In the past fortnight I have noticed two opinion pieces in the British media concerning the Arab Uprising. Incidentally, the ‘Arab Uprising’ seems to have become the BBC’s new term for describing what had formerly been called the ‘Arab Spring’. Presumably this is because the political and economic sunshine in North Africa and the Middle East has not been summery, or even particularly spring-like, since events in Tunisia kick-started the thing nearly two years ago.
One was by Gerald Warner, who is described in his now-defunct Daily Telegraph blog as ‘an author, broadcaster, columnist and polemical commentator’. Some, especially those who have to grit their teeth whilst wading through his columns in the Scotland on Sunday every week, would translate ‘polemical commentator’ as ‘right-wing tosser’. In his December 2nd column in the SoS, he used recent events in Egypt to pour scorn on liberals who’d dared to believe that the Arab Spring / Uprising would produce anything other than chaos, bloodshed and hardline Islamic oppression: “Old Middle Eastern hands could have told the starry-eyed Guardianistas that democracy on the Nile does not produce the same outcome as on the banks of the Thames.”
The other piece was authored by Mehdi Hasan, a journalist involved with the Guardian, New Statesman, Al-Jazeera Television and the UK edition of the Huffington Post. One of Warner’s despised Guardianistas, Hasan is something of a punch-bag these days for Britain’s right-wing commentators – only rarely, it seems, does the Spectator columnist Rod Liddle write the name ‘Mehdi Hasan’ without preceding it with the words ‘the idiotic’. A Hasan-penned article appeared in the New Statesman on November 29th, wherein he conceded that “recent events in Egypt don’t help those of us who desperately want to be optimistic about the future of the region”. Nonetheless, he declared defiantly: “But do you know who I trust? The Egyptians. And the Bahrainis. And the Jordanians. And the Syrians. Whatever the season, spring or winter, they will have their freedom.”
Now in my entire life I have never agreed with a single word that Gerald Warner has written, and if I ever did I would probably rush to the nearest clinic to check if I was suffering from the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. I find it particularly ironic that Warner should mouth off about the horrors of Sharia law, considering that in the past he’s excused the murderous regimes of Franco and Pinochet on the grounds that because both fascist dictators were devout Roman Catholics (as he is) they couldn’t have been that bad. The moral code Warner would like us all to live under might not go as far as advocating the death penalty for the sin of apostasy, but it certainly wouldn’t be a barrel of laughs either – I imagine it would be as much fun as living in Eamon de Valera’s Irish Free State circa 1935. Still, the recent antics of Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi have made my heart sink. Morsi seems to have split his country down the middle with a giant political chisel in his haste to approve an ambiguously-worded constitution that would allow Islamists to make life miserable for Coptics, Sufis, pesky liberals and uppity women.
Where does that leave the other country at the forefront of the Arab Spring (sorry, Uprising), Tunisia? By a coincidence, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahdha, Tunisia’s supposedly moderate Islamist party and the biggest player in its post-revolution government, also turned up in the British media lately. He was interviewed in the Guardian last week by the firebrand (though on this occasion noticeably deferential) left-wing journalist Seumas Milne. Interestingly, Ghannouchi identified the ‘Scandinavian’ model as the one he was most eager for Tunisia to follow. But don’t worry, all you devout Salafists out there, he wasn’t talking about Swedish permissiveness or Danish pornography (‘hot love and cold people’, as the saying used to go), but the Scandinavian economic and social model, where more than a little of capitalist society’s profits goes to a creating a decent safety net for the less well-off. Folk in hard-pressed parts of Tunisia like Siliana and Sidi Bouzid would tell Ghannouchi that there’s a hell of a long way to go before the economic and social climate there is anywhere near as comfortable as it is in Scandinavia.
Meanwhile, it’s disappointing that Seumas Milne, whose past articles in the Guardian have included The Problem with Unions is they’re not Strong Enough, Five Reasons Public Service Workers are Right to Strike, The Return of Anti-Union Propaganda, The Right to Strike is being Threatened by the Courts, An Assault on Unions is an Attack on Democracy Itself, and A Generation on, the Miners’ Strike can Speak to our Time, didn’t ask Ghannouchi about why his government has fallen out so badly with his country’s trade union organisation, the Union Géneralé Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT).
The UGTT has been vitriolic about the Tunisian government and Ennahdha in particular. It blames the country’s political leaders for the violent police handling of protestors, including trade unionists, who were demonstrating about the lack of jobs in the town of Siliana in late November and early December. It also blames them for a recent assault on trade unionists in Tunis while they commemorated the assassination of UGTT founder Farhat Hached (killed in 1952 by La Main Rouge, a French paramilitary group seeking to prevent Tunisian independence). The attackers were allegedly members of the League for the Protection of the Revolution, a faction supporting Ennahdha that had already been accused of responsibility for the death of opposition party Nida Tounes activist Lofti Naqdh back in October.
In fact, so incensed was the UGTT that it had planned a general strike in Tunisia today, December 13th, though the strike was called off yesterday after last-minute negotiations between it and the government. As yet, I haven’t seen any details of what was agreed. (Knowing the keen sense of rivalry that Tunisians have with the Egyptians, I can’t help suspecting that the UGTT and the government agreed to compromise only because they didn’t want Tunisia to look as hopeless as Egypt looks at the moment.)
Ghannouchi, and Ennahdha generally, must be feeling lonely at the top these days. Not only have they earned the ire of the UGTT, but the ultra-religious Salafists – a group they’d spent the last year trying to be civil towards – have been saying beastly things about them too, most notably Nasreddine Aloui, the Salafist imam of Ennour Mosque. This followed trouble in late October in Tunis’s Manouba district, which resulted in two Salafists being shot dead during a confrontation at a local police station. Interviewed on a live TV show, Aloui called for a jihad against Ennahdha, whom he denounced as puppets of the US government. He even waved a kafin (a burial shroud) in the air while he called on young Salafists to sacrifice themselves in the upcoming war on Ennahdha. Predictably, his call-to-arms didn’t impress government minister Samir Dilou, who happened to be appearing on the show at the same time.
Hindsight is both a wonderful and a worthless thing. However, Ennahdha could have done things better in the year or so since it became the main party of power. It could have paid less attention to political wrangling and bickering and focused more on the economy, which many would argue was the real driver for the revolution. Poor folk – including many unemployed young men – living in the country’s interior rebelled against the old Ben Ali regime because they faced shockingly grim economic prospects. Richer folk living along the Mediterranean coast rebelled because the Mafia-like way in which the country was run – if you had a business, Ben Ali’s gruesome in-laws, the Trabelsi clan, invariably came calling looking for a cut of your profits – whittled away the money you already had and deterred entrepreneurs from setting up new operations and generating new money.
At the same time, Ennahdha was over-lenient with the Salafists, whose behaviour gave outsiders the impression that the country was unstable, discouraging tourists from visiting and making potential foreign investors think twice about putting money in it. Some viewed the appeasement of the Salafists as being part of a secret, sinister plot by Ennahdha to gradually move Tunisia towards being a hardline, Sharia-controlled state, and I’m sure Ennahdha politicians, as Islamists, would like to see Tunisians being a bit more Islamic than many of them are at the moment. But I’m inclined to think this was more down to political naiveté and inexperience. They tried to be reasonable towards the Salafists, assuming that they’d be reasonable back. This didn’t happen. The Salafists seemed to believe that having the right to express their opinions and to protest peacefully also give them the right to attack TV stations, galleries, bars and embassies. And as Nasreddine Aloui’s TV outburst showed, they didn’t take it well when, finally, the authorities ran out of patience and began to meet force with force.
Wiser heads will say that a revolution is never an event and always a process. One Tunisian acquaintance of mine, who’d been schooled in France and therefore knew all about the French Revolution (which is credited as lasting a decade, and led to Napoleon, the Bourbon Restoration, the July Monarchy and two more revolutions in 1830 and 1848), told me: “We will set up a new government… And if they are no good, we will throw them out and set up another government… And if they are no good, we will throw them out too…” Unfortunately, this fact has not been appreciated by some other Tunisians, who expected their living standards to rise the morning after Ben Ali and the Trabelsis had fled.
It certainly wasn’t appreciated in the West, where the modern news media is obsessed with catering for short TV-conditioned attention spans. Every news item becomes a narrative, invested with a quick, easy-to-digest structure that has a beginning, middle and end, and receives a title as catchy and glib as a politician’s sound-bite. Thus, what happened in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 became the ‘Arab Spring’ – an event, not the first stage of what was likely to be a long, gruelling and torturous process. Liberal Western commentators were only too happy to hail it as the day that Arab societies shook off their oppressors and turned into democracy-loving, equal-rights-for-everybody Shangri-Las. And when this didn’t happen, right-wing Western commentators were only too happy to pronounce the whole thing a catastrophic failure that would usher in a new Dark Ages to North Africa and the Middle East. A lot of people would be advised to hunker down, study their history books and exhibit a little patience.
What happens next in Tunisia? Elections are supposedly due next year and it’s conceivable that Ennahdha could lose power. If they do, will they – and their fans in the League for the Protection of the Revolution – accept defeat gracefully? Or will there be a massive schism and a potentially destructive stand-off like what’s happening in Egypt just now? I think there are grounds for optimism, because Tunisia isn’t Egypt (and despite what the narrative-obsessed Western media has told people, the Tunisian Revolution is a very different beast from the Egyptian one). Tunisians are better educated, their country (thanks to the myriad outside influences that have figured in its history) has always seemed more outward-looking and the Tunisian army – which would have a major role to play in solving a constitutional crisis – has, until now at least, behaved with integrity.
One thing is for sure. The West should get over the idea that it’s sensible to support the likes of Ben Ali, Mubarak or even (the rehabilitated) Colonel Gaddafi on the grounds that “Okay, he’s a bastard, but at least he’s our bastard.” Gerald Warner, for example, sings the praises of Mubarak, who “was the best friend the West had in one of the most tinderbox areas on Earth; he made uneasy peace with Israel, kept the lid on smouldering fanaticism and was a reliable ally.” Maybe so, but he was still a bastard, a corrupt bastard who robbed his people blind. As did Ben Ali, his wife and her kin. And sooner or later, with such bastards running (and robbing) the show, the general population will rise up and get rid of them. I often think that if, back in the days of the Blair government, Cheri Blair had been following Leila Trabelsi’s example, siphoning off Britain’s wealth and dishing it out to her relatives like the actor Tony Booth and the journalist Lauren Booth, incensed Daily Telegraph readers and Spectator readers would have been the first to storm the barricades.
Of course, if Western powers have been backing this or that dictator until their moment of departure, they needn’t expect any love from the population afterwards. It might seem realpolitik to support a bastard, but surely it’s even more realpolitik not to support an eventual loser?
If anyone qualifies as an ‘old Middle Eastern hand’ that Warner mentioned in his quote at the start of this entry, it’s Robert Fisk, the Independent’s correspondent for the region. He made a pertinent remark about the Arab Spring / Uprising phenomenon in an article a month-and-a-half ago: “It is a slow business: every reader of this article will be dead of old age before the Arab ‘revolution’ is complete.” Mehdi Hasan may be optimistic about it, but I’m afraid he’ll have more than a few grey hairs before he finds out if his optimism was justified.