The last few weeks in Libya have been tragic, depressing, and hopeful by turn. For months the militia situation in the country had been brewing, with increasing calls for disarmament and unification under a national army on the one hand and, on the other, calls for patience by those making the argument that the armed groups are needed to keep order and security. This simmering tension exploded on the 11th of September with the devastating attack on the US embassy, which took the life of the ambassador Chris Stevens, as well as other Americans and Libyans. As a Libyan myself, I was left enraged and speechless by the attack, and finally thankful that there was someone to articulate those feelings publicly on behalf of Libyans, as prime minister Mustafa Abushagur did in his article on the attack.
Initially there was some speculation about how far the attack was motivated by the protests against that obscure film, which is no longer so obscure, and how much it was a pre-planned terrorist attack. In the wake of the attacks, however, many people ascribed the blame to certain militias or factions of them, and so on Friday, there were two sets of protests in Benghazi–one called Save the Prophet and the other Save Benghazi, the latter drawing many more people in a march against the militias, including many women.
Normally, there are many different things brewing – a political climate, social unrest, gross inequality that all contribute to turn a nation inside out. Yet many reports want to trace a revolution back to a single, definitive event. Crispus Attucks is considered the first martyr of the American Revolution, Rosa Parks is widely considered the catalyst of the US civil rights movement, her actions sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and Mohamed Bouaziz is the name behind the sudden surge in interest in self-immolation.
Bouaziz’s last protest made its way to cameras, which then spread the news that Tunisia was on the cusp of a revolt. Al Jazeera frames the story:
In a country where officials have little concern for the rights of citizens, there was nothing extraordinary about humiliating a young man trying to sell fruit and vegetables to support his family.
Yet when Mohamed Bouazizi poured inflammable liquid over his body and set himself alight outside the local municipal office, his act of protest cemented a revolt that would ultimately end President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s 23-year-rule.
Local police officers had been picking on Bouazizi for years, ever since he was a child. For his family, there is some comfort that their personal loss has had such stunning political consequences.
“I don’t want Mohamed’s death to be wasted,” Menobia Bouazizi, his mother, said. “Mohamed was the key to this revolt.”
And yet later, it is revealed that Bouazizi was one of many who had started to sound the alarm – an alarm suppressed by government officials and widely ignored by media under governmental control:
Mohamed Bouazizi was not the first Tunisian to set himself alight in an act of public protest.
Abdesslem Trimech, to name one of many cases occurred without any significant media attention, set himself ablaze in the town of Monastir on March 3 after facing bureaucratic hindrance in his own work as a street vendor.
Neither was it evident that the protests that begin in Sidi Bouzid would spread to other towns. There had been similar clashes between police and protesters in the town of Ben Guerdane, near the border with Libya, in August.
The key difference in Sidi Bouzid was that locals fought to get news of what was happening out, and succeeded.
“We could protest for two years here, but without videos no one would take any notice of us,” Horchani said.
I often wonder what ignites a protest and what does not. I specifically think of Lee Kyoung Hae, who stabbed himself in protest of the World Trade Organization’s policies toward South Korean farmers and their agricultural policy at large. I was in high school when the Battle in Seattle occurred – I’ve been fascinated by the World Trade Organization ever since. But while Lee did not die in vain, his protest did not lead to the type of uprising that could topple the WTO. Why? Why do some protests galvanize into movements, and others fade into time?
There are no clear answers to these questions, and yet the world keeps moving. Egypt, hot on the heels of Tunisia, also underwent a revolution, one that garnered a bit more attention from media outlets here.
As much as Egyptians may have surprised themselves and their neighbours, no one seems more caught off guard by this recent turn of events than members of western mainstream media and political officials. The western media appear bewildered, their commentary halting and unsure. Perhaps this is because, for so long, news agencies have stacked their rolodexes with analysts on the Middle East whose area of expertise lay primarily in terrorism and religious fundamentalism. They now seem ill prepared to comprehend this past week’s events, which have been so free of religious rhetoric, much less offer any insight on what the world may expect to come next. More than one commentator has remarked on the possibility of an Islamist take-over in Egypt and elsewhere, as though for lack of anything else worthwhile to say. Some appeared at a loss as they reported that protesters were not shouting “Death to America.”
The response to civil unrest in Egypt has been strangely unlike the response to the Iranian would-be “Green Revolution” of 2009. Because Iranians were standing up to a long-hated Islamist regime, their struggle was immediately embraced in the west across the political spectrum.
By contrast, western observers in the cultural mainstream have been hesitant about the Days of Anger, as they lack a clear and ready-made approach for identifying and understanding Arab discontent. This is probably due in part to the ostensible “secularism” of these regimes, and because instability in the Middle East is seen as a breeding ground for terrorism. Ironically, most terrorists out of Egypt are largely a product of the Mubarak school of stability — imprisonment, repression, and torture. But apparently the alternative is more horrifying: a scenario in which Egyptians may choose their own government. One can picture the Egyptians who populate the imagination of policymakers and journalists: a pious and incorrigible bunch, impelled in the direction of fanaticism as though by gravity. (Read the rest…)
Regimes in countries like Tunisia and Algeria have been arming and training security apparatuses to fight Osama bin Laden. But they were caught unawares by the ‘bin Laden within’: the terror of marginalisation for the millions of educated youth who make up a large portion of the region’s population.
The winds of uncertainty blowing in the Arab west – the Maghreb – threaten to blow eastwards towards the Levant as the marginalised issue the fatalistic scream of despair to be given freedom and bread or death. [...]
From Tunisia and Algeria in the Maghreb to Jordan and Egypt in the Arab east, the real terror that eats at self-worth, sabotages community and communal rites of passage, including marriage, is the terror of socio-economic marginalisation.
The armies of ‘khobzistes’ (the unemployed of the Maghreb) – now marching for bread in the streets and slums of Algiers and Kasserine and who tomorrow may be in Amman, Rabat, San’aa, Ramallah, Cairo and southern Beirut – are not fighting the terror of unemployment with ideology. They do not need one. Unemployment is their ideology. The periphery is their geography. And for now, spontaneous peaceful protest and self-harm is their weaponry. They are ‘les misérables’ of the modern world.
Already, discussion of a domino effect looms large – and while some pundits are wondering which country is next, the larger question is what will these changes symbolize in the world within the next decade?
On Friday, the President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia fled his homeland as it was engulfed by an uprising, sparked by the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed university graduate who had taken to selling fruit in Sidi Bouzid. When authorities confiscated his wares for not having a license, Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a government building. Protests followed, as thousands took to the street in a movement fueled by rage over corruption among the elite.
Anger in Tunisia has been building up for years, with Laila Al Trabelsi, former first Lady of Tunisia and infamous as “The Queen of Carthage,” becoming a lighting rod for much of the dissent. As Larbi Sadiki puts it “The First Lady is almost the Philippines’ Imelda Marcos incarnate. But instead of shoes, Madame Leila collects villas, real estate and bank accounts.” Laila and the Trabelsi extended family are often referred to as “The Family” or “The Mafia” in Tunisia, and “No to the Trabelsis who looted the budget,” has been a popular slogan in the protests. The irony is that the references to Laila al Trabelsi have been the only mention of Tunisian women in the events leading up to the ousting of the regime. Unlike in Lebanon or in Iran, where Neda Agha-Soltan became a symbolic figure of resistance, there was little mention of the women who took part in the protests in Tunisia, or of the victims of the security forces response, such as the woman who was shot and killed in Nabeul.