Once upon a time there was a little country. It hadn’t always been a little country, but it had for the most part been an outlier in the larger scheme of things. It prided itself on being the ‘breadbasket of Rome’ but if the Punic wars had gone otherwise, Rome might have been the breadbasket of lovely Carthage instead. Oh well.
When I lived there, the humor in the little country was entirely self-deprecating and perpetuated the idea of smallness and the inability to aspire to anything much at all. My personal favorite being:
if the boat has two captains, all the crew will perish
Which was meant to be sure that the people understood the dangers of a two-party system. It could not be tolerated. Debate was inherently dangerous, and could break the back of a fragile little country like ours.
“Ahna kul kif kif,” people would say. “We are all the same.” Scratch the surface, and it wasn’t true at all, of course. Nevertheless, there came to be not debate but only whispers.
There was a benevolent ruler of the little country, after its mild revolution against the dominant forces of the north. He was proud, but conciliatory. And he wasn’t afraid to make mistakes.
One day, he didn’t read the fine print, and signed an edict stuck under his nose. Inadvertently, he had just given his country away to the neighbors on the east. Well, oops.
I mean, what do you do with a mistake like that? Run away to Saudi Arabia and hide your face and stash your floos? No, no, no. The wise benevolent ruler was filled with grace.
He got on national TV and announced to the people (and anyone else who might care enough to listen at the time — it was, remember a very little country):
“Somebody,” he said quietly and with no hint of animosity,”somebody put this in front of me,” he said as he waved a piece of paper in the air.
“I’m an old man,” he said, shaking his head sadly. “Someone took advantage of me and I made a mistake.” And he took the decree that gave the little country away to the neighbor, and he ripped it into pieces right there on TV.
Khalas. That was the end of that. Crisis averted. And what could the hungry ruler next door do? The deal was dead inside of a five minute broadcast. A Minister of the government was thrown into prison for a while, until his inevitable pardon.
It’s a sweet little country.
And that wasn’t the only mistake the ruler had made. Consider this one:
Early in his rule, a great fasting holiday was approaching, right smack in the middle of harvest season. Our fair ruler feared that in its early days of independence, the fast might interfere with the economic development of his newly independent little state. He got on national television (clearly his vehicle of choice), and did something unheard of at the time (and perhaps it would be even more shocking today).
He ate something.
In the middle of a sacred fast.
And he gave an awe-inspiring speech citing holy scripture to back up his claim that now was the time for nation-building, and that down the road fasting would be de rigeur again.
There was a collective intake of breath.
Some ate. Most didn’t. Work slowed down, but it didn’t stop or falter. The point had been made. Our president of the republic did not try it again.
The point is — he tried. There was a lot at stake. And he made mistakes. Big ones. And he survived them — and so did the little country. For the most part, the people went along their merry way, in relative peace and relative obscurity. They ran off to the rich neighbor to work, when they could. ‘Bassebor de la lune‘ they called it, as they snuck across the border at night. Passport of the Moon. Or they managed to get papers and run off across the sea to work in the northlands. There was a large middle class, and an even larger rural sector.
There still were plenty of gourbis — mud huts with straw roofs, and strings of bright red chili peppers hanging from the modest roof beside the doorless door. Courtyards were filled with women brewing tough as nails mint tea, so strong and sweet that you could stand a spoon in the tiny glass and have it stand erect from all the buzz. Miniscule blue enamel teapots sat in little earthen firebowls in each courtyard, filled with sweet smelling mesquite coals burning hotly. A kanoun, they called it, and the kanoun would be used in the winter to warm the beds, and dry the clothes; to ‘bake’ bread, and most of all to brew the national brew of mint and gunpowder tea.
As I said, it was a modest little country, with modest little aspirations.
After some decades of national decreasing expectations and increasing self-deprecation, the father of his country still held onto power, did not hold elections and did not step down — until, with ultimate humility and low key style, his prime minister took the reigns out of his hands and took over as ruler. But he forgot to steal the charisma that had so long held the little country together. More decades passed. The country slipped further into the backwaters of international reckoning, where it lay underestimated by all.
And then one day, a young man recognized his aspirations had been crushed. The population of the little country had exploded exponentially while no one was paying attention, and chomage had become not just the national past time, but the primary national vocation.
Hittistes — from the word hayit, or wall, that’s what they were called. Though this was a word used more by the neighbors to the west, who had more hittistes standing around with nothing to do. Wall leaning was an escalation from what the previous generations had done — which was to sit in cafes nursing tiny glasses of killer tea, with at least the pretense of doing something moderately productive maybe.
And that one day, that young man — set himself afire, and took more than North Africa with him. And he was no hittiste — he was trying to eke out an occupation, albeit way below his level of aspiration. Time to face the music.
Mohamed Bouazizi from the town of Sidi Bouzid, had had enough, perceived no future, perceived that there was nowhere left to go.
And his moment of private frustration sparked the flame, quite literally, of the youth across North Africa. The youth and citizenry across the Middle East, and beyond, a bit, as well. Business as usual will not continue as business as usual.
Or maybe it will. Tunisia has had only two presidents. Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Do we say a kaddish for the benign neglect of presidents-for-life as we say a kaddish for Mohamed Bouazizi? Do we dare to think that the pattern of governance will change, and not just the face of the ruler on the side of buildings? Can Tunisia pave a path to a different kind of rule.
I’ve always said no, it couldn’t happen. Relying on the eternal wisdom of Ibn Khaldun, I’ve maintained that the ‘oscillation of elites’ is the political system on the Middle East and North Africa — not an aberration of it. This is the way governments transition. They don’t need elections or two party systems. They don’t need democracy, or what we call democracy. That the circulation of elites is as valid as any other way of ruling territory and its people.
But when I look at Tunisia and Egypt today, and even Yemen, maybe more—I think the time has come at last, to say that I’m not sure.