When it was announced last week that the entry of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his horrible in-laws would be denied by Tunisia’s former colonial protector, I was about to depart from my usual course and say something kind of the French government. Then I learned that Jean-Claude Duvalier was back in Haiti, and the disgusting dictator-coddling aspect of the French establishment was once again at the front of my thoughts. A great deal of guilt-based French shilly-shallying preceded the eventual taking of a definite position (i.e. not to snuggle up to the expelled President), a fact France’s Foreign Minister, Michelle Alliot-Marie, appeared to be glossing when she said that “the constant principles of our foreign policy are non-interference, support for democracy and freedom and the implementation of the rule of law.”
If there is a fine philosophical line between support for democracy and freedom, on one side, and interference on the other, there is probably not one in practice, and certainly not one where dictators are concerned. A little pro-democracy interference, somewhere along the way, was never offered (France offered riot police) but probably would have been appreciated. In any case, the Tunisian Revolution is not about France, nor indeed about any of the colonial powers whose citizens populate Tunisia’s tourist enclaves.
The ousting of Ben Ali was a Tunisian accomplishment and has been characterized as the first social media revolution. Whether or not the Internet played a decisive role, the idea has some value for those who enjoy historical irony. Recall that from November 16 to 18 of 2005, Tunisia hosted the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), out of which came the “Tunis Commitment.” Here is a sample from that document.
We reaffirm our desire and commitment to build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, premised on the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, international law and multilateralism, and respecting fully and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, so that people everywhere can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge, to achieve their full potential and to attain the internationally agreed development goals and objectives, including the Millennium Development Goals. We reaffirm the universality, indivisibility, interdependence and interrelation of all human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to development, as enshrined in the Vienna Declaration. We also reaffirm that democracy, sustainable development, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as good governance at all levels are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. We further resolve to strengthen respect for the rule of law in international as in national affairs.
Tunisia’s ironic WSIS hosting role was overseen by General Habib Ammar, Ben Ali’s thug and a notorious human rights violator. It would therefore be fitting, and I confess the thought puts a smile on my face, if the “information society” played a role in driving Tunisia’s professional bully class into Saudi Arabia, a portion via the fittingly awful pseudo-place, Disneyland Paris. (Nesrine Ben Ali and Sakhr El-Materi were discovered in Marne-la-Vallée, which I will forever associate with one of the worst bouts of flu I have ever contracted.)
Now the hard work begins, as well as the uncertainties and the dangers posed by potential counter-revolution. Will the Tunisian example inspire change elsewhere? We can not know in advance, but it is certain that there are many Mohamed Bouazizis and that the hour is approaching for a number of the world’s dictators. They will brought down by what Larbi Sadiki has called the bin Laden within, “the terror of marginalisation for the millions of educated youth who make up a large portion of the region’s population.”
Mohamed Bouazizi, let us remember, was one of these marginalized young men. He set himself on fire in December, after government officials took away his mobile cart-shop and thus his means to support himself. His January 4, 2011 death brought about the Tunisian Revolution and, let us hope, the liberation of the people of Tunisia and the eventual fulfillment of the Tunis Commitment — not to mention the world’s commitment to Tunisia.