Interview with David Dietz (Part II): Making Sense of Tunisia


Note: The following is the second part of an interview conducted on January 21st, 2011 by PolicyMic's Editorial Board with Contributing Writer David Dietz. Dietz has been living and working in Tunisia, outside of the country's capital Tunis, and providing PolicyMic with up-to-date coverage of the situation on the ground during the country's historic Jasmine Revolution. He has since temporarily left the country for safety reasons. In Part I, PolicyMic caught up with Dietz and asked him about the experience of living in Tunisia during the revolution, tending to his friend who got shot, and watching as his apartment complex got ransacked by looters. In this follow-up, we ask Dietz about the policy implications of the revolution for the Arab world and the U.S. in the Middle East.

PolicyMic (PM): Talk about the significance of what we’ve witnessed on the streets of Tunisia, and its possible broader implications for the greater Middle East. Do you predict a spillover affect in other countries in the region?

David Dietz (DD): What we have witnessed was a historic and momentous undertaking, which no one - especially Westerns governments - predicted. What was most astonishing was how fast it happened. While protests began back in early December, the first demonstrations only reached the capital on Tuesday of the week of the revolution. For the government to have been overthrown by Friday during that week was truly shocking.

Going forward, arguments can be made either way as to whether the revolution will spawn further unrest throughout the region. I believe that spillover is a possible, if not likely, scenario. I strongly disagree that the revolution was triggered by a fatigue of living under an oppressive government. In my judgment, economic conditions, lack of opportunity, the education system, and rampant corruption were the original and main causes. Those conditions are all present in most other Middle Eastern countries (particularly Egypt). Furthermore, unlike Tunisia, there are more developed opposition parties and Islamist movements in other Arab countries that are all chomping at the bit for a shot at power. If Tunisia managed to overthrow one of the more oppressive regimes by a popular uprising, imagine what Egyptians, Algerians, or even possibly Jordanians would be able to accomplish with a little goading from the Muslim Brotherhood or others. 

PM: Why should young Americans with no background in the Middle East care about what’s happening Tunisia? Many Americans don’t even know where to find the country on a map! Is there any significance of what we’ve witnessed for U.S. policy, or for the American people?

DD: Those who can’t find Tunisia on a map or have no interest in the Middle East may dismiss such an uprising as unimportant, especially when they do find it and see how small a country it actually is. On some level, they are correct. As an isolated incident, it means very little to American foreign policy.

But, the region is not isolated. Let’s take a worst-case scenario for the U.S.: If there were to be a spillover effect and the regimes in Egypt, Jordan, or Algeria were toppled, we would have a major crisis on our hands. While several leaders in the Middle East are to blame for abhorrent human rights records (Egypt comes to mind), many are also strong U.S. allies that provide invaluable regional intelligence and allow us to use their military bases as staging areas inside their countries. Unrest, or worse, in many of these countries would jeopardize our missions in Afghanistan and Iraq and terribly destabilize an already volatile region. Don’t forget that such turmoil could also have dire consequences for Israel’s security and any hopes for Middle East peace.

Now, the more likely scenario – and one that is far less of a doomsday prediction – is that the revolution will weaken America’s moral superiority. News reports have surfaced that the U.S. provided Ben Ali’s regime with over $340 million dollars during his presidency. The Tunisian people are furious that American money – by ways of guns and tanks – was used to spill Tunisian blood. Regime change and revolutions bring these details out. Suddenly, Tunisia becomes another example of how the U.S. funds corrupt dictators that torture and abuse their people. If you’ve ever traveled to Central America, you’ve witnessed an attitude of suspicion and distrust of America and you also know how difficult it is to overcome this feeling.

PM: Using your best judgment, rank these factors in order of importance for what caused the revolution: unemployment and lack of job prospects; Wikileaks’ revelations of corruption; lack of freedom of speech; lack of democracy; Twitter, Facebook, and the information revolution. What are other contributing factors that are not on this list?


1. Lack of job prospects

I do not believe this was a revolution for democracy and freedom of speech. No way. Such sentiments became popular once the movement had taken hold as a way to garner Western sympathy. But, look around the Middle East and you don’t see anyone else protesting for those reasons. You don’t see riots in Dubai, Doha, or Jeddah and you didn’t hear about any demonstrations in Amman or Cairo until after Tunisia was in the news. Why? Because this revolution was about jobs and the lack of economic opportunity in the country.

In my opinion, there were 3 factors that came together at the same time to create the perfect storm. Surprisingly, only one was Ben Ali’s fault: The first was the economic crisis. Like everywhere else in the world, it affected Tunisia. The crisis didn’t cripple the economy, but it certainly slowed it and halted job creation. The second factor is the education system. Tunisians are given free access to university and therefore almost everyone pursues a degree. The job market is not strong enough and the economic infrastructure is not in place to satisfy and provide jobs for all the new graduates. Lastly, and where Ben Ali was at fault, was the issue of corruption. Tunisians suspected corruption and believed that ‘the family’ (the mafia-like family of the president’s wife, Leila) controlled every successful business and investment opportunity in the country. But, in December Wikileaks revealed the full extent of the corruption and lavish life styles of the Trabelsi family. This was the first time the extent of the corruption was revealed.

Once the cables were leaked, Twitter and Facebook all helped to whip up anger and support. But, jobs, corruption, and unmet expectations after graduating from college are what caused this revolution.

PM: What is the biggest angle of the Tunisian story that the media has failed to cover?

DD: Based on my conversations, I feel an underlying cause of the revolution that few have discussed is the conundrum that is Tunisia’s education system. Such a quandary is not limited to Tunisia – and may in fact haunt other Arab regimes in the future. By creating universal access to education and affording all Tunisians with the opportunity to study in university, the government indirectly created a whole class of unemployed, disenfranchised university students who feel hopeless and expect more.

The problem is not just a lack of jobs or fair opportunities. There is also the problem of inflated expectations for job prospects and the exaggerated worth of university degrees. The Western-style university system is still relatively new in Tunisia, so for many families, this generation is the first to go to university. Yet, because almost everyone can attend university free of charge, a two-fold problem has emerged: First, if everyone has a degree, it no longer holds the same value. And second, with so many students, there are fewer qualified professors to teach – thus driving down the quality of the degree. Therefore, Tunisians are graduating with less valuable degrees than in the past, but still expecting quality jobs. Tunisia’s economic infrastructure hasn’t caught up to the number of degrees, so you have a very volatile situation. This will continue to be one of the most difficult hurdles for the new administration.

PM: To what extent was the Tunisian revolution fueled by young people (the 20-somethings)? Why did they take to the streets rather than turn to peaceful methods of protest?

DD: The revolution was absolutely carried out by those in their 20’s and 30’s, which is pricelessly ironic considering Ben Ali proclaimed 2011 to be the year of the youth. They were concerned about jobs and fair opportunities. It’s important to note the difference between jobs and unemployment, a difference, which speaks to my earlier point about the inflated expectations of a university degree. Unemployment in Tunisia is not terribly high. It’s certainly an issue that needs to be addressed, but what many young people seemed to decry was a lack of better jobs, rather than just jobs.

Regarding the protests, the majority of the demonstrations were peaceful. It was only when the police opened fire that protestors responded with violence. In some instances they did burn cars or loot stores, but the protests were mostly restrained. Sit-ins, strikes, or other more traditional peaceful methods would never have worked because Ben Ali would have crushed them. The protestors knew they had to scare Ben Ali and prove they were serious. The adage ‘go big or go home’ was never more appropriate.

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