The struggle for dignity – Comparing Georgian and Tunisian democracies

I recently had the pleasure to visit the Republic of Georgia. On top of escaping the stifling summer heat for the cool mountains, I was able to talk to a number of Georgians about their country’s  steps down the road of democracy. It was impossible not to compare these thoughts with those that I hear on a daily basis here in Tunisia.

Some background on Georgia:

The Republic of Georgia gained independence from Russia with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. What followed was a period of chaos and civil war that culminated in the election of Eduard Shevardnadze in 1995. A former Soviet statesman and Communist party leader, Shevardnadze led many reforms in Georgia, including a campaign of Westernization and the signing of the Azerbaijan – Black Sea pipeline deal that frustrated already strained relations with Russia. Despite these achievements, his rule was marred by rampant corruption and rent-seeking by senior officials, and his own family. Following flawed elections in 2003, Shevardnadze was forced to resign due to large protests in what became to be known as the Rose Revolution.

In 2004, Mikhael Saakashvili, the leader of the opposition, was elected and embarked on a campaign to root out corruption, while maintaining a staunchly Western-oriented foreign policy (including a disastrous war with Russia in 2008). Saakashvili is credited with jump-starting the economy, but his rule has concerned many as becoming too authoritarian.

During my visit to Georgia, I asked anyone who would talk to me about their thoughts about the country. While many people I spoke to voiced serious concerns about the president, there was no doubt about the country’s commitment to democracy. I asked one person, who had just rattled off a litany of things that were wrong about the country (the security service was too strong and needed reform, the state controlled media was biased, etc), whether the country was really democratic. His response surprised me, “of course it is, it’s just that sometimes democracy needs to be shaken up from time to time.”

In Tunisia, the mood is gloomy. A recent poll indicated that Tunisians are more and more frustrated with the political process and are uncertain about the future of the country. This echoes what one often hears on the street, that the politicians cannot be trusted, that the elections will not bring real change – in essence – that the revolution of January 14 has been highjacked.

It is always dangerous making comparisons between countries with different circumstances, people, and cultures. Even across the countries of the Middle East and the Maghreb it is difficult for analysts to compare countries that have thrown off the shackles of their dictators. It is interesting though that the root causes in Georgia as in the Arab world remain remarkably similar – the search for dignity and opportunity as opposed to corruption, where honest work does not bring greater freedom or justice. Georgians struggled through 12 years of mismanagement and corruption following independence before they found their voice. When they overturned their leadership, they did so prior to Twitter and Facebook and YouTube, but the reasons were the same, just as they had been following the fall of the Berlin Wall. While means change, human nature remains remarkably similar. What lessons have Georgians learned from their revolutions, coups, colonialism and unstable neighbors (all present in Tunisia in the last 100 years as well)? As one Georgian told me, Georgians are more vigilant than before they do not take anything for granted.

The upcoming elections are an opportunity for Tunisians to show that their commitment to voicing their opinions will not be a once in a lifetime protest movement, but rather, the beginning of a long and constant struggle to create the republic they deserve.

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Mythologizing the Tunisian Revolution

The French have the Bastille, the Americans have the Boston Tea Party, the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace. The Arab Spring, and Tunisia in particular, have Mohammed Bouazizi’s humiliation, self immolation, and the subsequent people’s revolt.

The famous revolutions in France, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were based on an idealized version of events and their implications – and so too, it seems, the Tunisian revolution.

In a recent article (in French) in the French daily Liberation, Christophe Ayad, suggests that it is highly likely that the humiliation of Bouazizi was an exaggeration of events to help inspire other Tunisians. In particular, one of the key elements of Bouazizi’s story is that as he was peacefully selling fruits when he was approached by a female police officer. Lacking a permit for his stand, the police officer overturned his cart and slapped him.

Ayad writes that the police officer incarnated the entire system that so many Tunisians fought against, especially in the restive center of the country, where gainful employment remains out of reach, especially for young men. His humiliation came not just from being slapped, but from being slapped by the pitiless autocracy – embodied by a woman – of all things.

And yet, after the revolution as the officer was put on trial, the case fell apart. Two eyewitnesses recanted, another had such a grudge against the police his testimony was deemed inadmissible. Ayad spoke with a local union official in Bouazizi’s hometown of Sidi Bouzid, who described the actions taken against the regime long before anyone knew the name Bouazizi. And…..he admitted to inventing the whole story about the police officer, a ruse to get public support behind the unions movements.

In Sidi Bouzid, Ayad reports, the Bouazizi name is not the one of heroes. His family has moved to La Marsa on the northern coast. But across Tunisia and the Arab world, he remains an inspiration. Obama’s recent speech on the Arab World mentioned him by name. And the slap itself was profiled on 60 Minutes back in February.

History likes heroes and a good narrative. Bouazizi, whatever the story may be, fits our expectations of revolution and struggle against oppression. My guess is that the slap is here to stay.