Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Last King of Tunisia

Tunisia's deposed president once swept to power with bold promises of reform. What went wrong?


Country: Tunisia

Lifestyle: There are a number of factors that led to the week of street protests and riots that overwhelmed President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's regime in January 2011, including widespread unemployment, rising food prices, and restrictions on civil liberties. But one major source of Tunisians' widespread rage was the conspicuous consumption of Ben Ali's extended family, particularly the relatives of his second wife, Leila Trabelsi. "No, no to the Trabelsis who looted the budget" was a popular chant among the hundreds of mostly young men who took to the streets of the coastal resort of Hammamet -- where the Trabelsis have built a number of opulent beachfront estates -- as they ransacked mansions, burned all-terrain vehicles, and even liberated a horse from its stable.

The opulent lifestyles of Ben Ali's relatives were laid bare in a series of U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, particularly one describing a dinner at the home of his son-in-law, Mohamed Sakhr el-Materi. Materi's Hammamet mansion featured, among other luxuries, "an infinity pool and a terrace of perhaps 50 meters." Roman artifacts, which the host insisted were real, abounded, including a "lion's head from which water pours into the pool." The ambassador and his wife were fed a massive dinner, including more than a dozen dishes and frozen yogurt flown in by plane from Saint-Tropez.

Materi also owned a pet tiger, which he kept in a cage on his compound and consumed four chickens a day. All in all, the situation reminded U.S. Amb. Robert Codec, who had served as an advisor to the transitional government in Iraq and signed the cable, of Uday Hussein's opulent lifestyle.

Not content with buying their own luxuries, Ben Ali's relatives had also taken to appropriating them from others. Another leaked State Department cable describes a 2006 incident in which Imed and Moaz Trabelsi, Ben Ali's nephews through his wife, reportedly stole a $3 million yacht belonging to a prominent French businessman from a dock in Corsica. The yacht reappeared a short time later in a Tunisian port having been repainted to cover its distinguishing characteristics. The French weren't fooled, however, and the yacht was returned to defuse a potential diplomatic uproar. Despite an Interpol warrant being issued for their arrest, the two were never punished.

And how their absence explains the quick fall of Ben Ali's regime.

The reign of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali is over. His government's response to the steadily growing unrest in the country was marked by successive tactical retreats: On Jan. 12, he declared his intention to immediately do away with restrictions on the press and step down once his term expires in 2014. When that concession only emboldened the protesters further, he responded on Jan. 14 by sacking his government and announcing that new elections would be held in six months. And now, the latest news suggests that the military has stepped in to remove Ben Ali from power and the president has fled the country.

Given the historical ineffectiveness of Arab publics to effect real change in their governments and the Tunisian regime's reputation as perhaps the most repressive police state in the region, the events of the past week are nothing short of remarkable. And while reports and analyses have focused on the extraordinary nature of the protests, it is equally important to consider what has been missing -- namely, Islamists.

Unlike in Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, and most other secular Arab autocracies, the main challenge to the Tunisian regime has not come from Islamist opposition but from secular intellectuals, lawyers, and trade unionists. The absence of a strong Islamist presence is the result of an aggressive attempt by successive Tunisian regimes, dating back over a half-century, to eliminate Islamists from public life. Ben Ali enthusiastically took up this policy in the early 1990s, putting hundreds of members of the al-Nahda party, Tunisia's main Islamist movement, on trial amid widespread allegations of torture and sentencing party leaders to life imprisonment or exile. Most influential Tunisian Islamists now live abroad, while those who remain in Tunisia have been forced to form a coalition with unlikely secular and communist bedfellows.

The nature of the opposition and the willingness of the Tunisian government to back down are not coincidental. If it had been clear that Islamist opposition figures were playing a large role in the current unrest, the government would likely have doubled down on repressive measures. The Tunisian government is rooted in secular Arab nationalist ideology and has long taken its secularism and its nationalism more seriously than its neighbors. Habib Bourguiba, Ben Ali's predecessor and the father of the post-colonial Tunisian state, took over lands belonging to Islamic institutions, folded religious courts into the secular state judicial system, and enacted a secular personal status code upon coming to power.

Bourguiba, like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, viewed Islamists as an existential threat to the very nature of the Tunisian state. He viewed the promotion of secularism as linked to the mission and nature of the state, and because Islamists differed with him on this fundamental political principle, they were not allowed into the political system at all. Bourguiba displayed no desire for compromise on this question, calling for large-scale executions of Islamists following bombings at tourist resorts. He was also often hostile toward Muslim religious traditions, repeatedly referring to the veil in the early years of Tunisian independence as an "odious rag."

Ben Ali, who served as prime minister under Bourguiba, has taken a similarly hard line. Unlike other Arab leaders such as Morocco's King Mohammed VI or Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, he has been unwilling to adopt any sort of religious title or utilize Islamic imagery to justify his rule. Most importantly, Ben Ali never attempted to co-opt Islamists by controlling their entry into the political system, but instead excluded them entirely from the political dialogue.

This history is vital to understanding why the protests were successful in removing Ben Ali's government. There is an appreciation within the corridors of power in Tunis that the Islamists are not at the top of the pile of the latest unrest. The protesters, though they represent a threat to the political elite's vested interests, have not directly challenged the reigning creed of state secularism.

Ben Ali's fate may have been sealed when military officers -- who had been marginalized by the regime as it lavished money on family members and corrupt business elites -- demonstrated a willingness to stand down and protect protesters from the police and internal security services. However, a military coup would also represent no ideological challenge to the regime -- the state's mission of advancing secular nationalism will continue even after Ben Ali's removal from power. And in the event that the military willingly cedes power and holds new elections in six months, the decimation of the Islamist movement over the last two decades means that any serious challenger is bound to come from a similar ideological background.

The weakness of Tunisia's Islamist opposition also makes it difficult to forecast how other Middle Eastern regimes would react to similar protests. It is unthinkable, for example, that Mubarak would not choose to crack down more viciously on protesters given the very real possibility that, if overthrown, Egypt would become an Islamist state. Given the unique nature of Tunisian society, observers hoping that Ben Ali's fall will portend a similar fate for other Arab autocrats may be left waiting a lot longer than they might now think.

How can a gun-crazed society lead the world?

The United States has 90 guns for every 100 citizens, making it the most heavily armed society in the world

India had the world's second-largest civilian gun arsenal, with an estimated 46 million firearms outside law enforcement and the military, though this represented just four guns per 100 people there. China, ranked third with 40 million privately held guns, had 3 firearms per 100 people.

Germany, France, Pakistan, Mexico, Brazil and Russia were next in the ranking of country's overall civilian gun arsenals.

On a per-capita basis, Yemen had the second most heavily armed citizenry behind the United States, with 61 guns per 100 people, followed by Finland with 56, Switzerland with 46, Iraq with 39 and Serbia with 38.

France, Canada, Sweden, Austria and Germany were next, each with about 30 guns per 100 people, while many poorer countries often associated with violence ranked much lower. Nigeria, for instance, had just one gun per 100 people

David Rothkopf

According to a 2007 survey, the United States leads the world in gun ownership: 90 guns per 100 people. We are a country with five percent of the world's people and between 35 and 50 percent of its civilian-owned guns. That's something like 270 million weapons.

Repeated studies have shown that the United States is far and away the leader among the world's developed countries in gun violence and gun deaths. There is no other developed country that is even close. Over 30,000 Americans die every year from gun violence. Most of these are suicides but in excess of 12,000 a year are homicides. Another 200,000 Americans are estimated to be injured each year due to guns.

In 2009, Bob Herbert of the New York Times wrote a compelling column noting that since 9/11 over 120,000 people have died in the United States as a result of gun violence. By now, the number is in excess of 140,000.

For those in the world who are mystified by this, the legal explanation associated with it by gun rights defenders is that the right to own guns is protected by the U.S. Constitution. The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

This statement has taken on quasi-theological importance for many in the United States even though it is clearly being misinterpreted by those who believe it provides every individual the right to own such guns -- including advanced, highly-destructive automatic weapons. The misinterpretation begins with the deliberate ignoring of the first half of the sentence associating the right with the need for a "well-regulated militia." This is a clear qualifier associated with the so-called right to bear arms and had it not been important to the sentence, one can only conclude it would not have been included in the famously sparely written document. If militias don't exist, one can therefore conclude this "right" should be reconsidered if not eliminated.

Further, of course, there have been many elements of the Constitution that have required amending because the views, values, and circumstances of the nation have evolved since the country's founding. Strangely, many of those who consider the Second Amendment sacrosanct would vigorously support those subsequent adjustments to the document.

Congresswoman Giffords, the targeted victim of this attack, was a supporter of "Second Amendment rights." This is a tragic irony, but it does not suggest this case should not reopen the discussion on this important issue. Consider the case of the shooter, a drug-using, clearly unhinged loser who responded to a requirement from his community college to seek a mental evaluation due to troubling behavior not by seeking help but by going out and buying a weapon … legally.

The attack also rightfully raises a question about the tenor of political discourse in the United States. This was not an attack by the venom-tongued and reckless political extremists and hate-mongers who have become so common in recent years. But it was certainly a consequence of the culture of disrespect and violence they have fomented. With some luck this attack my cause all parties to be more circumspect and embrace civility.

But in a global context we have to ask as dispassionately as we can: What do these events say about America's culture, and what are their impact on America's ability to lead? Many will reflexively note that other societies also have similar shortcomings. That is no doubt the case. But no society that holds itself up as an example to the world should, as the United States does, brazenly shrug off what are clearly deep national character flaws when it comes to our love of guns or our celebration of hate politics. Tragedies like that which unfolded in Arizona this weekend not only wound the victims, but also America's ability to lead and to advance our interests and values worldwide. Think, to take just one example, how the shadow of events like this and the patterns and history they reveal impact America's ability to advance its human rights agenda internationally -- as it will no doubt attempt to do during the upcoming visit of China's president next week.

The problem is that we are not talking about the aberrant behavior of a lone gunman here. Instead we should see that what we are discussing are grossly uncivilized aspects of American society, aspects of ourselves that we ought to change not because we fall below international norms, but because we fall so short of doing what is right, moral, or sensible.

Saudi Arabia forces all bloggers to get a license

Only Saudi Arabian nationals over 20-years-old may blog about news

Saudi Arabia forces all bloggers to get a license The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Ministry of Culture and Information is enforcing a new law where all bloggers in the country must be registered and only Saudi nationals with a high school degree over the age of 20 can blog about news.

The Saudi Arabian government has banned blogging and the setting up of e-news sites without a government license. All bloggers will have to register with the government and bloggers may only be Saudi Arabian nationals over the age of twenty and must possess a high-school degree, according to a document from the Ministry of Culture and Information.

Non-nationals will be banned from writing about news and chat room users are also encouraged to register with the government. Non-nationals will be allowed to blog about anything deemed appropriate that is not news.

The stringent new regulations, which went into effect on January 1, 2011, also state that all Saudi news blogs and electronic news sites will now be licensed and required to strictly abide by Sharia law and "include the call to the religion of Islam".

Blogs are now also defined as falling under the Saudi Press and Publications Law.

The topics that bloggers can write on are also being strictly monitored, giving the Saudi government carte blanche to shut down any websites they disapprove of.

All Saudi Arabia-based news blogs, internet news sites, internet sites containing video and audio materials and Saudi Area-created mobile phone or smartphone content will fall under the electronic newspapers.

The new regulations also require all news bloggers to provide detailed information on their hosting company. Many fear this information could be used to block access to a particular website across domains or force host companies to take blogs offline.

Users who post on online forums, internet users who communicate on listservs and guests in online chat rooms are also advised to register with the government under the new law.

The Ministry will consider giving blogging licenses to those who think they deserve it, according to the official regulations.

Anyone caught blogging without a license may face a $26,664 fine and a ban, possibly even a permanent ban.