By Emad Mekay
These are scenes Western powers would have loved to see in Iran; thousands of young people braving live bullets and marching in the tree-lined capital city boulevards and forcing an autocratic ruler out of the country. But alas for them, they are not in Tehran. They are in the North African nation of Tunisia where an uprising against not anti-Western regime, but against the Western-backed autocratic President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali forced him to flee the country.
To date, at least 100 people have been killed, hundreds injured and millions of dollars are reported in losses.
Western powers remain incredulous and France, the real power broker in the Franco North African nation, was, until an hour ago when Ben Ali fled, giving him tacit support.
The French Foreign Ministry said it “backs” the measures announced by Ben Ali as overtures to the protestors but asked for more freedoms, in effect ignoring the movement’s demand for Ben Ali to go and addressing Ben Ali as the legitimate leader.
The United States was clearly far more busy with the collapse of the government in Lebanon, a country central to U.S. main ally in the region, Israel, after the Lebanese opposition there withdrew their ministers from the coalition government.
Most of the reaction from the rest of Western powers has been that they are “concerned” about the events and that they want their citizens either pulled out or warned not to travel to Tunisia.
Ben Ali ruled the country since 1987, like many other Western-backed Arab rulers, with an iron fist that lead to massive human rights abuses, widespread corruption and lack of democracy.
So when a young a street hawker name Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in mid-December to protest unemployment and corruption in the central town of Sidi Buzeid, Western capitals didn’t react. After all, Ben Ali was sure to crush the protests that followed in no time.
Looking his confident self, Ben Ali initially refused almost all of the demands of the protesters in the town and its neighboring cities. Four weeks later, the protests continued unabated to cover almost every part of Tunisia.
On Thursday night, Ben Ali stood shaken as he talked through TV cameras to his people.
Appealing for “understanding” from the people he ruled for more than 23 years and asking for a new page, he promised to end orders to shoot at demonstrators.
Nonetheless, Tunisians continued their four-week protests culminating in thousands marching early this afternoon outside the interior ministry, the symbol of decades-long brutally by Ben Ali’s security system.
“We want bread, and water and no Ben Ali,” the hand-written signs said in videos leaked online by activists during the protests.
The scenes were indeed reminiscent of Iran, where Western powers, lead by the United States have invested millions of dollars in both covert and overt operations to bring the assertive, and occasionally anti-Western, regime in Iran to its knees and encourage Iranians towards “regime change”.
Western powers vehemently cheer-lead the Green Movement against the disputed presidential elections in Iran in 2009 under the banner of promoting democracy and advocating human rights.
The aerial views in Tunisia on Friday of the capital were indeed reminiscent of Iran but only that of 1979, when thousands of Iranians marched to topple another Western-supported dictator; the Shah of Iran and at a much faster pace. They were also identical of the 2009 Green Movement – minus the noisy Western support.
The lack of support from Western powers was not missed on Tunisians, especially Internet bloggers who had hoped someone would come to their aid.
Blogger Sami Ben Gharbia wrote: “Sidi Bouzid discredited The West. U want regime change in Iran and not in #Tunisa? Well, we will democratize to #tunisia 1st, by ourselves!”
Maybe lucky for the protests, the West cannot take credit for the revolution that forced Ben Ali out of the country and during four weeks of demonstrations won concessions from him almost on an hourly basis.
In his last moments to hang on to power, Ben Ali ordered a nighttime curfew but only to extend it to a 14-hour curfew on Friday.
This afternoon, Ben Ali dissolved the cabinet, parliament and ordered early elections in at least six months.
A couple of hours later, he imposed emergency law in the country. But another two hours later, Arab TV stations reported him out of the country.