Small pull at a thread and all unravels, Tunisia style

Monday January 24 2011



The events in Tunisia last week have been astonishing.

A man trying to make a living as a fruit and vegetable seller is beaten up and his goods illegally impounded.

He tries, as best he can, to recover them — unsuccessfully seeking audience with all the levels of government that he can.

Finally, frustrated, he immolates himself. And the nation, horrified, galvanises around his death as a symbol of all that’s wrong in Tunisia in terms of basic freedoms.

A few days of protests, violently suppressed, lead to more protests. The army stops backing the President.

The President, after decades in power, just flees. Flees! Followed by his wife, albeit with much of the reserve gold in the country’s Central Bank.


And the rest of the Maghreb and the Mashreq have taken note. North Africa and the Middle East are, in terms of basic freedoms, where sub-Saharan Africa was a decade or so ago — the movements towards basic freedoms have yet to take hold and political culture has yet to change.

The question now is whether what’s happened in Tunisia will have a ripple effect. Attempted immolations are happening in other countries, but not with the same catalysing effect.

Was Tunisia that unique? In some ways, yes. It has had high and sustained levels of growth for many years, which, in some ways, helped justify the regime’s hold on power.

Ironically, organised labour’s growing strength, in the end, contributed to the regime’s downfall — the unions have been the galvanising force behind the protests and in the negotiations since.

Despite Tunisia having been an obvious police state, it had taken some progressive steps towards realising basic freedoms and rights.

It was, for example, the first Muslim-majority state to ban polygamy — and on the basis of a religious rather than a secular interpretation.

And it had less an excuse for iron-fistedness.

That said, the moral we all want to read into the story is the same.

All dictatorships eventually fall. Eventually, people get to the point where they’ve had enough.

And that message has clearly been received by regimes across the Maghreb and the Mashreq.

Their silence was conspicuous. Eventually broken by a muted statement from the Arab League.

And a ridiculous proposition by Libya’s President on the need for Tunisians to adopt the Libyan “model” of “popular democracy.”

The Libyan President is, no doubt, entertaining to the rest of us in many ways. But he is hardly entertaining to his own people. If Tunisia was a police state, Libya is even more so.

In short, as we silently cheer the Tunisians on, we do so with caution.

We know how easy it is for supposed advances to turn on their heads. All of sub-Saharan Africa’s new leadership has turned sour in the past decade.

And there are always seemingly legitimate reasons for it having done so.

Ethiopia can talk about the dangers of secessionist forces, given the state of relations with its erstwhile ally, Eritrea.

Rwanda can talk about the ever-present threat of genocidaires. Uganda can talk about (still!) the excesses of the previous regimes, and Kenya, can talk about negative ethnicity.

So the Tunisians have revived our sense of hope and possibility. But that hope and possibility is tempered with experience.

Especially given the equally incredible goings-on in Ivory Coast.

Two steps forward, one step back. Maybe that’s life. That no change is consequent and linear.

And that nothing worth gaining is gained without struggle.

But, as Tunisia has shown, there are those moments when all it takes is one small pull at a random thread for all to become unravelled.

L. Muthoni Wanyeki is executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission