The reactions of democratically elected governments across the world, from the US to France, to the revolution in Tunisia, show they are playing their usual public relations game of pretending to back democracy in other countries while actually backing dictatorships and trying to minimise any democratisation in them.
The British government has called for the “full inclusion of all legal parties in the formation of an interim Government.” The word “legal” here may seem unexceptional. However “legal” in this case means legal under the existing laws of the dictatorship of Ben Ali and his one party state, with opposition limited to parties approved by them, which excludes much of the democratic opposition (1).
Similarly US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called for “free and fair elections in the near future”.and EU governments are keen to offer “speedy” help to organise elections (2) – (3)
However, as demonstrators in Tunisia and exiled opposition party leaders in France have pointed out, elections coming quickly will benefit Ben Ali’s RCD party and those parties they have allowed to be legal, but exclude others.
Under the existing Tunisian constitution, written by the former dictator, President Ben Ali, rapid elections would also prevent anyone who is not already a member of the Tunisian parliament (and so approved by the former dictator) from standing for election as President – something outlined in one of the leaked US embassy cables (4).
That’s why many of the opposition are demanding that the interim government exclude former members of Ben Ali’s government; that a new constitution be drawn up before any elections for a new parliament or President ; and that even elections for members of an assembly to draft a new constitution should be delayed until the exiled and banned opposition parties can organise for the election of that assembly.
So the calls for the inclusion of “all legal political parties” and rapid elections are both attempts to limit the amount of democratisation in Tunisia and to try to ensure that while the dictator has had to go, much of his regime will stay and continue to run Tunisia’s economy at the beck and call of the IMF for the benefit of EU and US and other companies, not for the benefit of the Tunisian people, as some Tunisian academics and writers have pointed out (7) – (8).
Those policies, which have helped cause hunger and poverty for many Tunisians, are as much a cause of the revolution as the dictatorship that enforced them was
Watch out for governments' rhetoric about the need to restore stability. Stability is their long standing euphemism for ensuring other countries are governed in the interests not of their own people but in the interests of the elites in the countries "concerned" about their stability. Stability is often a euphemism for a client dictatorship too.
The French government was President Ben Ali’s closest ally, but is not alone in backing dictators who will sell out their own people for the benefit of foreign companies in return for a share of the profits.
The British, French and American governments are among the many who continue to support dictators like the Saud family monarchy in Saudi Arabia (monarchy here sounding much nicer than torturing dictatorship that executes people without a trial, but amounting to much the same) and the Mubarak dynasty of supposed Republicans, but definite dictators, in Egypt.
While mouthing platitudes about the desirability of greater democracy and reform, they continue to reward these dictatorships with arms for oil deals and – in the case of Egypt – a large amount of military aid.
Saudi Arabia is even less democratic than Iran, with no elected officials with any real powers whatsoever, at any level of government – and – as in Iran - with many people executed each year after being tortured into making confessions.
So it’s hardly surprising to see that the governments of the most powerful democracies are trying to restrict rather than aid democratisation in Tunisia.
There are serious risks with any plan to exclude Ben Ali’s RCD party from the interim government – it could produce violence or a counter-coup which could prevent any real democratisation at all– but there are risks just as big with allowing too many of them who were too close to Ben Ali to stay in government and possibly prevent a total re-writing of the 1988 constitution and the legalisation of banned opposition parties.
Update 23rd January 2011 - The Guardian is also reporting that "The new Tunisian government is still holding between 500 and 1,000 prisoners accused of often vaguely worded terrorism offences, despite a promise to release all political detainees." (9)
(1) = Hansard, House of Commons, 17 Jan 2011, column 549, 3.15 p.m,http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmhansrd/cm110117/debtext/110117-0001.htm#1101176000003
(2) = DipNote US department of state official blog 15 Jan 2011 ‘Secretary Clinton’s Statement on Recent Events in Tunisia’, http://blogs.state.gov/index.php/site/entry/recent_events_tunisia
(3) = See (1) above
(4) = Guardian.co.uk 17 Jan 2011 ‘US embassy cables: Finding a successor to Ben Ali in Tunisia’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/49401
(5) = AFP 19 Jan 2011 ‘Tunisian leader vows 'total break' with old regime’,http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20110119/wl_mideast_afp/tunisiapoliticsunrest
(6) = AFP 17 Jan 2011 ‘Tunisia appoints national unity govt amid turmoil’, http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20110117/wl_africa_afp/tunisiapoliticsurest
(7) = Guardian 18 Jan 2011 ‘Tunisians must dismantle the monster Ben Ali built’ by Soumaya Ghannoushi, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jan/18/tunisia-ben-ali-dictator-coalition
(8) = Guardian.co.uk 19 Jan 2011 ‘Tunisia needs real freedom’, by Intissar Kherigi, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jan/19/tunisia-democratic-unity-government
(9) = guardian.co.uk 11 jan 2011 'Hundreds of political prisoners in Tunisia yet to be released', http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jan/21/political-prisoners-tunisia-released