Arabs in revolt
The biggest story from the Middle East this week … No, the biggest, most important and most inspiring story from the Middle East this year is one that most readers may only vaguely have heard of, if at all. It’s the Tunisian uprising.
For almost two weeks now, people up and down the country have been protesting, some of them rioting, others demonstrating peacefully – and all in a police state where the penalties for defying the regime are severe.
You won’t find much about it in the western media (or the Arab media, for that matter) though you can piece together much of the story from snippets on Twitter and videos on YouTube.
There have been complaints from bloggers about this silence but in a way it’s refreshing not to have the likes of Fox News, Bernard Lewis and Glenn Beck telling us what should be done. In any case, the Tunisians – so far at least – seem to be getting on quite well with their uprising by themselves.
Foreign governments have been similarly quiet and, again, this is something of a blessing: too many activist movements in the region have been killed off by the wrong kind of support from the west.
Tunisia is in an unusually fortunate position as one of the few countries in the Middle East where foreign powers have little incentive to meddle. Its dictator, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali (23 years in power) is a western ally of sorts, but an embarrassing one. He’s no great asset and his departure would be no great loss. If a recent WikiLeaks document is to be believed, the Americans find him impossible to deal with and have more or less given up on trying to work with him.
So, what we have in Tunisia today is the birth of a genuine, national, indigenous, popular movement, not against colonialists or foreign occupiers but against their own repressive regime, and one which is not tainted (as in Iran) by international power games.
This is something new, which is why it’s so important. For years, writers have complained about the “Arab malaise” – the way Arabs have become accustomed to playing the role of victims, their passivity in the face of home-grown tyrants, and so on. The need, as I explained in my recent book, is for Arabs to stop being prisoners of their history and start shaping their own destiny. At long last, that is what the people of Tunisia are trying to do.
The immediate cause of the uprising is economic; not so much poverty as unemployment. Tunisia has a comparatively good educational system, producing lots of university graduates, but it can’t provide jobs for them – certainly not the kind of jobs they have been led to expect.
That happens in other countries, too, but in Tunisia there’s no solution while Ben Ali remains in power.
One reason is that investors are put off by the regime’s kleptocracy. Ben Ali’s family and their associates try to muscle in on any lucrative prospects and claim their rake-off.
Another is that technology-based development, which could provide jobs for graduates, is hampered by the regime’s paranoid insistence on controlling information – including heavy censorship of the internet.
Unlike the oil-rich rulers of the Gulf, Ben Ali does not have the money to buy his people’s silence with “ghost” jobs as government employees. He may succeed in quelling the current unrest (though the loyalty of his security forces is yet to be seriously tested) but at best that can only bring a temporary respite.
Tackling the economic problems will need a new kind of Tunisian politics – a kind where criticism is allowed, where arguments can be heard and eventually resolved by popular consent. And it’s hard to see a role for Ben Ali in any of that, and you can bet your bottom dinar that other Arab leaders will be watching developments nervously.
Last week I wrote about the plight of African migrants held hostage by people-traffickers in Egypt. The Egyptian government is under international pressure to stop this disgusting racket but claims it can’t find any sign of the migrants or the traffickers.
However, a group of Egyptian human rights organisations seem to be having better luck than the authorities. They have even made contact with one of the migrants held captive in Sinai:
“The Eritrean refugee said that he is detained in a metal container with 15 other hostages by a group of Bedouins, because he has not been able to pay the money demanded (generally ranging between $3,000 and $8,000).
He added that the traffickers only provide two pieces of bread and some salty water per day, and that he has been transferred several times to different detention centres in Sinai where hundreds of immigrants from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia are detained and tortured – some of whom have been held for more than six months.”
In a joint statement on Tuesday, the Egyptian organisations called on the authorities “to stop dismissing the facts on the ground and put an end to this terrible human tragedy. The government is obliged by its own anti-trafficking law, passed last May, to deal with these crimes as crimes of human trafficking.”
Meanwhile, the Italian-based EveryOne Group continues to post more and more information about the traffickers and their victims on its website. In one report it identifies the head of the traffickers as a Palestinian Bedouin called Abu Khaled. Last year, Khaled was interviewed by the AFP news agency about his smuggling activities through the tunnels into Gaza.
Price of a life
Giving judgment on “blood money” in a traffic accident case, the supreme court of Abu Dhabi has affirmed that the value of a woman’s life is 100,000 dirhams (£17,663) – half that of a man.