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Juan Cole: Tunisia Uprising “Spearheaded by Labor Movements, by Internet Activists, by Rural Workers; It’s a Populist Revolution”

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In the wake of the ouster of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, we speak with University of Michigan History Professor Juan Cole. “This is the first popular revolution since 1979,” Cole says. “This revolution so far has been spearheaded by labor movements, by internet activists, by rural workers. It’s a populist revolution, and not particularly dominated in any way by Islamic themes, it seems to be a largely secular development.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re spending the hour on the revolution that is unfolding right now in Tunisia. The latest news is that three members of the national unity government representing the protests in the streets have just pulled out of that unity government. We’re going first to Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan. His blog is “Informed Comment” online at His most recent book, Engaging the Muslim World. And then we’ll be joined by Anthony Shadid, based in Beirut, also in Baghdad, but now in Beirut.

Juan Cole, this latest news and the significance of this revolution?

JUAN COLE: Well, this is the first popular revolution since 1979. But it’s distinctive in that the Iranian Revolution in 1979 was ultimately taken over by the ayatollahs, by a clerical elite, and so it didn’t develop in a democratic direction, whereas this revolution so far has been spearheaded by labor movements, by internet activists, by rural workers. It’s a populist revolution, and not particularly dominated in any way by Islamic themes, it seems to be a largely secular development. And it’s occurring in a Sunni and an Arab country, unlike Iran, which is Persian and Shiite. And it’s occurring in a country that has many similarities to other countries living under authoritarian regimes with limited employment opportunities and a kind of long-term economic stagnation. So, it’s something that other Arab countries might well look to — the publics, at least — for inspiration.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the coverage? As I raced through my TV dial this weekend, trying to find coverage, it was extremely difficult to find coverage of the revolution in Tunisia.

JUAN COLE: Oh, the U.S. 24-hour cable news networks fell down on the job with regard to Tunisia. Ben Wedeman, a veteran reporter at CNN, made heroic efforts, did get to Tunis. I don’t get a sense that his dispatches were put through by his editors back in Atlanta. And mostly, you couldn’t find out what was going on in Tunisia from television, from American mass media. You had to be on the internet. There’s a Twitter channel, “SidiBouzid,” which is excellent. There are Facebook formats. The French press, if one knows — if you can read French, was much better. But the American corporate news just blew off this story. They’re not interested in it. They don’t seem to think it’s important. Or maybe they’re a little bit afraid of it, because it is, after all, a revolution made by workers, and American corporate media are a little nervous about things like that.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole, what if it was an Islamist revolution?

JUAN COLE: Well, had this been a revolution led by the Muslim party, the Ennahda, by the longtime opposition leader Rashid Ghannoushi, then I’m quite sure that it would have been 24/7 coverage. It would have knocked off of the news many of the fluff stories that dominated it. But since it was a labor revolution and an internet activist revolution, it wasn’t seen as connected in any way to the master narrative of American foreign policy, which is now the — still the war on terror, even though they don’t call it that.

AMY GOODMAN: And Al Jazeera’s coverage of this, Juan Cole? Very hard to get Al Jazeera on television, terrestrial television, in the United States, of course. I think Toledo and Burlington, Vermont are the only places that you can get it on cable channels here.

JUAN COLE: Yeah, and Dearborn, I think, has it. But — and the Washington, D.C. area, you can get it on the Verizon network. But the Al Jazeera English is difficult to get. For some strange reason, it’s not available on DISH satellite, which does run other foreign channels. And the Arabic, actually, is available much more widely, because it is carried on DISH. Al Jazeera did an excellent job of covering the events, although it should be noted that many Tunisians were miffed at Al Jazeera, because they felt that they gave too much air time to the Muslim activists, who were not representative of this movement, and that Al Jazeera kind of has a little bit of a bias towards the Islamic movements.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the effects on the whole region, as you are monitoring coverage and reaction around the world? And particularly Saudi Arabia — does the regime there, the autocratic regime that has been in power for decades, have something to worry about?

JUAN COLE: Well, I think all the regimes in the Arab world are very nervous about this development. It is something new. I did survey the reactions. You know, interestingly, the deputy prime minister of Israel expressed concern, lest this spread and maybe regimes come to power, more democratic, but more hostile to Israel, in places like Jordan and Egypt. Libya, interestingly enough, the longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who started as a revolutionary himself, condemned the Tunisian people as immature and impatient, who said, just — “You should have just waited Ben Ali out. Why would you be so eager to have a new president?” And he sounded like an old fuddy-duddy and really did himself no favors, I think. And, of course, he was mainly speaking to his own people, pleading for their patience. And other countries were much more circumspect.

The Arabs of Kirkuk in Iraq, who are now increasingly under Kurdish domination, threatened to make a Tunisian-style uprising if they didn’t get their rights. So, oppressed people, people in Gaza joined in demonstrations in solidarity. Oppressed groups throughout the region were delighted. Status quo powers, whether they, you know, are old revolutionaries like Gaddafi or status quo powers like Israel, were very nervous about this.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, Ben Ali has taken refuge in Saudi Arabia. And if you heard Fares Mabrouk, they are calling for him to be extradited back to Tunisia to be tried.

JUAN COLE: Well, Saudi Arabia has long served as a kind of asylum or refuge for deposed politicians. Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan went there when he was overthrown by Pervez Musharraf. Idi Amin went there. This is nothing new.

One thing to keep in mind is that Tunisia is not an oil state. And it suffered from a kind of nepotism that was extreme. I mean, the U.S. leaked cables from WikiLeaks suggest that 50 percent of the economic elite of that country was related in one way or another to the president or to the first lady, Leila Ben Ali, and her Trabelsi clan. So, the combination of not having any extra resources to bribe people and buy them off and also of monopolizing the country’s economic resources in the hands of a few relatives was unique to Tunisia. I mean, there are similar situations, but the Tunisians took it to an extreme —

AMY GOODMAN: Yet, you say this is not —

JUAN COLE: — the Tunisian regime did.

AMY GOODMAN: You say this is not a WikiLeaks revolution, but a hunger revolution.

JUAN COLE: Well, it’s a revolution — you know, all revolutions are multiple revolutions happening at the same time. So there’s a strong element of economic protest. There’s a class element. Twenty percent of college graduates are unemployed. There’s extreme poverty in the rural areas. And the regime was doing things that interfered with economic development. They would use the banks to give out loans to their cronies, and then the cronies wouldn’t pay back the banks, so they were undermining the financial system. And that made it — and the extremeness of the dictatorship, the demands constantly for bribes, discouraged foreign investment. So the regime was all about itself. It was doing things that were counterproductive. And it injured the interests of many social groups — the college-educated, the workers. Now, the three ministers that pulled back out of the national unity government today were from the General Union of Tunisian Workers, which is an old, longstanding labor organization. So, it was a mass movement; it included people from all kinds of backgrounds.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole, we’re also joined by Anthony Shadid from Beirut, the foreign correspondent for the New York Times, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting.

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Next story from this daily show

Anthony Shadid in Beirut: Tunisia Has “Electrified People Across the Arab World”

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