Four weeks ago I stood in the middle of the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, Tunis’s Fifth Avenue. Suddenly I was I was surrounded by hundreds of people chanting and yelling. I had heard about demonstrations in various regions of the south, but so quickly in Tunis? I asked.
Without warning I was overwhelmed by a sense of exhilaration and déjà vu. It was in 1978 and 1979, back when ZABA was the National Director of Security. I was a young man attending University in Tunis. Most demonstrations were organized by the then powerful Union Generale des Etudiants Tunisiens (UGET), of which I was an active member. On one occasion I witnessed several students, and some laborers, machine-gunned by the police as they attempted to take down a statue of Bourguiba, the symbol of autocracy. I was shocked and in disbelief. It was not until about half an hour later that I realized I had a three inch deep gash on the left side of my belly. As I sought the nearest alley way and refuge away from the roaming BOB vans, I was encircled by several plain clothed policemen and taken to the ministry of Interior. It is there I met several other students, many badly beaten. I will spare you the details of my two week stay at the Interior Ministry. I try very hard to put it out of my mind, in the hope of rehabilitation and forgiveness.
Thirty years later, I find myself less than a hundred yards away from where I was first brutally beaten, and pain no longer mattered, and over eleven thousand nights of the same nightmare. I was surrounded by the same young innocent faces. The chants are the identical and the methods are indistinguishable, were it not the hundreds of portable telephones held up high. I became confused and felt a rush of blood to the head.
I was scheduled to leave for the US the next day to tend to my business. On the other hand, I wanted to see how far these demonstrations would go. I underestimated the power of these young men and women. They had the belief and desire we had thirty years before. They knew how to communicate through the use of technology. For I suppose, that ZABA and his entourage of mostly technology-challenged men like himself, also underestimated the advantages technology provided, when used properly. I go as far as claiming that the US government itself underestimated, mismanaged, and poorly strategized how to deal with social media and its proliferation within the masses. The Obama administration is still racing against the clock trying to figure out which horse to bet on, and how to best hedge its bets. If only it was not for Twitter and Facebook, they would deliberate and “monitor” the situation, as Secretary Clinton said weeks ago referring to the situation in Tunisia.
Later that evening at the neighborhood café, as some of the youth were showing off their trophies of emptied out tear-gas canisters that read “MADE IN THE USA”, I was often asked “why does Obama hate us…”, or “do they just mean democracy for the US only?” I only wish I had spent more time there explaining the position and the feeling of real American people.
On my flight back to the States the next day, I thought about those questions. I anticipated how it would be played out by all sides. I guessed, based on past history, that ZABA would justify his regime’s brutal force by claiming he was battling Islamist extremists, and I was proven right. That is a card he pulled every time he suspected his heavy-handed practices would be criticized by the world. And that is all Washington wanted and had to hear. Truth was irrelevant. This was a case of the end justifying the means, as long as the means meant stability in the region, because in this region, stability and democracy are mutually exclusive.
As someone who has recently spent considerable time in the MENA region, let me assure you that none of the men I spoke to cared about extremist views, political ideologies, Bin Laden, or Obama. In Tunisia, the street is unconcerned with geopolitical forces and Islamist views. Tunisia is a very secular country composed of an extremely well-educated young people. What they care about is jobs, dignity, freedom, and the opportunity to seek a better life. This is not an ideological uprising like China or Eastern Europe of 1989, or a religious one like Iran of 1979.
I call upon president Obama to support a genuine democracy, even at the expense of immediate American policy interests. If he chooses platitudes and the status quo, the harm to America’s standing in the region will likely take decades to repair. I have decided not to wait until a clear winner emerges. For me, there is only one party that deserves my support. For democracy and freedom is a right, not a privilege bestowed on those who only serve our national interest.
Mr. President, where is the “audacity” with which you had many of us believe you were the “change” force we were looking for? Where is the “Yes we can” you had sold us? I say to you, Sir, and on behalf of all Tunisians and Arab people, “together, we will”.