In an Islamic country, students are taking to the streets of the capital in a show of energetic defiance of a staid and autocratic regime. They are utilizing social media to communicate with one another as well as the outside world. Around the world sub-par coverage of their efforts appear in the media and their government is working hard to shut down the social media systems. What country am I talking about?
If you guessed Iran, give yourself a cookie. The events following the Iranian revolution indeed resembled the story above. But I’m actually talking about a different country, and I’d wager sadly few of you could guess it: Tunisia.
So what’s been happening? Unlike events in Iran, there is no singular political motivator: Although the MSM and US officials would never admit it, the Arab Nationalist dictatorships of North Africa and the Middle East are much less politically open than Iran is. The Iranian protests evolved from the belief that the elections SHOULD have been fair. No one would ever have that high of an expectation about an election in Authoritarian Tunisia. Instead the background in Tunisia is a persistent climate of high unemployment, rising food prices, and general economic malaise.
In mid December these came to a boil with a protest suicide in the Sidi Bouzid. This triggered popular rioting in that area. The riots, coupled with worker strikes and other popular protest activity have gradually spread through Rural Tunisia provoking a harsh police action that has seen at least 30 and probably north of 50 people killed. Many more will likely die before it is done. Especially now that the protests have reached the capital, Tunis, and tens of the thousands of people continue to actively participate across the country. Today the President of Tunisia, Ben Ali, fired the Interior Minister (responsible for the police) in an attempt to quiet discontent over police action. He also brought the army into the capital in an effort to change up the situation. Curfews have been instituted across the country. Rumors of a military coup (which if it occurred would probably seek to replace the president with a new strongman less tarred by allegations of corruption) abound and the unrest seems unlikely to abate.
In many respects these events may be more serious than what we saw in Iran. The unemployment, inflation and corruption at their core is not going away any time soon. While the events in Iran were more of a comprehensive national movement than critics gave them credit for, their core was always concentrated among the well-heeled liberal young students of North Tehran, and the movement ultimately failed to move beyond that base and their interests. By contrast the movement in Tunisia starts in the countryside, and is popular among the poor and working class as well as students. This a larger and more stable coalition.
Yet despite these events the silence in the media has been deafening. CNN has no link on its front page and the world section leads with coverage of the floods in Brisbane, Australia. That is a disgrace. Speaking as someone with friends and family in Brisbane and therefore reason to be concerned about it, I can confidently say that that story is a joke. No more than a handful of people, if any, are going to die in Brisbane. That is no comparison to the dozens dead in Tunisia and the hundreds who will probably be so before this is over. The BBC and NYtimes main pages also neglect the issue. At least at its height the MSM covered Iran. Stiltedly, poorly, with little real reporting and a lot of on air tweet-reading. But it did cover it a little. At least until Michael Jackson died and they moved quickly to the celeb bs that they’re more comfortable with. Tunisia has been ignored entirely.
But then I dont expect much from the MSM anymore. What’s been truly saddening has been the lack of coverage in other outlets. Sullivan over at the Daily Dish, who dropped everything and gave wall to wall coverage of the Iran story has almost entirely ignored Tunisia. The Huffington Posts live bloggers are nowhere to be seen. The Blogosphere too, seems deaf to the cries of Tunisians. Only Twitter provides a reasonable method for people to access information on the issue, which readers can find here and of course, Al Jazeera English, always there to make Westerners feel bad about how god awful our media is.
Why doesnt the MSM care? There’s a few explanations I find convincing.
1. Iran fatigue. This is the most innocent explanation, and one that I think probably explains the lack of blog coverage for the most part. Having steadfastly covered Iran’s failed ‘Twitter Revolution’ people like Andrew Sullivan may be loathe to commit themselves to another public demonstration of support for a new uprising, fearing the same embarrassment when it doesn’t succeed.
2. The Gifford story. When Iran happened, there were few other major stories to be told (though god knows the MSM looked for plenty), until Mr Jackson died that is. But the Tunisia events have come hand in hand with the Assassination attempt in Arizona and the grizzly deaths resulting there from. That story has undoubtedly important. I hope to post on it soon. But it is not more important than the Tunisia story. That a single congresswoman was attacked in this way, while tragic, does not even begin to compare to the deaths of dozens and the blood flowing freely in the streets of Tunis. The prospect for political change in a key Middle Eastern state is a lot more important than whether or not Sarah Palin has contributed to combative discourse. And we need to remember that. The United States is not the be all and end all of news, and we must stop pretending that it is.
3. Media paradigms. There’s another major story in the Middle East right now, and the media followed it quickly. That was the fall of the Lebanese government as Hezbollah pulled out of the governing coalition. Why was this more reported? Because It fits the media’s paradigm of the Middle East. Radical groups causing political turmoil in unstable countries ticks all the MSM’s boxes for the themes they want to push on Middle East politics. Worker and citizen action for peaceful change in a stable autocratic state? For the media to report on that would be tantamount to acknowledging their whole lens of Middle East analysis was ****.
4. The Tunisian government. Unlike the Islamists in Iran, Tunisia is led by a Secular Nationalist Autocrat. So while the student protestors of Tehran could be typed as heroic liberal democratic fighters of the Islamic state, the people taking action in Tunisia face a government well liked by Western leaders for its non-Islamic credentials. This is the reason why the US government was so concerned about Iran but doesnt care over much about Tunisia. Because the US would love to have seem the Islamic Republic overthrown, but its terrified of what would happen if Tunisia faced regime change. The last time a truly democratic election happened in North Africa, In the early 90s in Algeria, Islamic parties made massive gains. Washington no doubt fears that if a democratic opening happens in Tunisia the resulting government could be less rather than more pro-Western. It might also be hostile the tourism interests that bring millions of Europeans to Tunisia’s resorts and beaches every year while provide scarcely any benefit to ordinary people. So far the protest movement has been areligious, relying on civic groups and labor unions, making Islamist fears seem farcical. But it is probably true that if Tunisia were to become Democratic, Islamic parties would enter the political space. As I’ve written in PPR before, I don’t consider that a bad thing, though no doubt the State Department does.
The events in Tunisia may turn out to be epochal. Emphasis on may. Turmoil has already spread to neighboring Algeria. If, and its a big If, the protests succeed in bringing down the government, there is every chance democracy could break out in this country a stone throw from the EU. And that would be a disaster for Arab countries everywhere (outside possibility: Algerian invasion). Right now the Arab world is ruled by self-reinforcing dictatorships. Only 2 Arab states are remotely democratic, Iraq and Lebanon, and both are wracked by such intense internal conflict and sectarian division that they’re incapable of exporting any democratic ethos. But what would be the implications for Tunisia’s neighbors if it became democratic. If Tunisians could speak freely and vote freely, if a stable and relatively well-off Arab country could leap frog to Democracy, then it would profoundly effect the popular feelings of Arabs throughout the reason and provide a blue print for Arab political change and development. If Islamic parties could be peacefully integrated into Democracy in Tunisia, then the liberal/socialist middle classes that now often reluctantly support the Arab world’s autocrats for fear of Islamist control might lose that paranoia. The Tunisian people might be able to do what for all the money thats been spent and the lives that’ve been lost in Iraq and elsewhere, Washington could never do: Change the Middle East.
These things matter. I am deeply ashamed of the popular and media silence on this issue. And as someone who followed the Iran story like a hawk I am even more ashamed of myself.