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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.


Unstoppable Gee-Gees

11 August 2004

Unstoppable Gee-Gees

By Gwynne Dyer

The western flank of Cumbre Vieja volcano on the island of La Palma in the Canaries is going to slide into the Atlantic one of these days: a diagonal fracture has already separated it from the main body of the volcano, and only friction still keeps it attached. “When it goes, it will likely collapse in about 90 seconds,” said Professor Bill McGuire, director of the Benfield Grieg Hazard Research Centre at University College London. And when it goes, probably during an eruption, the splash will create a mega-tsunami that races across the Atlantic and drowns the facing coastlines.

Fortunately the nearest coast to the Canary Islands, where the waves will be around 300 feet (100 metres) high when they hit, is lightly populated Western Sahara. Few people living in the coastal plains of Morocco, south-western Spain and Portugal will survive either, but the waves will drop in height as they travel. The coasts of southern Ireland and south-western England will also take a beating, but by then the wave height will be down to about 30 feet (10 metres).

The real carnage will be on the western side of the Atlantic, from Newfoundland all the way down the east coast of Canada and the United States to Cuba, Hispaniola, the Lesser Antilles and north-eastern Brazil. With a clear run across the Atlantic, the wall of water will still be between 60 and 150 feet (20 and 50 metres) high when it hits the eastern seaboard of North America, and it will keep coming for ten to fifteen minutes.

Worst hit will be harbours and estuaries that funnel the waves inland: goodbye Halifax, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, DC. Miami and Havana go under almost entirely, as do low-lying islands like the Bahamas and Barbados. Likely death toll, if there is no mass evacuation beforehand? A hundred million people, give or take fifty million.

The last time the volcano erupted, in 1949, its whole western side slid 13 feet (4 metres) down towards the sea, and even now it is still slipping very slowly downwards. Given the scale of the catastrophe if the next eruption sends this mountain crashing into the water, Dr. McGuire is angry that there is so little monitoring equipment on La Palma to give advance warning: “The US government must be aware of the La Palma threat. They should certainly be worried, and so should the island states in the Caribbean that will really bear the brunt of a collapse.”

“They’re not taking it seriously,” McGuire concluded. “Governments change every four or five years and generally they’re not interested in these things.” It was a classic scene, revisited in every natural disaster movie: crusading scientist calls feckless governments to account, squalid politicos ignore the call. The science journalists couldn’t wait to get their pieces into print.

But hold on a minute. Haven’t we heard about this threat before? What’s new this time? Nothing, except that there hasn’t been a stampede to cover La Palma with seismometers. Now, why do you think that is?

Suppose that the governments whose coastlines are at risk, from Morocco to the US, did get a warning that Cumbre Vieja was waking up again. What would they do with the warning? Evacuate one or two hundred million people from the low-lying lands indefinitely?

They don’t know if there is really going to be an eruption (seismology is not that precise), or how big it will be, or whether this will be the one that finally shakes the side of the mountain loose. It could happen in the next eruption, but it might not happen for a thousand years.

No national leader wants to evacuate the entire coast for an indefinite period of time, causing an economic and refugee crisis on the scale of a world war, for what might be a false alarm. But nobody wants to ignore a warning, and perhaps be responsible for tens of millions of deaths. From a political standpoint, it’s better not to have the warning at all.

Natural disasters that can affect the whole planet are known to scientists as “global geophysical events” — gee-gees, for short — and they come in two kinds: ones you might be able to do something useful about, and ones you can’t. When governments are faced with the first kind, they can respond quite sensibly.

Since we first realised two decades ago that asteroids and comets smashing into the earth have caused a number of mass extinctions, a US government project has identified and started to track 3,000 “near-earth objects” whose orbits make them potentially dangerous. In another generation, we may even be able to divert ones that are on a collision course — and if there’s one gee-gee that you would want to prevent above all others, that’s the one. But there’s no similar remedy on the horizon for volcanos or earthquakes, or the tsunamis they might cause. On this one, we just have to keep our fingers crossed.



The Scale of the Problem

18 May 2003

The Scale of the Problem

By Gwynne Dyer

There’s no point in writing about anything but ‘terrorism’ this week, even if there’s little useful to be said about the recent rash of attacks and alarms beyond the fact that it was hardly a surprise. After all, why would conquering Iraq do anything to diminish the terrorist threat? But there is something useful to be said about the scale of the problem.

In media terms, last week was a terrorist blitz: 59 people killed in Chechnya on Sunday the 10th, 34 dead in Saudi Arabia the following day, 16 more dead in Chechnya on Wednesday the 13th, a wave of terrorist bombings that failed to kill anybody in Pakistan on the 14th, at least 41 deaths from last Friday’s bomb attacks in Morocco, and three Israelis killed on Saturday. It sounds like a lot. It’s not.

Around a million human beings die each week on this planet, the vast majority of them from natural causes. Last week was the worst for terrorist attacks since 11 September, 2001, but only 153 people were killed. Last week, therefore, one in seven thousand of the deaths in the world was caused by terrorism. That is far higher than usual, so it made the headlines.

Yet there were no headlines last weekend saying ‘750 people dead of gunshot wounds in the US since Monday’ or ‘weekly traffic death toll in India tops 2,000’, and only a very small headline to announce that several thousand people had been massacred in the eastern Congolese town of Bunia. It’s terrorism that grabs the headlines, because it combines violence and surprise in a package designed to do precisely that. Since we’re going to have to live with it for a long time, we need to get both the numbers and the strategy into perspective.

Numbers first. Major conventional wars kill many thousands of people a day (and a nuclear war would kill many millions). Even in the context of ‘national liberation wars’, where subjugated people are fighting to drive out a foreign oppressor, the death toll from terrorism rarely exceeds dozens a day. When it comes to international terrorism (like all of last week’s cases except Chechnya and Israel), the average daily death toll worldwide is under ten. It cannot be said too often that terrorism is the weapon of the weak.

So how do terrorists imagine that they can ever succeed? Because they seek not a military but a political victory, and they know that the mass media of the target society will vastly exaggerate the scale and importance of what they do simply because it is dramatic and violent: ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’

Those trying to free a country from foreign occupation by terrorism have traditionally had a good chance of succeeding, because they only had to wear down the foreign occupier, not defeat him militarily. In the decolonisation struggles in Asia and Africa after the Second World War, the rebels could not strike at the imperial homelands and generally lost dozens of their own people for every foreign soldier they killed, but they usually won anyway once they had shown that they could go on bearing that toll indefinitely.

Among last week’s terrorists attacks, only those in Chechnya and in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories more or less fit into the category of ‘national liberation wars’, but they may not have the same outcome. The great difference is that the Chechens and Palestinians are physically next to the homeland of the people who rule over them. That means that they can and do carry out terrorist attacks in those homelands, but also that the likelihood of the foreign ruler just cutting his losses and going home is a great deal less.

Most of last week’s attacks could fairly be called ‘international terrorism’, since the targets and generally the attackers as well were multi-national in composition — but just what do they want to achieve with all this free publicity? Surely the Islamist terrorists who made these attacks cannot believe that they will make the West bow to their will?

Of course not. Their main goal is to overthrow the existing, mostly pro-Western governments of the Arab world and take their places, so their attacks are designed to drive Arab people into rising up against their governments. (Then they would create a united Arab-Islamic state, and ultimately a worldwide Islamic super-state that would take on and defeat the West, but that is a long way down Fantasy Road.)

Sometimes the terrorists are just trying to drive foreign visitors and foreign investment away and cause hardships that will turn Arab peoples against their rulers, as in the attacks in Morocco and Saudi Arabia last week. Sometimes, as in 9/11, they try to goad the United States into a massive, indiscriminate retaliation that would kill many innocent Arabs and fill the streets with anti-American revolts. In either case, they are only truly dangerous if they can get the target governments to over-react.

Arab governments, understanding this, mostly do not over-react. Neither did the United States in the first four months after 9/11, but that has changed dramatically since the ‘axis of evil’ speech in January 2002. There are several agendas running in the Bush administration, and the one on top at the moment is the hyper-ambitious Cheney-Rumsfeld project that uses the terrorist threat as a pretext for creating a global ‘pax americana’ based on the unilateral use of American military power. But the project of the Islamist terrorists is still running too, and this strategy is playing straight into their hands.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Those…less”)

The Detritus of Empire

31 October 2002

The Detritus of Empire

By Gwynne Dyer

Morocco is very reasonable about the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla which Spain has controlled for over four centuries (although it says it would like them back eventually). France never quibbles about the Channel Islands, which have been under English control for almost a thousand years, although they are just off the French coast. Canada raises no claim to the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland: for Ottawa, the Treaty of Paris in 1763 settled that question once and for all.

So why is Madrid so obsessed about getting back the British enclave of Gibraltar, a barren peninsula on Spain’s southern coast that was ceded to Britain in perpetuity by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713? And why is the British Foreign Office determined to push the 30,000 residents of Gibraltar, whose only wish is to remain British, into a ‘shared sovereignty’ arrangement with Spain?

The last time Gibraltarians were asked to vote on a closer relationship with Spain, in 1967, over 12,000 voted ‘no’ and only 44 voted ‘yes’, so they are understandably unhappy about the current Anglo-Spanish talks on the Rock. Excluded from the negotiations because he wanted the right of veto, the elected chief minister of Gibraltar, Peter Caruana, has called a referendum for 7 November. The question is: “Do you agree that Britain and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar?” The answer will again be an overwhelming ‘no’.

Officially, that will make no difference, for the British government says it will not recognise any referendum that it does not call and run itself. Caruana’s referendum is an attempt to sabotage the talks by demonstrating the total opposition of Gibraltarians to the whole idea of shared sovereignty, whose result, he says, would be “to curtail our rights, to legitimise the Spanish sovereignty claim and, in effect, to say to us ‘sooner or later you are going to have to be Spanish — if you don’t want it to be now it’s up to you to choose the timing in the future’.”

It is much the same deal that the British government was preparing to impose on the people of the Falkland Islands before the Argentine generals jumped the gun with their 1982 invasion, and thereby forced a reluctant British government to accept continuing responsibility for the welfare and defence of the Falklanders into the 21st century. Britain has been off-loading its former imperial possessions with a cynical disregard for the views of the local inhabitants for decades. But the Gibraltarians know a bit about public relations, and they are fighting back.

Spain today is a prosperous and fully democratic country that has left the era of civil wars and dictatorship far behind, and Spanish citizenship has exactly the same value as British citizenship within the European Union. Britain no longer runs an empire, so Gibraltar has no strategic value for London. A deal on shared sovereignty would end the petty harassment that Spanish governments have inflicted on Gibraltar’s residents since the dictator Franco first made it a major nationalist issue, and might even lead to increased prosperity for Gibraltar in the long run.

In other words, there is nothing vital at stake in the deal being cooked up by Britain and Spain. The Gibraltarians, for purely sentimental reasons, want to remain British, but why should the views of a mere 30,000 people take precedence over the desire of the British and Spanish governments to tidy up their relationship in these post-modern, globalised times? There is no rational reason, and yet it feels all wrong.

It feels wrong because the Spanish really are trying to have it both ways. They insist on the return of a rocky peninsula on their south coast that Britain acquired by treaty almost 300 years ago, but they flatly refuse to discuss the return of two almost identical enclaves on the north coast of Morocco that Spain acquired by treaty over 400 years ago. (Morocco, of course, says that if Spain gets Gibraltar, it wants Ceuta and Melilla back at the same time.)

But it also feels wrong because the world is too tidy already. Anybody who likes their reality spiced up with a few historical anomalies can only be pleased that there are still Dutch-speaking islands in the Caribbean, French-speaking islands in the Indian Ocean, English-speaking islands off Argentina, and a Portuguese-speaking country (much battered, but finally freed from a quarter-century of brutal occupation) on the eastern half of the island of Timor.

True, these are all remnants of the European empires that once conquered most of the planet. It would be fairer if there were also Arabic-speaking enclaves on the coast of India, Japanese-speaking islands off the coast of California, and a few Bengali-speaking outposts in the Irish Sea. But the unfairness of history is no argument for crushing diversity in the present.

Will the British Foreign Office succeed in selling out Gibraltar in order to placate a Spanish government that is a useful ally in the ongoing battles over the future shape of the European Union? Probably not, for its hands are tied by the promises of previous governments to consult the people of Gibraltar first. It may refuse to recognise the validity of Gibraltar’s referendum, but the rest of the world will notice, and so will the British public.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 10. (“It is much…back” and “True…present”)