President Zine alAbidine Ben Ali has fled Tunisia after 29 years of trying to make Tunisia a modern state with the help of repression against the Islamist trend — and free market capitalism. The last-named path has brought to an end his ‘Tunisia model’ which he thought would prevent the extremist-inspired massacres of next-door Algeria from creeping into his country. World food prices have spiralled upwards and have caused hardship to the poor classes whose only care is for food. President Ben Ali refused to undermine his economy with a subsidy and has had to leave. His successor, caretaker Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, has announced a subsidy and release of all political prisoners.
The Tunisian crisis was triggered by a man who burnt himself to death against the confiscation of his vendor’s cart by the police. The Arab world has responded with copycat attempts in Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania, where the common man is hard pressed to buy food he can afford. In all three, the regimes are corrupt, repressive and ‘modern’, promising the world a postponement of Islamist takeovers opposed to modern economics and devoted to jihad. The people of Tunisia are glad their dictator is gone and want Tunisia to become uncorrupt and prosperous in quick time. That alas is not going to happen.
President Ben Ali’s ‘model’ allowed women’s rights and the most open economy in the Arab world. It develops that the people don’t really care about such things in the face of oppression and hunger and will soon pressure the current caretaker government to allow the Islamic parties to function after lifting the ban on them. The economy will respond to the food subsidy by developing strong inflationary pressures. After that, Tunisia will turn its back on what it had promised to the world over the last two decades: low poverty, high literacy and dignity without democracy. The middle class the old regime boasted will lean in favour of religion in its first flush of freedom and set in motion what has already happened in Algeria and Egypt.
Tunisia attracted attention by trying to remain steady and calm in the disturbed region of the ‘Maghreb’. It did that by banning the religious parties and by ‘mosque management’, hiring, training and paying the salaries of imams, even mandating government-prescribed Friday sermons at mosques. Like Tunisia, Morocco has also sought to stem Islamic radicalism. Its young King Mohammed VI has embraced what could be called ‘freedom management’, allowing the Islamic opposition, but in a rubber-stamp parliament. At the same time, however, he gave Morocco a new progressive family law, letting women have unprecedented rights in marriage and divorce.
Tunisia is a small state of nine million compared with Egypt which has millions serving the cause of the radicals, and even then its economy will have to be supported with external help. But this support will come from quarters that will append ‘conditionalities’ to spending money, usually called ‘belt-tightening’. Rich states like Kuwait can ride out the food crisis by dishing out a $4 billion subsidy, but Tunisia will not be in the same boat. Elections have not meant peace and tranquillity in the Islamic world: Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan are examples of one sort, and Egypt and Algeria of another sort where people have embraced religious extremism.
In Pakistan, a food crisis is upon us, and non-targeted subsidy, we find, is not the answer. Pakistani politicians are either not aware of the trouble they are inviting by preventing indirect taxes like the RGST and alignment of oil prices to international levels, or want the creation of chaos as a mechanism for their own return to power. One doesn’t have to look for Islamic radicalism — al Qaeda and its minions are killing innocent people and unleashing sectarian mayhem. If the Tunisian people take a close look at Pakistan they would see that their post-Ben Ali utopia is going to be short-lived. Pakistani leaders are thinking vaguely of ‘revolution’, some leaning to the French model, others to an Islamic one, but totally ignoring the burgeoning tentacles of the monster of extremism that is slowly but surely devouring their society.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 19th, 2011.
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