Why 14 January 2011 will go down in history

Mohamed Ali Harrath is a former Tunisian dissident who was imprisoned and tortured after he set up a Muslim political party in Tunisia and had finally to flee the country. Now he is thinking of making a return visit.

14 January 2011 will historically mark the democratisation of the Middle East. The Arabs watch Tunisia in solidarity, while every Arab dictator watches nervously at the tide of collective power of the people. Tunisia is the Poland of the Arab world and this is our 1989, the tide is turning, we will see many corrupt Presidents and dictators who abused their positions running from the people.

News agencies around the world keep stressing that the revolt came about because of food shortages; this is misleading and also undermines the pain, the indignities, the repression and torture the Tunisian people have been suffering over decades. This is the beginning of a real revolution.

The protests were sparked off by the unemployed youth who had reached a point where they had ‘nothing to lose but their chains’.  It was extreme desperation that led a 26 year old unemployed university graduate to set himself on fire. This hopeless act ignited a wave of copycat suicides and street protests.

Despite assertions from the fleeing President that the revolt was instigated by external meddling or Islamists it had become abundantly clear that Tunisians had had enough of repression,  chronic unemployment, poverty, rising food prices, corruption, and a pseudo-democratic system which in effect was really an autocratic dictatorship that had through a fixed voting system given itself a fifth consecutive term.

The Tunisian uprising was a spontaneous outburst, which doesn’t have any leaders but was immediately supported by all groups from the Communists, the Islamists to Labour Unions spreading fast to the rest of the country including the rich north. The degree of pent-up tension after decades of living in a virtual police state under Ben Ali, allowed the situation to explode as soon as unemployment protests started. It is people power that has taken to the streets and there are no leaders leading the revolt.

For years, Ben Ali set about killing off political opposition parties, weakening and dividing them. I myself was put in prison in 1984 where I was tortured for taking part in the protests, and again, when we set up the Tunisian Islamic Front in 1987. According to Amnesty International thirty people died from torture during this clampdown period. I was tortured to such an extent that I had to be aided to go to the bathroom.  After I was finally released, the opportunity to escape presented itself and I took it. After I left, many members of my family were imprisoned because of me. This is how the regime ruled; it killed dissent by instilling fear. They not only put activists in prison, but also tortured members of their family.

The repressive methods didn’t stop there. Many of the dissidents were pursued internationally by the Tunisian government whereby they would put them on Interpol’s Red Notice system. I was put on Interpol’s list and I did finally challenge Tunisia’s claims in court and won the case.

This trial was a significant legal test, both in terms of the lack of sincerity and integrity of the allegations against dissidents like me and of the unjustness of the Interpol Red Notice system, which has been used to intimidate and harass political opponents by states such as Tunisia.

The west talks about the human rights abuses and democratization of the Middle East, and yet turned a blind eye to the repressive anti democratic methods used by Ben Ali. Western leaders supported him, believing him to be a staunch ally in the war on terrorism and against Islamist extremism.

It is time for world powers to recognize that you can’t support dictators and talk of democracy at the same time. Also you can’t march armies into countries with ideas of implementing democracy; the demand for democracy can only come from the people as Tunisia is now showing to the world.

Tunisia can in fact be an ideal democratic country, it has over 540,000 graduates who are at present unemployed, 37% of its young people (18-25) are in education, and there are no class or caste issues and nearly all Muslims belong to the same Sunni sect and are mainly secular.

Even though I am not enthusiastic about the term ‘democracy’ as we have seen it being practiced in the West, where over a million people marched against the war in Iraq - yet were ignored, and where, because of fabricated evidence involving weapons of mass destruction thousands of innocent deaths occurred. I don’t know what democracy means these days, but I firmly believe in the power of people to govern, to choose and vote for how they want to be governed.

Tunisia needs support to evolve into a genuine democratic country and its people are ready and demanding that change. When Tunisians finally achieve their objectives after overcoming many hurdles, it could be the first true democracy in the Arab world. However we have to ensure there is no outside meddling in Tunisia’s internal affairs so that totalitarianism and despotic elements  cannot rear their ugly heads again. After all, they have had 55 years to entrench themselves into the political and social psyche.

About the author

Mohamed Ali Harrath is CEO of Britain’s Muslim television station, the Islam Channel