France this morning replaced its Ambassador to Tunisia with a close Sarkozy ally, Boris Boillon, described by Reuters Africa as “France’s current ambassador to Iraq who previously worked for two years as a diplomatic adviser to Sarkozy.” It’s the first action by Sarkozy to indicate that he gets it.
Prior moves by France were defensive in nature. The Sunday New York Times article from which the headline of this post comes noted that Sarkozy “in his defense…said that France had long been known as a haven for members of the Tunisian opposition, and that the French government had rebuffed Mr. Ben Ali’s complaints about it.” Ooooh, isn’t that impressive?
Three days before Ben Ali fled the country, Sarkozy’s France offered to better train Tunisian police in “crowd control.” For Tunisian police, “crowd control” was a nice way of saying, “beating the crap out of anyone who dared to demonstrate against the government.”
The hero so far remains Army Chief of Staff Rachid Ammar, who pulled the Tunisian Army from the streets at a key moment and continues to voice support for the revolution. The question is, will he still be the hero next week, or whenever it comes time for the democratic process to move forward?
The overthrow of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is a welcome sign for the possibility of democratic rule emerging in the Middle East. Back when I was in Washington, my Tunisian friends convinced me that Ben Ali’s strongman style was the only way to protect the country from the region’s more radical elements. While that may once have been true, Ben Ali’s increasingly autocratic and corrupt rule meant that the country desperately needed a change. All too often, as discussed in Corruptions, African strongmen slide easily into the autocrat role:
[Golongan President Ernest] Koliba was a particularly egregious example of the paradoxes of [the foreign aid lobbying] business—a freshly minted, democratically elected President who promised change but turned to shit faster than any despot in history, even in Africa.
Africa’s problem was the lack of viable governments or, as Weller always put it, “Africa doesn’t have political systems—it has political leaders.” From Mubarak in Egypt, down through Museveni in Uganda, Moi in Kenya and Mugabe in Zimbabwe, up through Mobutu in Zaire, Bongo in Gabon, the Eyadema family in Togo, up even to Ben Ali in Tunisia, Africa with rare exceptions was a series of “Big Man” countries where the President was the country, and the country served the President. The exceptions were glaring and most—like Nelson Mandela in South Africa—didn’t last, falling back into the “Big Man” mode once their Mandela retired. Much of the blame lay with the colonial powers that left Africa in a shambles; someday, though, Africans will need to focus on the solutions, not on who was to blame for their political misery.
Tunisia’s recent events bode extremely well for escaping this cycle, in that the entire Ben Ali family seems to have been driven out of the country, former Ben Ali cronies subsequently driven out of the first new government established after he fled, and the Army appears to have decided to take on the internal security forces that still support Ben Ali. So far, all is going surprisingly well.