Turmoil In Tunisia

Protesters have rocked the Mediterranean country of Tunisia for the last month. They've been calling for regime change and on Friday, their president heard their call and fled the country. An interim government was announced but the demonstrations continue. Host Michel Martin speaks with Abderrahim Foukara, of Arab TV network Al Jazeera, about the so-called "Jasmine Revolution" in this North African nation and what it means for other Arab states.

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

On the program today, a very different view of the benefits of pressuring kids to excel. Last week, we heard about a book that's causing a lot of buzz. It's called, "The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." And it basically defends a pressure-filled approach to parenting that author Amy Chua calls the Chinese parenting style.

Today, we get a very different message from filmmaker Vicki Abeles who says that American kids are under too much pressure now and it's making them sick. That is coming up.

But first, we start today in the North African country of Tunisia.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

MARTIN: Protestors, including one whose placard read: Yes, we can, have rocked the Mediterranean country for the last month. Suddenly, on Friday, the long- time president fled the country. An interim government was announced, but protests continued into today and the Associated Press reports that four ministers have quit that new government, all opponents of the previously ruling government.

The term Jasmine Revolution has already been used to try to explain what's taking place in Tunisia. And indeed if the president does not return, he will be the first Arab leader toppled by popular protest.

To find out more about what this means for the U.S. and for Arab countries across North Africa and the Middle East, we've called upon Abderrahim Foukara, the U.S. bureau chief for television network Al Jazeera Arabic. He's kind enough to join us from time to time here in our Washington, D.C. studios. And he's back with us. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: Good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: So, how did these protests start?

FOUKARA: Well, they started when a 26-year-old graduate set himself on fire in Tunis. And the reason he did that is that he couldn't find a job so he set up a fruit stall and that was confiscated from him by a policewoman. And he was later humiliated. So as a sign of protest, he set himself on fire and he started the fire of a revolution.

MARTIN: You know, the article of faith here is that it has been understood that the president there has been ruling with a very firm hand for a very long time. That he's aggregated a lot of benefits to himself and to his family. But the tradeoff has been, people have a high standard of living. Now you're saying that that's not really true.

FOUKARA: It's not. It's interesting, Michel, that we're talking about this today when the Chinese president is actually arriving in the United States. Because what you have in China is the government saying, we'll not give you freedoms and liberties, but we'll give you a higher standard of living. And in Chinese case, it has worked. In the Tunisian case, it has not worked, as the demonstrations have shown.

So not only has the former president, President Ben Ali, run the country for 23 years with an iron fist politically, but he's also created an environment in which corruption has festered in the country. Unemployment is very high. The economic and social prospects have, in short, led young people mostly in Tunisia to rise up and topple him.

MARTIN: What are they saying - what are some of the things that the protestors have been saying?

FOUKARA: Well, they're saying that for 23 years we've had neither political freedoms, nor economic opportunity. The one interesting thing about Tunisia that sets it apart from other neighboring countries is that it's had a substantial middle class. It's an educated middle class. It has a lot of freedom aspirations. And the issue of corruption and nepotism, especially by the former president's family have aggravated that situation and a lot of them are saying, we've decided that we've had enough of this and we want change.

MARTIN: Can you give an example of the kind of corruption that we're talking about here?

FOUKARA: Well...

MARTIN: For example, people who follow the WikiLeaks controversy will have observed that those were some of the cables that were leaked, U.S. officials describing that. But can you talk a little bit about what we're talking about here?

FOUKARA: Yes. What the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia talked about with regard to the ruling family is something that a lot of Tunisians knew already. But those WikiLeaks cables have actually focused the attention on the extent of the corruption.

For example, after the president fled, it is rumored, and I think it's more than rumored. There are serious press reports in France, the former colonial master of Tunisia, saying that the president's wife left the country with one ton and a half of gold with her. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. I mean, this family is reported to own hotels, to own villas and palaces in Tunisia and in France. They've amassed a colossal wealth at a time when there's rising unemployment and young people are finding it really difficult to have future prospects.

MARTIN: We're talking about the protests in Tunisia that seemed to have led to the first Arab leader being toppled by popular protest. And we're speaking with Abderrahim Foukara. He is the U.S. bureau chief for the television network Al Jazeera, the Arabic language service.

You know, Abderrahim, while this was going on, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech to Arab leaders last week in Doha, Qatar that may not have gotten as much attention as it would have otherwise because of, you know, other things going on here in the U.S., including, you know, the shooting of the U.S. congresswoman and many others in Tucson. I just want to play a short clip of what she had to say there. Here it is.

HILLARY CLINTON: People have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order. They are demanding reforms to make their governments more effective, more responsive and more open.

MARTIN: What was the occasion for this speech and what was her intended audience? Was she in fact referencing the situation in Tunisia which had not yet come to a boil?

FOUKARA: I am sure she was referencing the situation in Tunisia. When she was speaking, she was speaking on her trip to the Gulf before the regime in Tunisia toppled. But obviously in the background of that, the disturbances in Tunisia had already been going on for some weeks when she made that speech. But there are other things in the background, other more pressing issues for the United States in the background of that speech.

Tunisia is important, much more to the French than it is to the Americans. The French have much important political ties. So the United States, Tunisia was important because of counterterrorism, principally.

But Clinton, when she was talking, the real background to that is Egypt had elections recently. The United States offered to send in international observers. And the government in Egypt said, over my dead body, no way. Egypt has an aging president. He's in his 80s and he has named a successor. Egypt is a crucial ally of the United States and a crucial element of stability or instability in the Middle East.

Another country that is crucial to the region is Saudi Arabia. It has a king who is ailing and receiving treatment actually here in the United States and New York. He's in his 80s as well. So, when things started to happen in Tunisia, obviously to the United States that was a warning. Although, the reaction of the U.S. government to what was happening in Tunisia was not very consistent.

I mean, during that same trip, Hillary Clinton said, we don't want violence in Tunisia, but we're not going to take sides, neither with the people nor with the president. And it wasn't until much later on when the government toppled that they came out clearly in favor of the protests if they lead to democracy, as they say.

MARTIN: Obviously the U.S. is very interested in what's going on. You said France is very interested in what's going on. You have to assume that other regional leaders are watching this situation closely. Who is most concerned and why?

FOUKARA: Well, the Libyans are very concerned. We heard a speech from the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, a couple of days ago actually telling the Tunisians extraordinary things of why have you thrown out the president? He is good for you and you should have let him rule Tunisia for life, as he said. So he's extremely worried about the situation in Libya.

The situation in Algeria is very volatile as well. We've actually seen food riots and demonstrations in Algeria next door. But, really, the real country to watch is Egypt. There are many different reasons why the same thing that's happened in Tunisia could happen in Egypt. But there are also fundamental differences. One of them is that political parties have been in one way or another able to operate.

That means that in some ways because they've had deals, those political parties that had deals with the regime, they would be able to actually absorb popular anger, which would prevent what's going on Tunisia happening in Egypt. But everybody has been taken by surprise by what's going on in Tunisia. So, you can never tell for sure that they will not experience the same thing.

MARTIN: Well, the irony of course, though, is that popular protests don't always lead to governments that are favorably disposed toward the United States. I mean, Iran is the first country in the region, although it's not considered Arab, that did topple a government by popular protest. And that government has been - the leadership of that country has been very hostile toward the United States and to other countries of the West ever since.

So, is that part of the issue for the United States is that popular protest, the experience of it, does not necessarily lead toward regimes and a world view that is favorable to be disposed to U.S. interests.

FOUKARA: Possibly. But we have to bear in mind that during the protest, and as you pointed out in your intro, the protestors did have a beef with the United States. In fact, they said, yes we can, a reverberation of Obama's campaign slogan.

One fundamental difference between Tunisia and Iran is that Ayatollah Khomeini at that time led and shaped the revolution in Iran. This time in Tunisia, maybe the one thing that actually worked in favor of the protestors and led them to where they are today is that they were not led by any political movement or party. This was a spontaneous uprising against a regime. And what started this off is a protest against the standard of living.

MARTIN: And a final point on Tunisia, what are some of the next things we should be thinking about and looking at in the days ahead as these issues develop. As we mentioned, that opposition, a group of people who associated with the opposition have declined to join a coalition government, which is often a strategy, you know, of regimes to stay in power. We've seen this in Zimbabwe and other places, just to form in a power sharing arrangement. They say they're not going to participate. What are some of the next steps we should be looking toward in the days ahead?

FOUKARA: Well, I mean the speed with which these changes are happening in Tunisia is really quite extraordinary. I mean the prime minister who is actually forming, who has formed this government, is a remnant of the old guard, of the old regime. Several ministers, including the interior and defense in the current coalition government are remnants of the old regime.

And it's extraordinary that the new people who were brought into the coalition government, whether from the opposition or from NGOs in Tunisia, really, extraordinarily that they did actually accept to be in the same government as those people knowing the extent of popular resentment that that's going to cause. So it's still a developing situation. It's going to be very interesting how the French, how the Americans, but more importantly, how the French react to that.

MARTIN: Abderrahim Foukara is the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera, the Arabic language service and he joined us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Abderrahim, thank you so much for joining us. Happy New Year to you.

FOUKARA: Thank you. Great to be with you.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.