There’s been a lot happening in the last few days, but even even at the best of times it’s unlikely that the media would have told us much about Tunisia — where, according to the BBC, anti-government protests have escalated, with schools and universities closed and at least fourteen people killed over the weekend. Should we care?

First some background, for those who may know the country only as a film set for Star Wars. A French protectorate from the late nineteenth century, Tunisia has been an independent republic since 1957. In that time it has had only two presidents: Habib Bourguiba, who led the independence movement, and incumbent Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who replaced Bourguiba in a coup in 1987.

Elections are held and opposition parties nominally exist, but no real criticism of the regime is tolerated. Reporters Without Borders ranks Tunisia a miserable 164th out of 178 in its index of press freedom. As Adam Carr puts it, “Although [Ben Ali] has constructed an elaborate façade of constitutional reform and parliamentary government, in practice he rules as a dictator.”

This is important because it is all too common, especially in the middle east. Western policy helps to prop up dictators who are seen as “moderate”, “secular”, or friendly to foreign investment and/or American foreign policy. Human rights and civil liberties are treated as optional extras, and democracy in particular is often seen as an actual threat.

In the short term, the policy sometimes works. Tunisia is reasonably prosperous and, by the standards of the region, probably not such a bad place to live. According to Wikipedia it is the only Arab country to have outlawed polygamy. It is also good for business; the World Economic Forum last year rated it the best African country for competitiveness.

But supporting autocracy builds up dreadful trouble for the future.

Bread and circuses do not keep people quiet indefinitely, and silencing legitimate outlets for popular discontent just ensures that the explosion when it comes will be all the more destructive. That’s the lesson that should already have been drawn from American support for such dictators as Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

Although western policy is supposed to be directed against Islamic extremism, it regularly seems to have the opposite effect, because it undermines moderate oppositions and allows the “Islamists” to appear as the only defenders of clean and honest government. When change can only be achieved by violence, it’s no surprise if the most radical emerge on top.

Tunisia’s current wave of protests started before Christmas – initially over economic conditions, but apparently spreading into broader grievances against the regime. They have been met by lethal force, but it has not yet succeeded in restoring order. Ben Ali, not surprisingly, blamed “an extremist minority” that “has been misleading the young”.

So far, pretty much according to the script for many a threatened authoritarian. But when Iran’s population, for example, rose in similar anger against their government after rigged elections in 2009, western politicians cheered them on and our media gave them blanket coverage.

Barack Obama was even attacked by the right for seeming insufficiently enthusiastic in his support.

On Tunisia, however, nothing. Those critics should be asked what they think about the recent protests: do they really believe democracy is for everyone, or is it just a convenient stick with which to beat one’s opponents?

Peter Fray

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