Tunisia: Part I — The End of the Beginning

Just in case you missed it, Mohamed Bouazizi is dead.  He died on January 4th, 2011.  He was buried, where he lived, in a little village outside a place called Sidi Bouzid.  From all accounts, Sidi Bouzid is a neat little town, relatively poor but without the screaming poverty that inhabits most of Africa.  Likewise, Mohamed Bouazizi was an ordinary guy.  He was 26.  He’d been to school for a while (like everybody else) and was working away at life, selling vegetables.  Nothing special?   Just another guy?

On December 17th, 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi was selling his vegetables in Sidi Bouzid when the local police came along.  From here, the story is a little hazy because, at that point in time, Bouazizi still wasn’t noteworthy enough to merit much documentation.  I don’t know who did what to whom but basically the cops were tense because Bouazizi was selling veggies without a permit.  Apparently, they confiscated or destroyed his produce and gave him more than a couple of whacks for his trouble.  Selling vegetables may or may not be illegal in Sidi Bouzid, permits notwithstanding; I don’t know.  That’s not really important anymore anyway because, later that day, Bouazizi got himself a couple of litres of gasoline, went to the steps of the government office, poured the gas over his head and lit a match.  As protests go, this was a good one.  And, as they say, the rest is history.

If you’re still confused, Sidi Bouzid is in Tunisia, and Bouazizi’s protest is what started the whole mess over there.  The situation has fallen out of the news cycle recently, but the analysis and discussion is still all over the Net — if you want to dig around a bit.  If not, here’s the discount version of what’s happening.  Tunisia is a little country in North Africa, economically divided into the relatively affluent north and the relatively poor south.  Since it became independent from France, in 1956, Tunisia has had only 2 rulers.  Both governed with varying degrees of success and oppression.  Compared to other parts of the Moslem world, Tunisia is stable and has strong ties with Europe.  It has a well-educated population and rising standard of living.  All of this is much more evident in the north than the south.

 Within that framework, on December 18th, the people in Sidi Bouzid held a protest against the government and the treatment of Bouazizi.  As word spread so did the protests.  On December 24th, the police shot a protester, and all hell broke loose.  The peaceful demonstrations became full-blown riots, and the police responded with more bullets.  By the 28th, the unrest had reached the capital, Tunis, and the entire country was boiling over.  President Ben Ali made several attempts to control the situation but no amount of band-aids could cover the wounds that were opening up.  In the first two weeks of January, 78 people were officially shot (and probably a whole bunch more unofficially) but even this heavy hand couldn’t slow the upheaval.  On January 14th, Ben Ali dissolved the government.  He took the first plane to Saudi Arabia — with his family and, as is customary in these situations, likely enough cash to see them through the winter and beyond.

Today, the interim government is trying to hold the country together, long enough to have elections, and the people of Tunisia are still in the streets.  According to their constitution, elections must be held within 60 days.

Tunisia is a long way away from here.  It’s little.  It doesn’t have a very big voice in the affairs of the world.  However, right now, Tunisia is probably one of the most important places on the planet.  The people there are in the streets, looking for a better life for themselves and their children.  But there is a lot more at stake than that.  What happens in Tunisia in the next couple of months is going to have a profound effect, not only on the world as we know it, but on world history itself.  And believe it or don’t, the course of that history may well depend on what you do in the next couple of weeks.  Ordinary people are going to decide what happens in Tunisia — ordinary people like Mohamed Bouazizi and ordinary people like you, if you’re willing to give it a try.

Wednesday:  Tunisia and Canada: A Clear Connection

Aung San Suu Kyi

On November 13th, 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in Yangon, Myanmar (Rangoon, Burma).  In Canada, we clicked our breakfast juice glasses and said “Good on ya!”  In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi walked from her house to the iron fence: the voice of democracy, able to speak again.   I’m glad she’s free.  I’m glad that the world didn’t forget about her while she was in the hands of the Myanmar military.  I’m glad democracy has another chance in a country I know nothing about.  I’ve always thought of democracy as a delicate thing – a fragile institution that needed to be handled with care.   But what the hell do I know about democracy, anyway?  Not much.  In my world, democracy has always been there, like clean water, or warm socks or 30 different kinds of breakfast cereal.  The constant of it lulls you to sleep.  Canadians wouldn’t know repression if it bit them on the ass.

In other parts of the world, repression isn’t just an entry on the Word-of-the-Day calendar.   It’s a living, breathing thing.   It stands on street corners with bayonets and rifles.  It walks through the sunlight to work in the shadows.  It’s a slogan, marched down a wordless street, and it’s a scraping scuffle in the whispering night.  It lives on fear, and if you listen, you can hear it chewing in the darkness.  In other parts of the world, repression doesn’t have a name because people are afraid to say it out loud.  Yet it’s always there like, some tainted fog, hiding prisons and torture and a hundred other nameless horrors.  These are the weapons of the brutal, who seek to rule without law and to silence those who oppose them — like Aung San Suu Kyi.

 Aung San Suu Kyi wasn’t always in politics; actually, she half stumbled into it.  Although her father was one of the architects of Burma’s independence from Britain in 1947, and her mother was the Burmese Ambassador to India, she lived outside her country for many years, in Britain and the US.  In 1988, she returned home when her mother became ill.  At the same time, there were widespread protests in Burma and calls for democratic reform.  In the middle of this national upheaval, Ne Win, the general who had controlled Burma since 1962, resigned, and created a political vacuum.  It was filled with louder calls for democracy and surging protests against Burma’s military rulers.  This was called the 8888 Uprising, but auspicious dates and unarmed monks are no match for disciplined troops — thousands were killed.  Aung San Suu Kyi had a famous name and a love for her country.  She and others formed the National League for Democracy and came out of the chaos as the leading voice for reform.  They were so strong it forced the ruling junta to place Suu Kyi under house arrest and nullify the League’s 1990 election victory.  Since then, despite the world watching and a Nobel Prize for Peace, Aung San Suu Kyi has been isolated by the military rulers of Myanmar.  She has remained under house arrest, off and on, for the last 21 years, sitting in her home in Rangoon, playing the piano and reading philosophy.

Now, she`s been released.  But nobody`s taken off their uniforms yet or put away their riot sticks.  The Myanmar military is still firmly in control and quite willing to put a stop to anything or anyone they see as a threat.  Suu Kyi and the democratic movement in Myanmar have been here before, and there’s no guarantee that this isn’t just another empty gesture.  History has a way of showing us what happens next, though, and somewhere Aung San Suu Kyi and the military rulers of her country are going to have to face each other.  Then the choices become clear – Rule of Law or Might is Right.  There’s no way around it — tyranny and democracy can’t live together.

We fear for democratic institutions and with good reason: evil never takes a vacation.  There’s always a politician, a general, a religious leader or a fanatic who’s willing to take control of our lives for us — for our own good.  They always come with promises and just a “few” restrictions until things get under control again.  They have a knack for enlisting convincing arguments and well-meaning people to do their bidding, and they prey on the weakest of us to subvert our society.  I’ve always thought democracy was fragile in the face of this – until today.  It’s not, and I was wrong.

We live with democracy, so we have no idea how strong it is.  We see its frailty and worry about its flaws.  We have the leisure to debate its shortcomings and the luxury to criticize its inadequacies — sophisticated chatter across an after dinner living room.  In other parts of the world, democracy writes its name in purple prose.  It feeds children and protects their parents.  It powers learning and attacks ignorance.  It guards law.  It builds hospitals.  It shelters the weak and gives power to the strong.  No matter how many times dictators come to destroy it, it always rises again to topple their statues and prosecute their crimes.  Sometimes, it’s a playwright in Czechoslovakia.  Sometimes, it’s an electrician in Poland.  Sometimes, it’s a South African who never lost faith despite 27 years in prison.  Sometimes, it’s a guy in a white shirt, facing down a tank.  And sometimes it’s a little woman in Myanmar, playing the piano.  Tyrants tremble when democracy speaks because no matter how many tanks, how many soldiers, how many bayonets a dictator gathers around him, democracy always wins.

So this morning over breakfast, I’ve changed my mind. I’m putting my money on a tough little chick in a lilac dress.   And while I’m at it: Liu Xiaobo, good on ya, buddy: China, you’re next.