So You Say You Want a Revolution?

I realize I can bark my brains out; the caravan has probably already moved on, but could we just stop for 3 seconds and check the safety net before we go off the deep end?  No doubt there are powerful forces crawling across the Middle East and North Africa; all the conditions are right.  Every country in the region has the same set of circumstances: a young population, a growing middle class, a reasonable level of education, a contracting economy, unemployment, rising prices and an old and decrepit leadership.  This is the perfect storm.  It might even be the long-awaited Arab Revolution.  However, before we all hitch up the bandwagon let’s remember this isn’t 1989, no wall has come down, Benghazi isn’t Berlin and democracy is not on the march.  It isn’t even on the crawl.  Let’s quit with the self-congratulations for a minute (like western governments even did anything?) and put down the pom-poms.  Nothing has been accomplished but everything has been set in motion.  Get real.  This is the way it is.

Okay, Hosni Mubarak is gone.  So what?  At this point the army is still in charge.  This is the same bunch of guys who’ve been running the show since Nasser kicked King Farouk out of the country in 1952.  In essence, what happened in Egypt was a really, really weird kind of show-of-hands election and the incumbent (Mubarak) was defeated.  However, he didn’t actually have a challenger.  There is no political organization available to govern after him.  The problem the army faces now is how to hold a semi-free election without giving the country away?  They know that for every young professional in Cairo, dreaming of democracy there are seven guys upriver who think this is a golden opportunity to get the girls back in their bags where they belong.  The military needs to make it look good without letting the Moslem Brotherhood take control of the country.  Egypt depends on foreign aid and foreign tourists to survive; an Islamic revolution — freely elected or not — would ruin everything.

In Bahrain, when the people gathered in Pearl Square in Manama demanding reform, Shaikh Hamad listened for a while.  But absolute rulers don’t have to take that kind of abuse — or so he thought.  He sent in troops with tanks and automatic weapons.  Unfortunately, the western media noticed that they were all stamped “Made in America.”  Within minutes the State Department was in full damage control mode, burning up the Internet, telling the royal family to withdraw the tanks or they weren’t going to get any more.  Suddenly, the troops were gone.  Now, it’s all goodwill and dialogue, but the only tangible change (so far) is the Grand Prix was cancelled.  Personally, I think the king is just waiting ‘til CNN’s not looking.

In Iran, where nobody gives a damn what CNN thinks, anti-government demonstrations are old news.  They’ve been going on, back and forth, ever since the Ahmadinejad government fixed the national elections two years ago.  Invariably, any time people in Iran gather for anything more than a birthday party, the government response is brutal and ruthless – not necessarily in that order.  There will be no democratic reform in Iran in the near future — even though the demonstrations will continue.  The Iranian people are on their own, and they know it.

In Yemen and Algeria the battle for the streets is still going on.   Both governments are trying a combination of economic reforms and ungodly violence to keep control.  In both countries, the people are disorganized, and several factions are scrambling to put together a cohesive movement.  At this point, their only demand is the current regime step aside and hold free elections.  This isn’t going to happen unless – as in Egypt — the military takes control and rewrites the constitution.

Which brings us to Libya and the impending civil war.  The problem with democratic reform in Libya is Muammar Gaddafi himself.  He has been in power since 1969 (longer than anybody except Castro and the Queen.)  The only Libyans who remember a time without Gaddafi are retired now.   For 40 years, there has been no political dialogue in Libya, so it’s doubtful that the people currently shooting at each other are willing to give a try.  They want Gaddafi out;  that’s it.  They may be calling for democracy, but unless they’ve been taking secret courses from The Learning Annex, how do they even know what it looks like?  Besides, Muammar is not one to go quietly.  Nor does he have a room full of generals advising him to leave for the good of the country.  This fight is not over, and believe me, even when it is, it won’t be.

And finally, Tunisia, where the whirlwind all started.  Actually Tunisia has the best chance of surviving the turmoil and bringing true democratic reform to their nation.  Their size, history and population give them some big advantages in the search for reform.  Maybe, if they can solve their problems, the long, hard, old-fashioned way, then other nations in the region can follow their example.

If this is the Arab Revolution, it’s about to hit a snag.  It’s called history.  It teaches us that most revolutions don’t end the way things did in 1989.  Daisies don’t normally grow where the tanks were, and any eventual democratic reform is going to be long and hard — and maybe even bloody.  No amount of wishful thinking is going to change that.  It would be far better if we stopped cheerleading for a while and started dealing with the facts — before the caravan actually does go by and we’re left behind, wondering what happened — again.

Tunisia: Part II — The Canadian Connection

There’s always been a lot of talk about how one person can make a difference, how one lonely effort can change people’s minds and how one unrelenting optimist can push the world forward and make it a better place.  I believe this.  But, like most people, I still have to do the dishes and take the garbage out, so my unrelenting optimism is tempered by the need to scrape the scrambled eggs out of the pan.  However, sometimes the stars align, the breeze blows sweet and the gods smile on us.  It isn’t every day a person gets to change the world, but here we are.  It’s a bored Wednesday in January, a million degrees below zero outside, and daytime TV sucks.  So what the hell, eh?

On Monday, in Tunisia, the military guaranteed they would maintain order in the country so the Jasmine Revolution could succeed.  The teachers and the police went on strike.  A mass of people from the south came to the capital, Tunis, to defy the curfew and set up shop until somebody starts listening to them.  The demonstrations continue and the interim government has promised to step down after they hold free elections.  For the people of Tunisia, their country is in flux, but they are beginning to imagine a better world.

Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to help them.

Go find a Tunisian.  It’s not that hard; they’re all over the place.  A big part of the Jasmine Revolution is being propelled by Facebook and Twitter.  That’s a good place to start.  There are also websites and blogs that have e-mail and comments.  And God only knows what other MySpace/Yahoo/Foursquare combinations are out there.  Use your imagination!

Take a look and see who these people are.  I guarantee you that they are not the crazy Arabs that CNN, Fox and CBC have been force feeding us for last 10 years.  These are ordinary people, just like you.  And here’s the shock: they don’t know very much about North America because they’ve been getting their information from CNN and Al Jazeera.

So you need to let them know who we are; it’s important.  You need to tell them that it’s impossible to find a decent pair of cheap jeans in this country.  You need to ask for a recipe for the stuff they put in a tagine and find out why it tastes so different from everything else in the world.  You need to explain that Starbucks is good but Horton’s is better (or vice versa.)  You need to ask them if rap music sounds just as bad in Arabic as it does in English.

In short, you need to make friends.  You need explain your ulterior motives too.  After all, you didn’t just wander by.  And, to coin a phrase, just because people don’t have running water doesn’t mean they’re stupid.  This isn’t a time for politics or religion.  The Tunisians can take care of that themselves, but they need to know why you’re there.  They need to know you’ve come to support what they’re trying to do.  And that you like democracy, faults and all, and you want them to have some, because, at the end of the day, democracies don’t fight with each other any more than friends do.  You need to do all this so you can change the world.

Right now, there are bad people coming to Tunisia.  They’re wearing out ponies trying to get there.   They’re coming for the free elections, and they’re coming to take over the Jasmine Revolution.  They want power and they will do anything — and say anything — to get it.  Given recent history, it won’t be a big leap for them to make us out to be the enemy, and this will help them in their attempt to seize power.  However, they won’t be able to do that if you get there first.

It’s just human nature to distrust what you don’t understand.  However, it’s hard to dislike a person you just shared a recipe with.  It’s hard to hate somebody you call by their first name.  It’s difficult to believe someone is evil when they have the same problems and concerns as you do.  And it’s impossible to build an enemy out of someone who plays the same games and laughs at the same jokes.  Hillary Clinton and Peter MacKay aren’t going to do these things; they’re going to try and buy their way in — just like they always do.  But if you take the time to show the Tunisians just how much we have in common, they might realize who their friends are.  And they might have a chance at democracy.

Tunisia is the epicentre of change in North Africa because all the good bits have come together at the same time.  It’s small in size and population: ideas and people can travel quickly.  It has a relatively young and well-educated population: its people have been exposed to new ideas and are young enough to accept them.  It has a fairly big middle class: Marx, Engels and Mao were wrong: revolutions aren’t made by poor people; they’re made by the middle class.

Most importantly, Tunisia exists in the 21st century, and its people are open to the ideas of the world.  With any luck at all, there are going to be free elections in Tunisia.  For the first time, the people of an entirely Moslem country have overthrown a dictator and are going to have a crack at deciding their own destiny.  If it works, there could be others, and if we help them, it just might work.  So, maybe, somewhere between the dishes and taking out the garbage, you might want to give them a hand.  Who knows?  You might just change the world.

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