The post colonial regimes have often surpassed their colonial origins in their greed, corruption, violence and impunity. Ben Ali ruled with impunity for over two decades, content to remain in the good books of the imperial powers as an insurance cover for the atrocities that he perpetrated against the Tunisian people. But it was the educated young people of Tunisia, together with the working people that finally ended the regime of plunder, corruption and dictatorship. The paternalistic process withered under a combination of corruption and neoliberal capitalism. The state could no longer give jobs to thousands of educated young Tunisians; and as a French businessman told the French newspaper, LE FIGARO, in the wake of the uprising: “here it is not rare to be served at a gas station by someone with a master’s degree in sociology. Cleaning women have English degrees; the fruit vendor has doctorate degree in mathematics, and so on”.

Such a dictatorship was bound to give way eventually; especially when it was as venal as Ben Ali’s dictatorship. An American diplomatic cable titled “Corruption in Tunisia: What’s Yours is Mine”, said “corruption in Tunisia is getting worse. Whether it’s cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali’s family is rumoured to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants….President Ben Ali’s extended family is often cited as the nexus of Tunisian corruption. Often referred to as a quasi-mafia, an oblique mention of ‘the Family’ is enough to indicate which family you mean. Seemingly, half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage, and many of these relations are reported to have made the most of their lineage”. We might add that they did that to the detriment of the Tunisian people. It was that dictatorship which the Western champions of democracy and human rights abetted for decades until it was chased away by the Tunisian people last Friday.

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