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Ben Ali

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The Mediterranean Frontier

18 April 2011

The Mediterranean Frontier

By Gwynne Dyer

“I wonder whether in this situation it makes sense to remain within the European Union,” said Italian foreign minister Roberto Maroni two weeks ago, in a crude attempt to blackmail other EU countries into taking more of Italy’s illegal immigrants. But the time may come when Italy’s northern neighbours will be quite happy to see Italy leave the Union. In fact, they may even close their borders with all the EU’s Mediterranean members.

The current fuss has arisen because Italy, the closest EU country to Tunisia, was hit by a wave of Tunisian “refugees” after the recent revolution there. They are not really fleeing from persecution and repression: the revolution largely ended that. They are economic migrants taking advantage of the fact that the chaotic new regime, unlike the Ben Ali dictatorship, no longer patrols the beaches to stop them from leaving for Italy.

Ben Ali had an unwritten deal with several EU countries to control the migrant flow in return for financial and diplomatic support. Since his regime collapsed in January, an estimated 25,000 Tunisian “refugees” have flooded into Italy, mostly in boats that dump them on the shores of the nearby Italian island of Lampedusa.

This is profoundly unpopular in Italy, a country with a severe allergy to immigrants from the wrong parts of the planet. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is currently fighting charges of bribery, abuse of power and paying for sex with underage girls, is certainly not going to defy that popular mood.

Indeed, Berlusconi is on record as saying that Milan “seems like an African city” because of the number of foreigners in the streets. (Actually, only 4 percent of Italy’s population are non-citizen foreign residents, and more than half of them are European.) So when Lampedusa was inundated with Tunisians, Berlusconi came up with a sneaky way of getting rid of them.

Most of the “refugees” from Tunisia would rather be in France anyway, because many of them have relatives there and most of them speak some French. So Berlusconi’s government just made it easy for them to go to France.

Early this month Italy began issuing six-month temporary residence certificates to the Tunisian refugees. Once they were Italian residents, however temporary, they were legally free to go anywhere else in the “Schengen” group of countries, an area with no internal border controls that includes almost all of Western and Northern Europe except the United Kingdom. Most of the Tunisian refugees immediately headed for France.

Which is why, last Saturday, the French authorities began stopping the trains that normally cross the border from Italy into France without any identity checks. The Italian government responded with feigned outrage, but the French message was clear: you can’t dump your refugees on us, no matter what the Schengen Treaty says.

Now fast forward thirty years, and assume that the average global temperature is 2 degrees C higher than it was in 1990. That’s a reasonable assumption if there is not a drastic cut in global greenhouse gas emissions in the next ten years.

“Global average temperature” is a number that combines cooler temperatures over the two-thirds of the planet that is covered by oceans and considerably higher ones over the one-third that is land, so in Italy it will be three to three-and-a-half degrees C hotter. And Italy, like all the countries on both sides of the Mediterranean, is in the sub-tropics, which will suffer a major loss of rainfall in a warmer world.

Less rainfall and much higher summer temperatures mean that less food can be grown, and few of the sub-tropical countries will be able to feed their own populations any more. Countries like Italy are rich enough to import food to cover any local crop failures now, but they may not be able to when simultaneous crop failures all around the sub-tropics drive export prices sky-high.

This is a scenario in which not tens of thousands but millions of people are fleeing the drought-stricken countries of North Africa, trying to get into Europe. But it’s also a scenario in which millions of Italians, Spanish, Greeks and citizens of other EU members in the Mediterranean take advantage of the Schengen rules on free movement to move somewhere cooler that still has enough food. Like France, for example.

Will France (and Germany and Poland and Sweden) let all these “climate refugees” from the Mediterranean countries in? Not very likely, is it? And are strategists in the more northerly EU countries aware that this problem is coming their way? Of course they are.

Nobody is going to discuss this scenario in front of the children now, but you can see what happened to the Italian trains trying to cross into France last weekend as a dress-rehearsal for the future. Not an inevitable future, nor one that will be upon us the day after tomorrow, but an ugly and quite probable future nevertheless. And similar things would be happening along all the other borders where the sub-tropics meet the temperate zone.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 5. (“Ben…Lampedusa”; and “Indeed…them”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

Tunisia: The Force of Example

16 January 2011

Tunisia: The Force of Example

By Gwynne Dyer

The analogy might be with the chain of non-violent revolutions that drove the sclerotic Communist regimes of Eastern Europe from power in 1989. Or then again, it might not.

Many people in the Arab world hope that the popular revolt in Tunisia will become a genuine democratic revolution that inspires people in other Arab countries to do the same thing. Other people, notably most of the existing regimes in the Arab world and their foreign allies, hope fervently that it will not. But the current situation is certainly fraught with possibilities.

It’s not yet clear whether the street demonstrations that drove the Tunisian dictator, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, into exile after 23 years in power will lead to a genuine democracy. The prime minister he left behind, Mohammed Ghannouchi, is promising free elections soon, but it’s still the old regime, minus its leader, that is making the promises. They may not be trustworthy.

This was a spontaneous uprising, an outburst of sheer exasperation with the corruption and incompetence of the Ben Ali regime. The rebels have no plan for what happens next, and several hundred thousand people with guns and good communications facilities have a lot to lose if the old regime just vanishes. It is estimated, for example, that one in forty adult Tunisians works for the secret police.

On the other hand, miracles sometimes do happen. The East German Communist regime in 1989, after 44 years in power, controlled not only the army but also a well-armed Communist militia several hundred thousand strong. Yet when the Berlin Wall came down, they just decided not to start killing their own people. No matter how loyal they were to Communist ideals, they understood that their time was up.

Many of those who served Ben Ali’s dictatorship will not want to start killing their own people on a large scale either, and no ideology underpinned the Tunisian regime. Those who gave it their loyalty did so only out of self-interest, and their perception of where their interests lie could change quite fast. So the question arises: if the Tunisian revolt turns into a real democratic revolution, could its example spread?

The neighbours certainly think so. Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s ruler for the past 41 years, was almost comical in his public dismay at Ben Ali’s fall. “You (Tunisians) have suffered a great loss,” he said in a speech broadcast on Libyan state television. “There is none better than Zine (Ben Ali) to govern Tunisia.” Or more precisely, none better to keep Gaddafi safe from his own people.

Tunisia’s neighbour to the west, Algeria, is even more vulnerable to popular revolt than Libya. The president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has only been in office since 1999, but he was put there by the army, whose senior generals have really run the country from behind the scenes since the mid-1960s. Algerians have already begun demonstrating publicly against the high price of food, and the regime’s response has already turned violent.

The social and economic conditions that made Tunisia such a tinderbox also prevail in many other Arab countries: widespread poverty, huge unemployment (about 30 percent of the under-30s in Tunisia, and even higher among those with a post-secondary education), and great popular anger (usually carefully hidden) at the brutal authoritarianism and endemic corruption of the regimes.

The strict censorship of news that has always been standard practice for the more repressive Arab regimes has been subverted by new media, from al-Jazeera to the internet. Everybody who wants change has seen how easy it was for the Tunisians to make it happen, and they may want to try it themselves.

Egypt, Syria, Morocco – in fact, almost all the Arab countries except the oil-rich Gulf states – are potentially vulnerable to a Tunisian-style revolt. Not all or even most of them are likely to have one, nor will every attempted revolt succeed: some of the regimes are much more capable of using massive force than Ben Ali’s ramshackle dictatorship. But some revolts may succeed.

So the big question is: what would the successor regimes look like? In Tunisia, if all goes well, it could be a secular democracy, but in many other places a strict Islamic regime would be a much likelier outcome. The old leftist and secular liberal parties, beaten and bribed into submission, have long since lost credibility in most Arab countries. Only the Islamic parties have not been coopted.

There are as many flavours of Islamic politics as there are of ice cream. Some are retrograde and hostile to all opinions other than their own; others are as open and reasonable as the “Christian Democratic” parties of Europe. In the coming years we may well have the opportunity to observe all of those varieties in action.

Assuming that all or much of this comes to pass, the most important thing that non-Arabs can do, especially in the West, is not to panic. Knee-jerk assumptions that such regimes would be implacably hostile to non-Muslims would operate as self-fulfilling prophecies, but it ain’t necessarily so.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“Tunisia’s…violent”; and “The strict…themselves”)

The expanded and updated 2nd edition of Gwynne Dyer’s new book, “Climate Wars”, is published in most of the world by Oneworld.