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Samer Shehata: A police state exercising total suppression of freedoms is more brittle and open to falling than a semi-authoritarian regime

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. The Tunisian ex-president remains in Saudi Arabia. After 23 years in power, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted by thousands of people in the streets of Tunisia in what–at least for people observing from the West–was a somewhat unexpected development. Now joining us in our Washington studio to discuss the significance of these events is Samer Shehata. He’s an assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University. He’s author of the book Shop Floor Culture and Politics in Egypt. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So first of all give us the basics of what’s happened, for people that haven’t followed the story very well.

SHEHATA: Sure. On December 17, a young Tunisian man, 26 years old, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire, and he set himself on fire in front of a police station in Tunisia because he was frustrated with his plight. He was a college graduate. He couldn’t find meaningful employment. He was forced to sell fruits and vegetables in the market in his town. And the security forces confiscated his stand because he didn’t have the proper paperwork, and apparently he was roughed up quite a bit. And so in protest he lighted himself on fire and subsequently died. And this caused a wave of protests throughout Tunisia, from December 17 up until several days ago, continuing, that eventually grew and grew. The Tunisian security forces used significant amounts of repression, live ammunition. The figures of the dead, so far, range from the official figure of about 26 to the unofficial figure of about 60-something. And Tunisians were aware of what was going on as a result of video that was taken on cell phones and video cameras, posted on the Web, and so on. And the protests culminated in thousands of people in front of the Interior Ministry in Tunis, the capital. And then the president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled on Friday.

JAY: Ben Ali was seen by people–is this correct?–as a more or less Western-friendly leader.

SHEHATA: Yes, very much so. He was very close with President Sarcozy. He had visited the White House on an official visit under George Bush. Condoleezza Rice paid him a visit in 2008.

JAY: So he would’ve been–people that remember from the 1960s, there was this thing called The Friendly Dictator‘s deck of cards. He would have been in The Friendly Dictator [inaudible]

SHEHATA: Very much so. I mean, Tunisia, of course, isn’t the recipient of billions of dollars of aid like Egypt, but he was considered a very serious partner in America’s war on terrorism. He was very open market-, World Bank-, IMF-policy friendly. He believed that Islamists were the enemy, and he clamped down on Islamists quite severely, without any regard for human rights or democratic process, when he came to power until the present. So he was very much Western aligned, with France and Europe as well as the United States.

JAY: And the conditions, in terms of the political conditions for this kind of mass uprising, really, how organized was this? And this is just people fed up and coming into the streets. And, again, it’s (for people that don’t know, and as I have come to learn) a very repressive state.

SHEHATA: Yes. Well, for those of us who study the Arab world–and of course the Arab world, unfortunately, is full of autocratic authoritarian regimes. Tunisia was considered the closest thing to a police state, aside from of course Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The Islamists were officially banned. There are many Tunisian political leaders in exile in Paris and in London. Elections are farcical regularly. Ben Ali has changed the Constitution a number of times in order to allow himself to run again for president. In fact, it was well believed that he was going to amend the Constitution another time to remove the age limit (because he was 74 and the age limit in the Tunisian Constitution is 75 for the post of president) so he could run again in the next election in 2014. So it was very much of an authoritarian state. There were no press freedoms, no meaningful political participation. And it was unexpected not only here in the United States but in the region and among those of us who study Middle East politics.

JAY: So what sparked this, people to have the confidence to come out, face the guns? And also I saw one shot of people facing soldiers guarding the palace, and the soldiers seem rather friendly to the people at that point. Did one see, then, splits in the army, splits in the police force?

SHEHATA: Right. Very much so. In fact, it seems that one key moment in the unfolding of events was when the army chief of staff resigned because he was unwilling to use the army against the civilian population demonstrating without arms, whereas the security forces that were very much aligned with Ben Ali and the regime were quite willing to use violence against civilians. And in fact, over the last few days there have been instances recorded of fighting between the army and the forces loyal to Ben Ali, the security forces. So that was a key moment. And in terms of what started this, it’s difficult to pinpoint anything, you know, a particular grievance, other than the general kind of rising prices, inflation, youth marginalization, incredible corruption that was well known to Tunisians by the royal family, as it were, particularly Ben Ali’s wife. This is well documented in the WikiLeaks that have come out. But, of course, Tunisians knew this before. So it were those kinds of frustrations, and no room, no political room for any kind of participation, contestation, that I think ultimately led to this.

JAY: What message does that send, then, to the region, that in a place that’s one of the most policed states, as you describe, people reached a point and it didn’t matter. I guess there’s a point where you say, I’ve got nothing to lose, let them shoot, I’m going out in the streets anyway. And a lot of people came to that conclusion.

SHEHATA: Yes. Well, we’ve already seen ripple effects throughout the region. And citizens, as well as leaders, are very much concerned. We have already seen four Algerians also try to burn themselves in protest of unemployment, lack of a future for themselves. We’ve seen this occur in Mauritania as well. An Egyptian tried to light himself on fire in front of the Egyptian Parliament. And so on. So we’ve seen also a great deal of solidarity expressed by people in the Arab world with Tunisia, who really are champions, are heroes now, have set a model for what was considered impossible, because this really is historic. I mean, this is the first time that an autocratic leader has been deposed by the power of ordinary people, mass protest, in the Arab world. We’ve never seen anything like this before. We haven’t had an Iranian Revolution in the Arab world. Unfortunately, leaders are removed from power or leave power in the Arab world when they die or when there is a coup. That’s the norm. So this really is quite different, and its effects have been already felt throughout the region.

JAY: Is there something specific about what happened in Tunisia, in the sense that Ben Ali had so suppressed the Islamist movement that this kind of split that perhaps you see in Egypt, or maybe some other places, where a section of the secular non-Islamist population is weary of a Muslim takeover, they don’t want sharia law, and sort of a split happens in the people’s movement, where you have a stronger Islamist presence? In Tunisia, having so suppressed the Islamist movement, did it actually create some space for a more unified, spontaneous movement this way?

SHEHATA: I think that there’s something there. I mean, you’re definitely right that a major divide, rift, throughout the entire region, in terms of politics and political opposition, is that between Islamists and secularists. Whether it’s Turkey or Egypt, this is the major political divide. I think that’s partially responsible. But I think also something else is that Tunisia, as we said, was really close to a police state. There were no safety valve channels that people could release some of their frustrations. Elections were farcical always. Legitimate political parties really were non-existent. Leaders were exiled abroad. In countries like Morocco, Jordan, Egypt, and so on, it’s a kind of softer authoritarian. They’re still thugs in charge, but they allow elections of different degrees of fraudulence and so on.

JAY: But wasn’t this last election in Egypt–.

SHEHATA: It was terrible. However, in Egypt there are opposition parties. The Muslim Brotherhood, as you mentioned, does operate. And in the past Parliament they had 88 people in the Parliament. In the previous parliament they had 17 people. There is an independent media in Egypt. Of course, there’s also media repression, but there is regular criticism of the regime and so on. None of this was heard of in Tunisia. So another possibility is that–without being overly academic, is that semi-authoritarian regimes, regimes that allow some freedoms, as it were, can last longer, they can absorb opposition, they can withstand criticism, and so on, whereas these regimes that are completely authoritarian are much more brittle, are much more open to falling, as it were, if in the case of something like this a mass movement develops.

JAY: Something–we did a story covering the Egyptian elections, and there was a protest, a demonstration at some point, which I’m–I wonder how much significance it had, ’cause in theory it should have a lot, which secular organizations protested alongside the Muslim Brotherhood, denouncing the elections as a fraud, and they were together, and you didn’t find this sort of secular fear of the Muslim Brotherhood, at least in that space. Is that something that’s growing there?

SHEHATA: It is, and I think it is growing largely because the regime in Egypt has become more repressive, more authoritarian. As you mentioned, the elections were abysmal even by Egyptian standards. But there have been instances of Islamist secular cooperation in Egypt and elsewhere even before. In the 1984 elections, without, you know, too much history, the Muslim Brotherhood cooperated with the most secular of secular parties, the Wafd, in Egypt to run candidates in ’87, they cooperated with other parties, and so on. They’re organized in the Kefaya, the enough to Mubarak movement. And so on. So there have been instances of cooperation, as well as major division.

JAY: Now, when the people in the streets of Tunisia look at the United States and its policy, what do they see?

SHEHATA: Well, the real bad culprits are the French, of course, who have been with Ben Ali for quite some time–from the very beginning, in fact. In fact, a week ago or so there were French ministers who were making statements that Ben Ali really wasn’t as bad as people believed he was, that he wasn’t really a dictator, and so on. At the same time, however, the United States has been a supporter of this regime. They had been close partners in the so-called war on terrorism. President Ben Ali paid an official visit to the White House under the Bush administration. And often Tunisia is heralded as a model of economic reform. In fact, the Middle East Partnership Initiative by the State Department is headquartered in Tunis–that is supposed to promote the liberalization and economic reform and political freedoms and so on. So Ben Ali was supported by the United States. There’s no question about that.

JAY: As are–

SHEHATA: As are many other–.

JAY: –most the dictators throughout the Middle East.

SHEHATA: Most of them, yes, yes.

JAY: So just one final question. One of the leaders of the bigger Islamist party, which apparently he’s planning to come back now, he said Ben Ali’s gone, but the structure of the dictatorship has not. So, yeah, what’s left? And who’s in power now in–?

SHEHATA: Yes. That’s Rashid Ghannushi, the head of the Nahda Party, [who] said that, and he is completely correct, whatever one thinks of him, that unfortunately it seems that the basic remnants of the Ben Ali regime are still there, and now the struggle is: to what extent is there going to be a complete break from the past? To what extent are people who were implicated in one way or another, maybe not directing the security forces to pull the trigger on civilians protesting, but were implicated in the regime, defenders of the regime, ideologues of the regime, apparatchiks, as it were, to what extent are they going to be allowed to stay in power, whether it’s going to be the Ben Ali regime without Ben Ali or a genuine, new, more participatory, more democratic regime? And that’s the struggle, I think.

JAY: And are there demands which are essentially against this neoliberalism, against the IMF, World Bank, and free-market philosophy? Is this part of what the crowds are saying?

SHEHATA: Yes. They’re [inaudible] in a way, these types of demands. But that’s what many of the basic criticisms were: about incredibly high inflation; about an economy that seemed to increase income inequality; limited opportunities; employment for youth and others and so on; and this kind of merciless neoliberal economic package that has been, you know, pushed by the IMF, the World Bank, and the United States for quite some time. Tunisia was referred to as an economic miracle because of the high rates of growth–and in fact they were high rates of growth. But as many people have said, you know, average citizens don’t eat macroeconomic statistics. And this is the problem, that on paper the economies look quite good, but when you really get down to income inequality, who gets what, as it were, things look significantly different.

JAY: So this is just the beginning. Thanks very much for joining us.

SHEHATA: You’re very welcome.

JAY: And we’ll continue to follow this story in Tunisia on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Samer Shehata is an assistant professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University. He is the author of the book: "Shop Floor Culture and Politics in Egypt" published in 2009. Samer has also written numerous articles on Arab politics for the International Herald Tribune, Boston Globe and the Arab Reform Bulletin.