Pushing government luck

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. You can comment here or there.

Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.1

While Mona Eltahawy, in an op-ed for the Washington Post, a newspaper sometimes accused of a neoconservative slant, says of Tunisia that the country “is not a major U.S. ally,”2 the New York Times reports, “The country, which is determinedly secular, is a close United States ally in the fight against terrorism. But on Friday, after reports that Mr. Ben Ali had fled, President Obama made strong statements in support of the protesters.”3

The timing of Obama’s remarks is critical. Eltahawy continues:

On Jan. 7, the State Department said it was concerned about the regime’s online and real-life crackdown. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Jan. 12 that Washington would not take sides, infuriating those who saw a double standard in the vocal U.S. position on Iran.

But others saw encouragement from Washington’s reticence. U.S. leaders are “supporting us with their silence,” a Tunisian told me on Twitter. “If they say anything, we will lose.”4

What is clear is that Ali’s regime was the nasty sort of regime that the U.S. seems inevitably to support but which no one now defends. Playing both sides, neoconservatives will undoubtedly embrace Eltahawy’s depiction:

For decades, a host of Arab dictators have justified their endless terms in office by pointing to Islamists waiting in the wings. Having both inflated the egos and power of Islamists and scared Western allies into accepting stability over democracy, those leaders were left to comfortably sweep “elections.” Ben Ali was elected to a fifth term with 89.62 percent of the vote in 2009.

All around him is a depressingly familiar pattern. Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi (68 years old) has been in power since 1969; Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh (64) has ruled since 1978 and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (82) since 1981. Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika (73) is a relative newcomer, having been in power only since 1999. Not so much fathers as grandfathers of their nations, these autocrats cling to office – and are increasingly out of touch with their young populaces.

No doubt, every Arab leader has watched Tunisia’s revolt in fear while citizens across the Arab world watch in solidarity, elated at that rarity: open revolution.5

Indeed, both CNN and the BBC report that Ali has landed in Saudi Arabia.6 7 But there is a larger message for those in government who, rather than any measure of economic justice for their people, instead work to enhance the riches of the wealthy.

According to the Times, “the mounting protests quickly evolved from demands for more jobs to demands for political reforms, focusing mainly on the perceived corruption of the government and the self-enrichment of the ruling family.” WikiLeaks revelations “of the first family’s self-enrichment and opulent lifestyle” did not help. And Tunisia, it seems, is a largely secular, middle class country.8

In the United States, it is the 150th anniversary of the South’s secession from the Union. A number of articles have emerged affirming that a primary motivation for secession was the preservation of slavery.9 10 Apparently, this is disputed by those whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy despite not owning slaves, though Robert McElvaine argues that they were duped into fighting against their own interests just as they are now duped into voting against their own interests.11

What we know is that a desperate, combustible anger that occasionally erupts into violence is widespread across the white working class. It is largely founded in class issues even when it is directed at women and people of color.12 13 14 15 16 17 18 It is an anger that will not be assuaged by pieties such as,

Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.19

It is in fact an anger that has been sorely provoked by a political system that bailed out the banks while leaving ordinary people to twist in the wind. If people were surprised by what happened in Tunisia, they should reflect on what might happen in the United States.

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