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Decoding Tunisia

When the dust settled in Tunisia on Saturday morning, after President Ben Ali, 74, fled to Saudi Arabia in the face of growing popular protests, it was still not clear if we were witnessing a coup or something else entirely.

When the dust settled in Tunisia on Saturday morning, after President Ben Ali, 74, fled to Saudi Arabia in the face of growing popular protests, it was still not clear if we were witnessing a coup or something else entirely.

What began as protests over the country's economic problems on December 17 grew into protests against the president's decades of rule. Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi briefly took over as interim president, before ceding the role to the speaker of parliament, Fouad Mebazaa, the next in line under the secession rules of the country's constitution.

Many questions remain. What does the military think about this transfer of power? Will the national unity government that Ghannouchi has promised to form satisfy the crowds in the streets? Was it a coup if the prime minister acted in accordance with the constitution? The next few days should provide the answers.

What significance do the events in Tunisia hold for Russia and all other countries? This, too, remains unclear.

What do the demonstrators want? Were the protests organized or spontaneous? Again, few people know the answers to these questions because Tunisia is not well known to the outside world. Even many foreign affairs experts are scratching their heads over this one.

However, some were bold enough to slap a label on the events in Tunisia as they were unfolding. An article published in The Washington Post on January 15 declared that Ben Ali's "23 years as Tunisia's ruler were over, submerged by a wave of unrest set off by economic deprivation, official corruption and political frustration in the mostly Sunni Muslim country."


The article continues, "The United States has long considered Tunisia an important ally, in part because of Ben Ali's close cooperation with U.S. security officials in fighting al-Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups."

The Post seems to be suggesting that the U.S. was wrong to rely on Ben Ali, and that they should have supported the democracy movement in Tunisia and beyond.

U.S. journalists can't help but see the events in Tunisia through the prism of the debate that began in the United States after 9/11, if not earlier - a debate that has divided the western world. If you try to foster democracy in a Muslim country, you may empower extremist organizations. Democratic elections brought Hamas to power in the West Bank, for example. But if you choose to cooperate with a regime that achieves stability through repression, you may wake up one day to find your ally ousted from power, as in Tunisia.

The debate pits idealistic liberals against realists. But for all their passion, both sides could very well be wrong.

Realism is the favorite weapon of society's educated elite, while liberalism is the sugar-coated pill fed to the masses when there is no time to think and a tight deadline has to be met in the high-pressure business of journalism.

There is something painfully familiar in that media's eagerness to cast the unrest in Tunisia as a battle for democracy. It betrays a Marxist conception of history and politics, according to which all events - from the gladiator uprising led by Spartacus to a routine coup in Algeria - are explained in the context of the larger struggle of the oppressed masses for a better life. When an event does not fit this script, it is downplayed.

Long ago, when Stalin ruled the Soviet Union, Marxist scholars heatedly debated the "Asian method of production," which is not described anywhere in Marx's writings - indeed, much of the world did not develop according to Marx and Engels's European conception of history. But that debate was cut short by the Chinese revolution. Stalin needed to forge a relationship with Mao Zedong, and so the scholars were gagged, both figuratively and literally. Such were the times.

The current events in Tunisia are being forced into the neo-Marxian framework of the people's struggle for democracy (Barack Obama's recent statement fits the mold), and this tells us something about the mentality of American and other journalists working today.

Obviously, the U.S. authorities did not order The Washington Post to write the article; rather, I see it as a journalistic reflex. All the same, the resulting article will no doubt influence the thinking and guide the actions of the general public and people in positions of power.

Violence used to disperse demonstrators in downtown Tunis has been automatically denounced as crimes against a democratic movement, even though a mob is always a mob.

"The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold," Obama said in a statement released by the White House.

Revolts are often stirred up by an inspired intellectual who wants a better life for the people. Next thing you know someone starts breaking shop windows. Then the police step in because looting and violence cannot be tolerated, be it in Tunisia or in Moscow's Manezh Square just outside the Kremlin walls, where ultranationalists attacked ethnic minorities on December 11.

So what is happening in Tunisia? The best answer is, "I don't know, I need more time to analyze the situation."

According to The Washington Post, "The simmering discontent erupted into the open Dec. 17 in the inland city of Sidi Bouzid after an unlicensed fruit vendor identified as Mohammed Bouazzi set himself afire. Bouazzi acted after a policeman confiscated the wares off his cart and, according to news reports, after he was slapped by a female city hall employee to whom he had turned to complain."

But isn't that too simplistic? Where is the nuance? The complexity?

Tunisia has always been a shining example of economic success, with economic growth averaging 5% a year for the past decade, much of it due to the tourism industry. The Tunisian government wisely invested in education in those prosperous years, devoting 7% or 8% of the budget to it.

But it is growing prosperity not desperate poverty that is politically volatile. We have seen this again and again since Tiananmen Square.

The upheaval in Tunisia can be traced back to two factors. First, as many as 70,000 educated young people enter the job market there every year. This is the raw material needed for a modern middle class. But unfortunately, many of the young graduates could not get a job.

Second, the global food crisis - although overshadowed by the financial and economic crisis - has continued to cause food prices to rise.

The food crisis, which is almost a taboo topic, is complex. Part of the problem is the "supermarket revolution" - a change in the consumption model that has been underway in developing countries since the early 1990s. This is more dangerous than a simple rise in flour prices, which has led to unrest in Egypt.

Is this the real explanation? Or is it only another wrong turn in the maze? Back in December, it was thought that Tunisians were simply protesting rising food prices. Now the Tunisians have been unwittingly enlisted in the fight for democracy.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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