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Post Tunisia and the Specter of Middle East Instability
Created by John Eipper on 01/22/11 5:55 AM

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Tunisia and the Specter of Middle East Instability (Jon Kofas, Greece, 01/22/11 5:55 am)

Geography plays a very important role in a country's history, and this is even more so for coastal countries like Tunisia with strategic importance surrounded by powerful neighbors. Land of the Berbers, Tunisia was founded by Phoenicians (modern-day Lebanon) 29 centuries ago. Known as Carthage, it became a major Mediterranean merchant power until the Roman Republic destroyed it in three major wars (Punic Wars).

After a brief invasion and occupation by vandals and Byzantines in the 5th and 6th centuries, Arabs swept across North Africa in the 7th and 8th century, converting the area to Islam and placing it under the caliphs of Baghdad. Largely nomadic in social organization, Tunisia became a thriving country in North Africa from the 13th to the 16th centuries, a period that roughly corresponds with the Italian Renaissance and the European Commercial Revolution.

The emergence of Spain as the preeminent naval power in the 16th century resulted in the decline of Tunisia, parts of which Spain occupied until the Ottoman Turks imposed their rule of the country from 1574 to 1881. Given that the Europeans had become the creditors of the Ottoman Empire and its Muslim and Christian satellites that became bankrupt as they became commercially and financially dependent on Europe, French, British and Italian financiers took over Tunisia's finances until May 1881, when France invaded and colonized the country, holding it until 20 March 1956. France recognized Tunisian independence under the leadership of nationalist leader Habib Bourguiba, who founded the Neo-Destour Party and who would remain president for life.

The country's external financial dependence as a dependency of the EU and US left it very vulnerable to global economic trends of inflation and economic contraction. Throughout the 1970s, Tunisia suffered student and labor unrest led by the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT). Several hundred demonstrators were killed, but the country celebrated a false sense of political liberation in April 1980 when a new government under Mohamed Mzali took over and released jailed political prisoners, and allowed the all political opposition parties to form, including the Destourian Socialist Party, aligned in a National Front with the UGTT, that captured the National Assembly with 94.6% of the vote. By the mid-1980s inflation was out of control and Tunisia imposed IMF-style austerity measures that resulted in new rounds of social unrest at a time that the PLO was very active in Tunisia that allowed Yasir Arafat to enter the country, only to suffer Israeli bombings just outside of Tunis where PLO fighters were training.

In 1986-1987, President Habib Bourguiba gradually removed the PLO from the country, he dismissed Prime Minister Mzali, and Islamic fundamentalists. He insisted that Tunisia was faced with "a terrorist conspiracy sponsored by Iran," so he severed diplomatic relations with Tehran and began to fill prisons with political opponents. In September 1987, Bourguiba placed interior minister General Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali as prime minister, but six weeks later Ben Ali staged a coup, becoming president for life until the January 2011 riots forced him out of office. Ben Ali ran unopposed in elections, winning 99.9% of the vote, thus assuring the public of his legitimacy. Behind Ali was the US and Europe providing military and economic aid. United States has been providing economic and military aid, with the understanding that Tunisia would be open to foreign capital investment and militarily allied with the west including declaring "war on terrorism." To some degree, Saudi Arabia and Israel also backed the Ben Ali regime, although France, Tunisia's largest trading partner, has been by far the largest supporter. Ben Ali relied on French advisers for policy direction in all matters from security and intelligence to financial and commercial policy.

Cooperating with US and France as well as IMF and World Bank, the dictatorship of Ben Ali has been able to keep itself in power ruling with an iron hand and a fist of gold he amassed by looting the country. Ben Ali allowed foreign investors to enjoy Tunisia as a safe heaven in which to invest and a source of cheap labour. Ben Ali relaxed foreign investment laws, allowing major areas of the economy to fall under foreign control.  The press in Europe and US rarely had anything but praise for the Ben Ali regime, hardly mentioning that it was an authoritarian regime that was looting its people suffering abject poverty.

Wikileaks recently revealed the secret cables from the US embassy in Tunisia about the rampant corruption and popular indignation owing to abhorrent living conditions and a mass political movement gathering storm. Nevertheless, no US official uttered a word in public about the situation until the uprising. Even worse, Nicolas Sarkozy had been praising the Ben Ali regime in the last three years, no matter the warnings from human rights organizations about Tunisia. In April 28, 2008 he declared: "Your country is engaged in the promotion of universal human rights and fundamental freedoms ..." The same year, IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn praised the regime as "the best model for many emerging countries." This a comment from a "French Socialist"!

In December 2010, social protest broke out after rising food and basic goods prices along with high unemployment forced workers and students into the streets in this small North African nation suffering under one-president rule and external financial control since their independence. Tunisia's popular uprising quickly spread across to corrupt and West-backed authoritarian regimes Algeria, into North Africa and the Middle East. After Ben Ali was forced out of the country, taking a great deal of loot with him, Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Jordan announced they were lowering food prices, all in an effort to prevent social unrest from spreading. However, the most vulnerable country is Egypt, with 79 million people under the authoritarian rule of Hosni Mubarak, who is the agent of domestic and foreign millionaires as well as the US whose interests he serves in return for their support.

Egypt may not explode right after Tunisia, but it will explode soon, as the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood as well as disparate opposition groups will eventually coalesce to bring down the regime that has brought more than 10% inflation, and has not solved the problem of widespread poverty and unemployment--even the IMF has acknowledged that the wider region with Egypt at the core would need to add 100 million jobs in the next ten years.

Trouble across North Africa has spilled over to the Arab world, and it will do so on a much larger scale. With Iran as the most powerful Islamic nation in the Middle East, a destabilized Arab world will entail global instability, at least as far as the US, EU, Israel, and the reactionary Arab states are concerned. Market volatility will be the least of the consequences as energy prices will hit the roof. This is a scenario for a disaster that could be avoided if major structural reforms take place now that the Tunisian uprising has sounded the alarm. However, disaster will take place because the political elites in the Middle East and North Africa serving foreign investors and western geopolitical interests are far too comfortable in the power they have historically enjoyed to undertake reforms, just as foreign investors and the US are interested in supporting these authoritarian regimes because they serve tangible economic and strategic interests. The only certainty is that the status quo will go up in smoke in the oil-rich Middle East.

JE comments: Jon Kofas's analysis of Tunisian history once again points out a truism of diplomatic circles:  authoritarian nations never receive the world's attention as long as they remain "stable" and friendly to Western interests.  We have to re-learn this lesson every year or two when a new hot spot emerges.

On a related note, I wonder if Tunisia's troubles have influenced the increase in gasoline prices over the last few weeks.  Tunisia to my knowledge doesn't produce oil, but it seems any ol' reason will do to spike up the prices.

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