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Jewish Journal

Tunisia: the first Arab revolution

by Mona Eltahawy

January 19, 2011 | 3:12 pm

Egyptians shout slogans outside the Tunisian embassy in Cairo on Jan. 15. Dozens of Egyptians celebrated outside the Tunisian embassy after Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled his country following weeks of social protests. Photo by AFP/Mohammed Abed.

Egyptians shout slogans outside the Tunisian embassy in Cairo on Jan. 15. Dozens of Egyptians celebrated outside the Tunisian embassy after Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled his country following weeks of social protests. Photo by AFP/Mohammed Abed.

Every July 23 for the past 58 years, Egypt, my country of birth, has celebrated its “July revolution” that overthrew King Farouk and ended the monarchy and British occupation once and for all. It was no revolution: It was a coup staged by young army officers.

And so it has been with a series of “revolutions” around the Arab world in which a succession of military men went on to lead us in civilian clothes — some kept the olive drabs on — and rob generations of the real meaning of revolution. For years I looked at the Iranians with envy — not at the outcome of their 1979 revolution, but because it was a popular uprising, not a euphemism for a coup.

So you’ll understand why, along with millions of other Arabs, I’ll forever cherish Jan. 14, 2011 — the day Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, his 23-year rule toppled by 29 days of a popular uprising. A real revolution for a change.

It’s the first time Arabs have toppled one of their dictators, so you’ll understand why, despite the reports of chaos, looting and a musical chairs of caretaker leaders, I’m still celebrating. Let’s have no whining about how those thousands of pesky Tunisians who risked their lives to face down a despot ruined the idyllic package-holiday-in-a-police-state for so many European tourists.

The equations circling Tunisia right now are very clear: We have no idea who or what kind of coalition of leaders will emerge, but there is no doubt who’s rooting for the failure of this revolution: every Arab leader who has spent the past month watching Tunisia in fear. You can be sure the region’s dictators are on their knees right now praying for chaos and collapse for Tunisia.

Some Arab countries have simply ignored what happened: no official statement from Algeria or Morocco. Others said they respect the wish of Tunisians but filled their state-owned media with reminders that they weren’t anything like Tunisia: Egypt.

Leave it to Muammar Gaddafi, the world’s longest-serving dictator, to best portray that panic. Addressing a nation where thousands had faced down the bullets of Ben Ali’s security to protest unemployment, police brutality and the corruption of the regime, Gaddafi told Tunisians they were now suffering bloodshed and lawlessness because they were too hasty in getting rid of Ben Ali.

If every Arab leader has watched Tunisia in fear, then every Arab citizen has watched in hope because it was neither Islamists — long used by our leaders to scare many into acquiescence — nor foreign troops that toppled the dictator: It was ordinary and very fed up people.

Tunisians must remember that during these days of chaos. We’re hearing reports that neighborhood watch committees have sprung up to protect against looting and violence, which many blame on Ben Ali’s loyalists.

Interestingly, both Western observers and Gaddafi have been crediting WikiLeaks but for different reasons. By buying into the idea that leaked U.S. embassy cables about corruption “fueled” the revolution, commentators smear Tunisians with ignorance of facts and perpetuate the myth that Arabs are incapable of rising up against dictators. Gaddafi railed against WikiLeaks because he, too, wants to blame something other than the power of the people — and cables from Tripoli portray him as a Botox-using neurotic inseparable from a “voluptuous” Ukrainian nurse.

Gaddafi’s Libya has had its own protests over the past few days. Nothing on the scale of Tunisia, but enough that his speech to Tunisians could be summarized thus: I am scared witless by what happened in your country.

That’s why I insist we stop and appreciate Tunisia: Relish the revolution that is not a euphemism for a coup.

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born columnist and public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues. This essay originally appeared in The Guardian and is reprinted with permission of the author.

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