by Bernard Jenkins
Who could have imagined that picturesque and peaceful Tunisia, the tiny North African country sandwiched between the radical Arab regimes of Libya and Algeria, would be the first Islamic country to overthrow its ruling thugocracy since the Khomeini revolution ran the hapless Shah out of Iran over 30 years ago ?
Tunisia, not much bigger than a credit card, once-upon-a-time a French colonial outpost, has long been considered a relatively moderate Arab country, sort of sophisticated by European standards, and a popular tourist destination, with its brilliant Mediterranean beaches, remarkable Roman ruins and seductive Sahara date palm oasis villages surrounded by spectacular giant sand dunes.
The surprising Tunisian uprising began a month ago when a 26-year-old unemployed university grad, peddling fruits and vegetables from a cart for a meager living, was hassled by the cops in his small hometown for lack of a peddlar's permit. In protest of his desperate economic situation and the country's ruling strong-arm regime of goons, bullies and thieves, the young man set fire to himself.
Word of this tragic gesture triggered protests in sympathy and support. With the government maintaining an iron grip on the news, information on the protests and the skull-cracking reactions of the security forces nevertheless traveled at the speed of light throughout the country via the 21st century version of the carrier pigeon: Facebook, You Tube and Twitter.
Demonstrations and protest marches began breaking out from small oasis towns on the edge of the Sahara to the tourist beaches along the Mediterranean and finally to the capital, Tunis.
Then within a matter of days, as the demonstrating crowds of young people, bazaaris, merchants and women (mostly unveiled - Tunisia is not Afghanistan) grew more numerous and angrier along Avenue Bourguiba, the main drag of Tunis, President Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali, who had bossed it over this small country as a seemingly "benevolent" dictator for 23 years, got the memo the streets were sending, packed his bags with boodle and split for the safety of Saudia Arabia.
The rapid demise of Ben Ali's autocratic dictatorship and the panic flight of his corrupt family and in-laws to Europe and Canada where their foreign bank accounts awaited them, has undoubtedly sent a bone-rattling shiver through the Middle East's rogues' gallery of iron-fisted rulers.
The Arab World has a curious longtime history of cruel rule by self-anointed kings and princes, indolent sheiks and presidents-for life. From North Africa to the Gulf to the Levant, most of the people grind out a meager living and groan quietly under the relentless pressure of police state bullying, while their corrupt masters and their cronies and kinfolk, grow fat on privilege and power.
80-year old President Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt pharaoh-like since replacing the assassinated Anwar Sadat 30 years ago. In 2000, Syria's Bashar al-Assad succeeded hi s father, the wily strongman Hafez el-Assad, who had ruled that troublesome country for 40 years. Bashar is not as wily as his father, but the regime marches on. Col. Qaddafi, the Libyan weirdo, who surrounds himself with gun-toting female body guards and sleeps in a bedouin tent, has controlled that vast desert oil well of a country since 1969!! Algeria threw over its French colonial lords in 1962 and went straight to dictatorship and eventually political schizophrenia and economic dire straits. Lebanon has always been schizophrenic. Its rickety multi-faction, multi-religious government has recently collapsed in the face of Hezbollah blackmail. In Jordan, King Abdullah, son of the late King Hussein, great grandson of Jordan's first king, Abdullah, who was given the crown by Lawrence of Arabia and Winston Churchill, reigns over a crypto -Parliamentary Monarchy, kept in power by a small but fierce military and an effective secret police. The Kingdom of Morocco is a wonderful tourist destination, but under the radar is wobbly on its pins due to extreme poverty and the pressure of Islamic fundamentalism. Yasser Arafat bequeathed the Palestinian Authority a legacy of corruption and thuggery. Hamas, which bigfoots it over Gaza, is infected with a similar toxic virus. Iraq, the hornet's nest kicked over by the trumped up US invasion, is mired in corruption, dangling precariously between chaos and outright catastrophe, ripe for the rise of a new Saddam Hussein. The sheiks and emirs of Kuwait and the Gulf sit fearfully on their golden toilet seats. And then there is Saudi Arabia, the richest most regressive and repressive country of them all, whose money can't buy them love (but almost anything else). Can you say Al-Qaeda??
The dirty secret behind all these tired, venal, sclerotic, tyrannical regimes with their death grip on power and insatiable hunger for wealth, is that almost none of this has anything to do with Israel. Like the tale of the scorpion and the water buffalo, it is simply their nature.
If Tunisia's tune catches on, like some melody once heard you can't get out of your head, a brighter future for the Middle East may be dawning. The region left behind by progressive democracy, equality, and even the global economy, might be realigned and renewed, lifted from relentless poverty, freed from the terrible fate of becoming fodder for religious fanatacism and liberated from political tyranny.
It is not a sure thing, but if you doubt the possibility, remember the Soviet Union? Whatever happened to it? Can you say Berlin Wall?
Sing along with John Lennon: You say you want a revolution.... (Click here )