WHEN Tunisia’s dictator of 23 years, Zine Abidine Ben Ali, scurried off into exile with over a ton of gold looted from the Banque de Tunisie worth 62 million dollars, the Arab world shook.
Muammar Ghadaffi, Libya’s eccentric but oligarchic “Brother Leader” of 42 years, dispatched two fighter jets to accompany Ben Ali to Saudi Arabia, and then hectored the people of Tunisia for an hour on Libyan TV.
In Cairo, where Egyptians proclaimed that their 82-year old President of 30 years standing would be next, Hosni Mubarak miraculously conjured up a 3, 5 billion dollar employment deal, and swiftly increased his security presence in major centres.
Syria, with a second-generation dictator at the helm, gave Tunisia careful scrutiny. Bashar Asad re-introduced heating oil subsidies, and promised poverty relief for 400,000 families.
Leadership in Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, Sudan and Jordan – all beset to degrees with stagnant leadership, public disgruntlement and moribund, if not looted economies – watched silently as the Arab street celebrated.
However, predictions of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution having a domino effect in the Arab and African region are premature, if not ill-informed. In the short term, its leaders are arch-survivors, well-armed and ruthless, who will be quick to learn from Ben Ali.
They will most likely start testing the waters with reform, much of it cynical, to buy time and power. These moves, that will only partly placate their constituencies, will create what sociologists call “relative deprivation” – each concession leading to demands for more concessions.
What has been so glossed over by Tunisia’s various allies – and open partners such as the French Presidency, the IMF and the World Bank – is that Tunisia was the most repressive of the region’s regimes. Tunisia was political pressure-cooker that had been on the stove for a long time.
Tunisia’s outwardly stable façade and investment-friendly environment, coupled with economic growth being able to camouflage political repression, kept the engine running – and as long as the bottom line was in the black, and the Islamists kept in reign , Ben Ali was left alone.
It was this developmental sleight of hand that saw President Zine Abidine Ben Ali visiting South Africa in the 1990’s, and being the first African Arab leader to address our parliament.
So what is the proverbial straw that broke Tunisia’s back?
Most analysts cite economic hardship, due to the unsustainability of the Tunisian model, and government corruption as the lead-in factors.
Tunisia, like so many developing nations in the 1980’s, had tried to be a good servant of the IMF and the World Bank. But its privatisation had made it vulnerable to the piracy of Ben Ali and his wife’s family, the Trabelsi’s.
Laila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser, created an extensive family mafia in Tunisia’s public and private sectors. Ben Ali and his in-laws are said by French newspaper, Le Monde, to have pillaged 15 billion dollars from the state.
To this effect, a Wikileaks cable from Tunis’s US embassy claims that Ben Ali and his wife’s family controlled 50% of the economy. The Arab economist, Professor Basel Saleh, says that income distribution is so polarised in Tunisia that 60% of the population is currently denied access to 70% of the country’s wealth.
Another factor that motivated the uprising was the question of Presidential secession. Whilst Ben Ali had often hinted he would stand down in 2014, it was believed that his first lady was being groomed for the Presidency, something that horrified the Tunisian public.
The world economic meltdown also created headaches for Tunisia, despite IMF spin that it had weathered the storm. As a peripheral economy to nearby Europe, it suffered, and basic commodity prices began to rise.
In the streets a major bone of contention (apart from systemic government corruption and high living costs) was unemployment, said to be officially 14% but believed to be more than twice that figure amongst the youth, with the poorer interior regions experiencing rates as high as 50%.
Unlike South Africa, many of the unemployed masses were not the unskilled, but professionally qualified university graduates.
So when a 26 year-old graduate, Mohammed Bouazizi, had his fruit and vegetable stall destroyed by the police in Sidi Bouzid, he went off the deep end. After dousing himself in petrol, he set himself alight. Little could he have known what a raw nerve his desperate and final act would touch.
When the people of Tunisia took to the streets in their thousands in sympathy, Ben Ali tried all his old tricks. Using live ammunition against protestors, whom he initially called “terrorists”, he soon discovered that the Tunisian pressure-cooker had burst.
Not even vague promises of reform, and undertakings to step down, could ward off the Jasmine Revolt. A month later, Ben Ali was en-route to Saudi Arabia and exile.
With recent the toppling of Ben Ali and the Trabelsi’s, it’s still too early to predict midst the turmoil what Tunisia’s political destiny will finally be. Whilst it grapples with its future, Tunisia is not your pessimistic stereotype of an Arab, or African country.
It has been under reported, for example, how active its women have been in the uprising. Then there are Tunisia’s Islamists, brutally crushed by Ben Ali in the 1990’s.
The An-Nahdah party, led by the 71 year-old exile Shaikh Rashid Ghannouchi, is again not your stereotype. In 2003 Shaikh Rashid, a peaceful and thoughtful man, won a lawsuit against a British tabloid linking him to Al-Qaedah.
I have interviewed him, and spoken to his aides, some of whom, incidentally, bear horrific scars from Ben Ali’s torturers. Shaikh Ghannouchi’s view that Islam and democracy are compatible – that an Islamist party can co-exist within a democratic system – has not been given the prominence it deserves.
Whilst the overthrow of Ben Ali was motivated by bread-and-butter issues, and fuelled by the instant reach of social media networking, it’s certain that its ramifications will rebound well beyond Tunisia.
And in sub-Saharan countries like ours beset by rich-poor divides, where MP’s can drive cars beyond the reach of their salaries and where Presidential family members can become overnight millionaires, the signs should be clear to all.