THE SPINE JANUARY 17, 2011
Actually, I didn’t read this anywhere—no, not anywhere—but in an A.P. dispatch on Yahoo: “Minibus bombing in NW Pakistan kills 19.”
While such happenings are quite common in the arc of Islam the details still are gruesome:
A bomb ripped apart a minibus in a volatile part of northwestern Pakistan on Monday, killing all 17 people on board and two others in a nearby vehicle, police said.
The bus was traveling between the cities of Hangu and Kohat close to Pakistan's lawless tribal region. Islamist militants frequently carry out attacks in the area against both civilians and security forces.
Hangu police chief Abdur Rasheed said the bomb that destroyed the bus contained high explosives, and the blast was especially deadly because the bomb detonated the vehicle's gas cylinder. Authorities initially thought the gas cylinder alone caused the explosion.
The explosion blew out the windows of a second minibus nearby and knocked it on its side, killing two people and wounding 10 others, two of them critically, said Rasheed.
But, of course, there was no protest. Not by anyone. Nowhere. Maybe the people and the media that court them are so weary of these low dead-count news items that they are waiting for a really big number. Or for the murder of Christians, as happened a few weeks ago in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city, and a few days before that in Iraq. You’ll soon see that dead Christians will also become ordinary, like traffic accidents. In the meantime, the only significant protest registered was from Pope Benedict who’s convening a multi-faith prayer meeting in Assisi a few months hence. We’ll see what good that’ll do. In the meantime you can read what I thought about this big idea.
Aside from the quotidian terror killings in the last days there’s a new phenomenon that was unveiled by Mona El-Naggar in today’s New York Times: “Fiery Protests Inspired by Tunisian Spread.” The “fiery” in this headline is not mean to be either metaphoric or just evocative. In this context the word means suicide by...well, yes, self-immolation. Like the self-immolation of Buddhist monks in Vietnam that energized some anti-war protestors but actually disgusted me. But that’s another matter. A matter of history.
In any case, if in the last week six men—four in Algeria, one in Egypt and one who failed in his attempt in Mauritania—have set themselves up as a funeral pyre in imitation of the successful burning harikari in Tunisia who seems to have inspired the revolt against tyranny we can say it is almost a political fashion. It is also conclusive testimony that Muslim states are impervious to orderly change.
Still, what’s happening in Tunisia is thrilling. But no can or should ignore the 78 ordinary citizens truncheoned or shot to death by the armed police of the Ben Ali regime. The Times’ David D. Kirkpatrick has a fascinating and significantly detailed story of the latest happenings in the country. There are no guarantees that they will end happily.
In the streets, the Tunisian revolution continued to evolve. It began in the hard-pressed provinces with demands for more jobs, especially for Tunisia’s soaring number of young college graduates, nearly a third of whom are estimated to unemployed or seriously underemployed. It spread to the workers, small business owners and the coastal professional class as a revolt mainly against the flagrant corruption associated with Mr. Ben Ali’s family.
But on Monday the protesters in the streets appeared more working class, including some hardened, veteran dissenters abused by Mr. Ben Ali’s government. Off the streets, some Tunisian professionals who last week had railed against Mr. Ben Ali’s government said they were excited by the new government’s prudent first steps. But the demonstrators sang the national anthem and talked broadly of new “freedom” and the complete elimination of Mr. Ben Ali’s party.
As exiled leaders of the once-thriving Islamic political party here raced home, Tunisians debated what to do with the Islamist parties. At a makeshift barricade of overturned barrels and corrugated steel erected by a citizens-watch group defending against looters in the neighborhood of Kram, opinions were divided. An older man brought up the subject. “We ask for the Islamists not to be excluded,” he said, giving only his first name, Habib.
Indeed, thrilling though these events are, I’d bet that this drama will be acted out as tragedy. I hope not.
Of course, Roger Cohen bets the other way in the International Herald Tribune. To be sure, he virtually admits that every Arab country is—how does one say this?—an utter failure. And there are great impediments to change.
But he has advice:
Holding free elections in Tunisia requires the lifting of the ban on Islamist parties.
Dealing with the Middle East as it is — rather than indulging in the “Green Zone politics” of imaginary worlds — demands recognition that facile terrorist designations for broad movements like Hezbollah are self-defeating and inadequate.
And Cohen’s crescendo: “Tunis can be Act One in the liberation of the Arab mind.”
Anne Applebaum, who is much wiser than Cohen and more skeptically realistic, has a completely different take on the revolution. Read it in the Washington Post.
Please don’t end with her.
The Times has a feature called “Blogging the News With Robert Mackey.” Today’s feature is titled “Qaddafi Sees WikiLeaks Plot in Tunisia.” Read it for its madman humor. And read also the literal subtext of the article: “A Selection From the Cache of Diplomatic Dispatches.”
Here are a few instances. The dashes indicate sections redacted by the New York Times due to security or privacy concerns:
11. (C) Beyond the stifling bureaucratic controls, the GOT
makes it difficult for the Mission to maintain contact with a
TUNIS 00000492 003 OF 005
wide swath of Tunisian society. GOT-controlled newspapers
often attack Tunisian civil society activists who participate
in Embassy activities, portraying them as traitors.
Plain-clothes police sometimes lurk outside events hosted by
EmbOffs, intimidating participants. –––– –––– –––– –––– ––––
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12. (C) Some of the GOT's actions may be related to its
intense dislike of the former Administration's &freedom
agenda.8 The GOT considered this policy dangerous and
believed it opened the door for Islamic extremists to seize
power. GOT leaders have made no secret of their disapproval
of the Ambassador's and other EmbOffs' contacts with
opposition –––– –––– –––– –––– –––– –––– ––––
–––– ––––'–––– –––– ––––, –––– –––– –––– –––– ––––
––––'–––– –––– –––– –––– –––– as well as civil society
activists who criticize the regime. They were intensely
critical, as well, of the previous Administration's use of
public statements (such as on World Press Freedom Day 2008),
which they believed unfairly targeted Tunisia.
So, What Should We Do?
13. (C) Notwithstanding the frustrations of doing business
here, we cannot write off Tunisia. We have too much at
stake. We have an interest in preventing al-Qaeda in the
Islamic Maghreb and other extremist groups from establishing
a foothold here. We have an interest in keeping the Tunisian
military professional and neutral. We also have an interest
in fostering greater political openness and respect for human
rights. It is in our interest, too, to build prosperity and
Tunisia's middle class, the underpinning for the country's
long-term stability. Moreover, we need to increase mutual
understanding to help repair the image of the United States
and secure greater cooperation on our many regional
challenges. The United States needs help in this region to
promote our values and policies. Tunisia is one place where,
in time, we might find it.