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January 17, 2011

Tunisia, the Straw that Broke the “Dictator’s” Back

 By: Jamal Kanj

A university graduate trying to make a living peddling a vegetable cart in the neighborhood of Sid Bouzid did not realize his death will bring about a major political change in Tunisia.

Mohamed Bouaziz graduated from university with an inherent promise of a bright future; but like many of his compatriot young Arab graduates, Bouaziz major challenge was not passing college, it was life travails after working so hard to complete school.

The young Tunisian man faced life with courage, instead of helplessness, he took his future in his hand and pushed a small vegetable cart to make a living for his young family. When the Tunisian police tried to hijack his only economic source, Bouaziz poured flammable liquid on his body and decided to end his life. His vegetable cart became the straw that broke Zien ben Ali’s back.  

It misses the point to think that the small vegetable peddler was the root cause for the political upheaval in Tunisia. Bouaziz had no known political ambitions; all he wanted was to have decent life under a government providing its citizens an opportunity to make a living. He was one of several millions frustrated Tunisians who saw no prospects for their future in the country they loved. Many of the young men dared the Mediterranean swelling waves seeking better life on the other side of the sea. Bouaziz chose to stay at home where his burned body became the spark for a populous uprising bringing an end to a dictator.

       I was watching TV when the news was interrupted with a live speech by the Bin Ali. He looked edgy and sounded disoriented. He told the fuming Tunisians: I understood you now. But after listening to his short speech, he came across as someone, who even after 23 years in power never understood his people. Along with restoring free media access, and in a “goodwill” gesture, he ordered his security men to cease using “live ammunition.” This was only after live ammunition failed to suppress the intrepid young Tunisians. The president then repeated, albeit 23 years late, his old promise for democracy and openness. But it was too little too late by then. 

Not very long ago, the Tunisian economy was described by ex French President as “miracle.” Praises from the American Bush administration showered President Bin Ali for his wise leadership and the economic success story in North Africa . This was at the time when international human rights organizations described the country as: No realm of civil society in Tunisia is safe from government interference. Tunisia was turned into a police state and a for profit corporation run by Bin Ali’s wife and her family.

Now the same countries that extolled Bin Ali while in power closed their airspace for his plane and declared his family as “persona non grata” on their land. Others congratulated the people of Tunisia for their honor and courage. Meanwhile main food item prices in neighboring countries are rolling down with the sound resonance of slot machines at the Casinos of Las Vegas.

There are two lessons to be learned from the events in Tunisia , one: subsidies on food items benefit equally the poor and the affluent, while provide false economic pretense and bleeds resources from projects intended to develop sustained economies on the long run. Along with more directed subsidies, good governance is a short cut to control prices by eliminating monopoly and public corruption.

Second: the US and EU nations must realize that supporting non democratic regimes under the pretext of “stability” and moderation (meaning acceptance of Israel) is a myopic view and an incubator to breed radicalism and volatility.  

To that end, good governance is second to none for lasting stability and sustained economic prosperity in the Arab world. Otherwise, more straws will break many more backs.