Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Ben Ali Apologia and Qatari Involvement

Since the downfall of the Ben 'Ali regime in Tunisia, a string of books - memoirs, tell-all, ect.. - have been published by former regime hands or other connected types. Many have illuminated heretofore hidden aspects of a dictatorship that reigned for 23 years. As The Economist recently reported:
In Tunisia Amor Chedly, an adviser to Habib Bourguiba, a former president, has published a bestselling account of the 1987 “medical coup” in which his ailing boss was deposed by Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who then ruled until he fled to Saudi Arabia in January last year. Other ex-officials are shedding light on formerly taboo subjects, including the assassinations of dissidents. Radhi Meddeb, a businessman, has published an economic manifesto, “Together let us build the Tunisia of tomorrow”, that has made him a political star.
Naturally, there is apologia and lament for the Ben 'Ali years as well. Mezri Haddad was until the revolution Tunisia's ambassador to UNESCO - the UN's cultural organization. Until the last hour he was a fixture on French television defending the regime and then after Ben 'Ali's exile quickly tried (unsuccessfully) to pose as an opposition figure.

Perhaps recognizing that his opportunism was too transparent and a cursory YouTube search would obviate any dissident claims, Haddad has opted to portray the regime as a worthy lost cause. In that effort he has published (in French) The Hidden Side of the Tunisian Revolution: Islamism and the West, a High-risk Alliance (see above). His thesis:

“Behind the intoxication of freedom and the triumph of democracy, loom three deadly poisons: the temptation of fundamentalism, the sublimation of anarchism and the abandonment of sovereignty."

Beyond that he argues that Ben 'Ali's regime was the least offender among Arab tyrants - a dubious statement. Tunisia consistently ranked among the worst in internet and press censorship. Any dissent was fiercely repressed - including 140 characters worth as the regime banned the Twitter pages of opponents. Ben 'Ali arrested more journalists than Syria's Ba'ath regime with less than half the population. Morocco and Egypt, among others, arguable allowed for wider parameters of criticism. 

In another effort to redeem his former patron's legacy, Haddad argues that Ben 'Ali produced the most prosperous North African nation. Whatever the indexes may say, Tunisia's revolution was born in a fit of resentment and frustration due to a growing sense of pauperization. 

So how does this tie into Qatar? Because recently Haddad refused to shake the hand of the Qatari ambassador to UNESCO in stated opposition to Qatar's involvement in Tunisian domestic affairs. “You destroyed Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. You created division in Syria and you plot against Algeria. You represent an enemy of the Arabs [...] it would dishonor me to shake your hand," Haddad reportedly said to the Qatari representative. 

Qatar has been playing an unseemly role resented by many Tunisians. The Qatari regime financially and diplomatically backs the ruling moderate Islamic faction al Nahda and Nahda's founder Rashid Ghannoushi has been a frequent visitor to the kingdom along with being awarded with an inordinate amount of favorable coverage on the Qatari station al Jazeera leading up to the October 2011 elections. 

The relationship between the monarchy and al Nahda is as such that a Qatari minister was an invited guest at the first session of the elected Tunisia constituent assembly tasked with writing a new constitution. 

All this has been to the great protestation of a many Tunisian secularists and liberals who fear that the Persian Gulf statelet is using its resources wealth to finance an Islamist party to the detriment of Tunisian sovereignty, secularism and liberalism. Even many Nahda supporters have complained about the neo-colonial patronage role played by Qatar in its intimate alliance with Nahda - as if a peninsula monarch is toying with Tunisia's fate in a leisurely compartment paid for by natural gas. Beyond concerns for disrupting the political field through a comparative advantage in funding other parties cannot match, it rubs against Tunisian nationalist sensibilities. "The people" sought the downfall of the regime not so a Gulf monarchy could seek to parlay their future into the grand ambitions of Qatari foreign policy. 

While protestations against Qatar are well-earned, in my opinion, it is absurd for someone like Haddad to pose as a defender of Tunisian dignity when he championed and continues to pine for a regime and ruling elite that did more to strike at the self-worth of Tunisians than anything Qatar has done. There was a time for Haddad to demonstrate his courage and respect/solidarity for his compatriots. He choose otherwise. 

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