In Focus, World

The Tunisian Mirror

The popular revolt which some weeks ago forced the flight of the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali still has some way to go, so the future of this North African country remains an unknown.

Pablo Sapag M.

What is as clear as daylight is that Tunisia and the Tunisians have held up an uncomfortable mirror to the European Union, the USA, the IMF and other die-hard supporters of the free market, privatizations and other neo-liberal prescriptions.  They have all been repeating for the last 2 decades that what has happened in Tunisia has been a real miracle.

Repeating that the wise policies of Ben Ali and his regime have turned his country into a model for all to follow, and for the same reason they were ready to turn a blind eye to the lack of political freedom and the repression, subtle or crude, of those who opposed the economic and other policies of the regime. Also  neglecting the growing inequalities between the managers of such a system and the general population that was falling more and more into poverty and becoming disconnected from the political class.

This support for Ben Ali and his structural concentration of political and economic power continued right to the end. Their backing reached such an extreme that in the middle of a popular democratic revolt the shameless French foreign ministry offered to send riot police from the old colonial capital to help Ben Ali to “maintain order”.

At the same time, and seeing that neo-liberal reform arguments convinced nobody, their other strategy was to try to prop-up Ben Ali by parading the spectre of Islamic Fundamentalism. Something on the lines of: “it’s either Ben Ali or chaos and terror”. An empty excuse in a country where the regime had committed itself to the eradication of any opposition even remotely inspired by Islam: radical or otherwise, democratic or not. A pathetic argument when the Tunisian revolt lacked any visible leadership and was only driven by popular disgust.

Tunisia also holds up a mirror to the countries of Latin America. In some cases the image is positive, because what the Tunisians have done in recent days is the same as Latin American peoples have done repeatedly throughout their history. Including the independence revolts and the Mexican, Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions. In the same category is the transformation in Bolivia through the recognition of their ethnic reality which was only achieved thanks to a popular movement. Included too in the end are other movements resisting foreign impositions or economic models in the Western European mould that with more or less success and intensity have been tried out on the region.

The Tunisian case however also puts in the mirror the neo-liberalism that has been imposed sometimes by fire and sword in Latin America. For many years  political scientists compared the Tunisian model with those of Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore, General Park in South Korea, and above all with that of the other military leader Augusto Pinochet in Chile. In other words a crude neoliberalism applied without anaesthetic combined with brutal political authoritarianism. In the social and economic field this model continues unchanged in a Chile that is ridiculously held up as an example for other Latin American countries to follow.

Twenty years of democracy within the parameters of the Pinochetian constitution of 1980 has not succeeded in reducing in the slightest the social inequalities – among the 15 most pronounced in the world according to the Gini Index. Neither have they succeeded in capturing the political imagination of a population in which one third of the electorate is still not registered to vote. In many similar ways the system is just as exclusive and inbred as that of Ben Ali. The same interchangeable faces in politics and the business world, two sides of the same coin always distant from the people.

Maybe because of this, praise of the Chilean model is so enthusiastic and practically identical to that which until only a few weeks ago the Tunisia of Ben Ali received: stable political system, healthy economic growth, modern country, little corruption, a Europeanized population, rising star and other vague terms in a similar style. The same phrases that the Tunisians have turned into empty words, ridiculing those who have cleverly used them in Tunis with the same shamelessness that they still use them in other latitudes, where all that is necessary is to change islamist for indigenist in order to beat the drum for order, stability and all the other things that the Tunisian mirror has laid bare.

(Translated by Graham Douglas – Email:

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