By Yilma Bekele
Here we are celebrating New Year in Tahesas. Accepting January, as Meskerem is a tall order. Enqutatash or Adis Amet is Adey Abeba blanketing the mountains with its vibrant bright yellow colors and the sun shining with all its strength. We are in the middle of winter here in the Northern Hemisphere. It is dark, cold and gloomy.
That was a weak ago. Last Friday the sun shone a little brighter. It felt like spring. We Ethiopians gave each other a knowing smile. We all felt empowered. Guess who was generating this intense feeling of a new beginning. It is no other than little Tunisia, electrifying Africa and the Middle East. Last Friday Tunisia got rid of a malignant tumor.
It was only a year and three months ago Tunisia’s President Zinedine Ben Ali won a landslide victory, with 89.62%. Last Friday the honorable President was forced to flee for his life. How does an 89.62 percent winner turn into a refugee so fast? That is the nature of the dictatorship business. Just like an earthquake, it is unpredictable. Ben Ali is just a new inductee into that infamous Hall of Fame for “Scumbags of Humanity.” He follows the footsteps of Ferdinand Marcos, Mobutu Sese Seko, Shah of Iran, Augusto Pinochet, Mengistu Haile Mariam and my personal favorite Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena.
As you read this, political refugee (actually fleeing criminal) Zinedine Ben Ali and former first lady Leila are camped in Saudi Arabia unsure of what tomorrow is going to bring. It will not be far fetched to say that the former mafia bosses are shell-shocked unable to comprehend what has unfolded and definitely under sedation. Unfortunate for the duo this is not some bad dream or a bad acid trip. It is real baby! How did they get into this mess?
Tunisia is located in North Africa between Libya and Algeria and has a population of ten and a half million. It got its independence from France in 1956. The first President Habib Bourguiba became the first dictator and stayed in power until doctors declared him ‘unfit to rule’ in 1987. Mr. Zinedine Ben Ali who was the Prime Minster became the President. That was twenty-three years ago.
Former dictator president Zinedine Ben Ali is a crafty fellow in the sense of being devious and cruel. He knew how to talk the language of Democracy, Human Rights, freedom of expression and free enterprise. That was for foreign consumption. It gave his enablers a fig leaf to hide behind. Ben Ali’s Tunisia was one big prison.
Dictator Ali went to military schools both in France and the USA. He worked his way up from Security Chief to being the Prime Minister. His style of leadership is the envy of every African dictator. Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia has mentioned him plenty of times as an example of good leadership and stability. Zambia has awarded him its highest medal. Tunisia has even won the United Nations E- government Award for ‘excellence in serving the public interest. I told you he was good. With Algeria on his left projecting symptoms of a ‘failed state’ and Libya to his right run by a poster child for ‘grandiose delusion’ symptoms, Ben Ali looked like an oasis of stability. To prove it Tunisia never failed to hold elections since Ben Ali came to power. The elections held in ’89, ’94, 04, and as recent as 2009 were all won By Ben Ali and his party with over 90% approval.
The real face of Tunisia was completely different than the picture presented by Ben Ali and family. The real Tunisia was a one Party State belonging to Zinedine Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi. Economic regulations, and legal procedures did not apply to the Ben Ali clan. First Lady Leila was the most hated person Tunisia. She even deserved her own report on Wiki Leaks. Here is a quote:
“Corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising. Tunisians intensely dislike, even hate, first lady Leila Trabelsi and her family. In private, regime opponents mock her; even those close to the government express dismay at her reported behavior.
Her greed was so legendary she was dubbed the Imelda Marcos of the Arab world and the ‘Regent of Carthage’ for her power behind the throne and her love of money, luxury cars and shopping spree.
The one party state did not allow dissent, banned political parties unless approved by the state, closed all independent media outlets and used Cisco filters to block free web sites. The prisons were full of political opponents and the most educated and those that have connections first impulse was to leave. The safest option for investment for those with money was real estate or off shore account. Both do not contribute to sustainable economic growth. The rampant corruption, unemployment, inflation and general hopelessness was spiraling out of control.
Mohamed Bouaziz a 26-year old unemployed college graduate became the flash point that started a prairie fire. When the police confiscated his fruit cart regarding permit issue, Mr. Bouaziz drew the line in the sand and said enough. He set himself on fire. The day was Friday December 17th. The people of Tunisia felt a jolt of ‘anti fear’ laser tease. Twenty-eight days later on Friday January 17th. Coward Ben Ali and cruel and mean Leila fled not knowing who will welcome them. Shock is an understatement.
Today, the interim government is hunting down former officials and palace lovers and state television reported the arrest for “crimes against Tunisia” of 33 members of Mr. Ben Ali’s family, many of whom grew rich from their connections. Let justice begin.
Is what happened to dictator Ben Ali out of the ordinary? Can it be duplicated? Both are valid questions. What happened in Tunisia is not unique. The saying ‘where there is oppression there is resistance’ is a universal truth. The human spirit soars when it is free. It is also true that dominance over others is an aphrodisiac. There will always be a few individuals that will shine brighter than others. Most will leave a lasting legacy and generations will utter their names with fondness and admiration. A few are considered a curse. Poverty of mind and spirit is their making. What happened in Tunisia has happened in Iran, Ethiopia, Philippines, Poland, East Germany, Romania, Zaire and more. Dictators never learn.
No one has been able to predict the ‘tipping point’ where fear is replaced by empowerment. Not political scientists, sociologists or human behavior psychologists. What opens the floodgates of discontent could be anything.
Rosa Parks’s refusal to give her seat to a white person is considered the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, the firing of Anna Walentynowicz, a shipyard worker in Gdansk, Poland gave birth to the Solidarity Movement that ushered in the unraveling of the Soviet System, and now Mohamed Bouaziz’s personal protest is felt all over the world.
Ethiopian television, radio, newspapers, websites have made it a policy not to mention Tunisia. Controlling the flow of information is job number one of any dictatorship. The regime spends millions of hard earned currency to misinform, jam, block use physical coercion to keep the population in ignorance. It is a futile attempt. Where there is oppression there is resistance.
I am sure crafty Ben Ali must have tried all kinds of gimmicks to turn away the tide of discontent. Sitting in his palace isolated from daily life he was sure that his people like him. The fool probably believed it too. I am sure he blamed the Diaspora, Islamists or other perceived enemies for the problem he created.
Our Ethiopia has its own uniqueness. Our country has been in turmoil since the early ‘70s. The over forty years of chaos have rendered us numb and confused. Killing, lying, cheating and using each other has become the norm. Fear has become our middle name. We don’t not only trust the government but mistrust among friends, neighbors or family has taken away our ability to unite. Our psych has been scared and requires careful handling. We are a very wounded people.
Ben Ali and Meles Zenawi are two different animals. The TPLF boss has his own private army, his own private Federal Police and boasts of emasculated Bantustan chiefs. Meles Zenawi can also count on the citizens he drove out of the country to turn around and contribute heavily to his welfare. According to the World Bank the Diaspora contributes over $3 billion US to prop up the ethnic junta. In a nutshell we are contributing for our own slavery.
That being said, fortunate for us ‘dictatorship’ carries its own destruction in its womb. No amount of Party organized bullying, Kebele based spying, Federal Police killing, fostering inter-ethnic strife will interfere with the inevitable collapse of a totalitarian state. As I said no one can predict when but all agree the system will explode. It is not a matter of if but when.
Oppressed people approach the problem from two fronts. The first is building up organizations that will act as a catalyst to hasten the inevitable collapse of the dictatorship. We are doing that. The many Diaspora organizations involved in doing community work in exposing the ethnic based regime are the source of our pride. Since the stolen elections of 2005 our force have shown both maturity and muscle. Such Organizations as Ginbot7, Andenet, OLF, SMNE, ONLF and others are doing a good job. The second front is winning the hearts and minds of our people. The best example of that is ESAT. Ethiopian Satellite TV is working hard to level the playing field when it comes to unfettered information. ESAT is our lethal weapon. ESAT will inform our people so they can make a smart decision based on facts not Berket Semeon’s concocted lie. ESAT and our independent web sites are the future of Ethiopia.
I will not try to guess where Ato Meles will go when ‘the rubber hits the road’ in other words when the mob breaches the palace walls. Will he be ready, will he have time to pack, will his security guard betray him and other questions will arise. Then comes the issue of where to go? Eritrea, definitely no, Sudan, out of the question, USA and Europe, very dangerous that leaves China, North Korea or Rwanda with his buddy Kagame. None of the choices are enticing. The question Ben Ali is contemplating today should be is life imprisonment a good investment for a mere twenty years of bullying. Being a dictator is a thankless job!