The Lessons of Tunisia (The Huffington Post 2011/01/19)

logo huffington1. Joy. Wonder. This moment, always astounding, when the power we thought eternal vacillates, cracks, crumbles like a castle made of sand. Did the army precipitate things? Did General Rachid Ammar gave Ben Ali a gentle shove, to get him on the plane? Yes. But it wasn’t even necessary any more. For one may have the finest generals in the world, the cruellest police–or, as French Foreign Affairs Minister Michèle Alloit-Marie put it, the most effective–on the planet. There is no State that carries enough weight when faced with a people who, one fine morning, in solidarity with a little vendor of Sidi Bouzid who immolates himself, have decided they’ve had enough. Courage. The power of greatness and heroism. Once more, the tyrants found strength only in the weakness of the tyrannized. There is no despotism–we have known this since French author Etienne de La Boétie wrote Discours de la servitude volontaire, but the Tunisians have reminded us–that can hold its own against a people that is no longer afraid. Twenty-three days of demonstrations for twenty-three years of terror. It is not, as has been said, a miracle; it is logical, mechanical, and beautiful like the purest, the most implacable of mechanisms.

2. An Arab insurrection. Yes indeed. Remember those who said there are peoples who are made to revolt and others who are not. Remember those apostles of the war of civilizations for whom the very idea of a Muslim, and in particular, Arab country, open to human rights was a contradiction in terms. How do they look today? They don’t seem so clever now, these tenants of culturalism who criticize us for tacking ideals foreign to them on these countries. What the Tunisian people have taught us is that, contrary to the perception of these racists, democratic principles are universal principles. And that, contrary to what these defeatists profess, one can smother these principles, shrink them, crush them, discourage those who uphold them–they remain invincible. Today Tunisia. Tomorrow Khadafi’s Libya. The Assad family’s Syria. Perhaps Ahmadinejad’s Iran. It took a good deal of scorn to believe this region of the world was filled only with peoples who were flunkeys, servants meant to live in exotic torpor. It took the calm audacity of the Tunisian people to spurn, one would hope, a prejudice of which it is hard to say if it is more stupid than insulting–or the inverse.

3. The motor of this revolution was, obviously, not the proletariat. Nor was it the new or the long-standing poor. It was not even exclusively these famous middle class citizens with diplomas to spare, who felt betrayed by Ben Ali. No. It was the internauts, the web surfers, users of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others. They are the men and women who, armed with a smartphone, covered the streets of Tunis to film the repression, the insurrection. They are the Anonymous, this group of hackers supported by my review, La Règle du jeu, who, when they realized the cyberpolice were about to reduce the space of this cyberresistance to nothing, attacked the regime’s official sites and blocked the State machine. Revolution within the revolution. Yesterday they took over the television. The day before, the Winter palaces. The time has come for an e-revolution, the first of its kind, which the young people of Tunisia have awarded its letters of nobility. Thanks to them also, for having developed this new form of resistance to such a degree of excellence.

4. There is revolution, and then there is revolution, of course. And we, the French, are well placed to realize that the shadow of ’93 may be lurking behind ’89. Will the same thing happen in Tunisia ? Will the perfume of jasmin be overcome by that of intolerance or, worse, radical Islamism, from which Ben Ali claimed to shield the country? Anything is possible, naturally. The militia who favor the old regime who, as I write these words, are still roaming the capital, trying to spread terror, are capable of every possible provocation. But, for the time being, what is striking is the maturity of the rebels. The restraint of their slogans. The calm with which they confront the organized groups in the neighborhoods. And as for the leader of the Islamist party Hizb Ennahda, exiled in London, one has only to read the timid declarations he has made since Ben Ali’s flight to understand that he is far from becoming a new Khomeini. And so, there as well, why not give up our preconceived ideas? Why not allow ourselves to be carried along by the event and by the lesson in Arab democracy which Tunisia, for now, is unequivocably offering?

5. One last word. On the strange reflex of part of the international community and, in particular, of France. We should be used to it, of course, nonetheless– This Minister of Foreign Affairs who offers a dictatorship in its last gasp the « savoir-faire » of France’s « security forces ». The same minister who, believing she is apologizing, protests three times, in an interview with the Journal du dimanche, declaring her commitment to « non-interference » in the affairs of the Tunisian people. And the Elysée that states, in a fine communiqué issued Saturday, that it has « taken steps » so that Ben Ali’s « Tunisian assets » will be « administratively frozen » in France. Meaning? We knew, then, that these assets existed? We saw that Ben Ali had been systematically bleeding and pillaging his country? And we were just waiting for him to lose power to say so? In that there is, worse than a reflex, a confession, and one which speaks volumes about the moral standards upon which the foreign policy of a great country is based. A crook in power is still a friend. Should he fall, chased by the people, then, yes, it’s a wake-up call for virtue, down with the bandit!

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