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U.S.-TUNISIA: Obama Applauds People, Urges Calm

Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, Jan 14 2011 (IPS) - Several hours after Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled his country in the face of massive protests, U.S. President Barack Obama applauded “the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people” and appealed for calm and “free and fair elections in the near future”.

“The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold, and we will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard,” Obama said in a statement issued by the White House.

“I urge all parties to maintain calm and avoid violence, and call on the Tunisian government to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people,” he added.

Various analysts here said Washington, a long-time supporter – albeit not nearly as important as France and other European Union (EU) nations – of Ben Ali, hoped for a smooth transition to an elected government, presumably overseen by Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, who declared himself interim president.

“I think they basically want the protests to calm down and the government to halt its crackdown and prepare for elections so that all the political energy generated by the last weeks of protests is directed toward elections, rather than contribute to some kind of revolutionary situation,” said Christopher Toensing, editor of the Middle East Report, who called the spontaneity and success of the popular uprising “unprecedented in the history of the contemporary Arab world”.

“Obviously, the question for the administration is whether this is going to change the Tunisian state or just change the person at its top,” he added.

“In general, the U.S. interest is for the regime to remain essentially the same based on the logic is that the devil they know is better than the devil they don’t,” Toensing said.

Analysts here were also taken up by the question of whether the spirit of popular revolt might prove contagious. In recent weeks, protests – mainly over rising food and fuel prices – have wracked Algeria and Jordan, giving rise to speculation about the spread of what has been called the “Tunisia scenario”.

“The events in Tunisia demonstrate to Arabs around the region how brittle even the most advanced police state can be when resolutely confronted by its citizens,” wrote two analysts, Scott Carpenter and David Schenker, who worked on Mideast issues under the George W. Bush administration and are now with the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP).

“The lesson will not likely be lost on Egyptians, Jordanians, Algerians, and others,” they argued.

Washington, which had maintained a discreet silence through most of the four-week political crisis that gripped Tunisia, began speaking out publicly on the crisis earlier this week, particularly against the increasingly lethal repression by the military and police in which scores of people reportedly killed across the country.

As late as Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who spent the week on a tour of friendly Gulf states, still insisted that Washington was “not taking sides” between the government and the protesters, stressing, during an interview with Al Arabiya, that Washington retained “a lot of very positive aspects of our relationship with Tunisia”.

But, as bin Ali’s position appeared to deteriorate sharply Thursday, the State Department turned more critical. Its spokesman, P.J. Crowley, criticised the “level of violence” by the security forces as “unacceptable”.

“Obviously, the people of Tunisia are sending a message to the government in terms of the need for greater economic opportunity, expansion of civil society and political rights. And we hope that the government will respond aggressively to the concerns of its citizens,” he said.

And, without citing Tunisia by name, Clinton herself issued a broadside against autocratic Arab regimes like Ben Ali’s on the same day in a major policy address she delivered in Doha, Qatar, warning, “Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries’ problems for a little while, but not forever.”

“If leaders don’t offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum,” she went on, citing examples of the kind of corruption that discourages ambition and entrepreneurship, particularly among the region’s young population.

The protests that culminated in Ben Ali’s ouster were triggered by the suicide last month of a young university graduate after police had confiscated goods he was trying to sell because he lacked a permit.

Although Washington has not provided economic assistance to Tunisia for more than a decade, it has provided intelligence, counter-terrorist and limited military assistance. It supplied about 15 million dollars in military aid last year and was expected to provide as much as 12 million dollars more this year.

Washington was under no illusions about the nature of Ben Ali’s regime, according to a number of cables from the U.S. Embassy in Tunis that have been released by Wikileaks.

Not only did U.S. diplomats report on the grim human rights situation and the intolerance for dissent under its reign, but they also focused their attention on growing corruption, particularly on the part of Ben Ali’s second wife, Leila Trabelsi – who has been a particular target of the protest demonstrations.

One June 2008 cable, entitled “Corruption in Tunisia: What’s Yours Is Mine”, claimed that “seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage”.

“Although the petty corruption rankles, it is the excesses of President Ben Ali’s family that inspire outrage among Tunisians,” it noted. “With Tunisians facing rising inflation and high unemployment, the conspicuous displays of wealth and persistent rumors of corruption have added fuel to the fire.”

Publication of that and similar cables may, indeed, have contributed to the uprising, according to some observers here.

“All of our people who work on Tunisia say the release of those cables have been an important factor (in the unrest),” said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) at a conference Thursday. “They showed how much outsiders were aware of (the regime’s) fundamental rottenness.”

After Ben Ali’s departure Friday, both HRW and Amnesty called for the government’s security forces to end the use of lethal force – including “shoot-on-sight” orders to enforce a curfew – against protestors. HRW also called for the release of all political prisoners.

In his earlier statement, Obama said, “I condemn and deplore the use of violence against citizens, and I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people.”

“I have no doubt that Tunisia’s future will be brighter if it is guided by the voices of the Tunisian people,” he added.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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