January 27, 2011

Is Knowledge the Wrong Kind of Power? ~ Andrew Weston

A Lesson from Tunisia.

Photo Courtesy of Magharebia

In many ways, Tunisia is the most westernized country in North Africa. Boasting a large middle class, a relatively well-educated populace, liberal social and gender equality, and warm Mediterranean beaches, the country seems to have it all for a nation of its standing. However, things came to a halt this month for the government and its leader of 23 years, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled the country on January 14 after a wave of protests against him brought the highest degree of anti-government sentiment the country has seen since Mr. Ben Ali and his ruling party came to power.

Mr. Ben Ali and his government were quite wealthy. Living lavish lifestyles and attending well-decked parties with friends, Mr. Ben Ali was a man not afraid to live the good life in this largely economically sustainable country. Poverty rates here, however, are still quite high, as they are in much of north Africa, and the man who started the anti-government demonstrations a few weeks ago, himself a college educated street vendor, simply declared himself too abhorred by his own dismal future prospects with Tunisia’s poverty-stricken and burned himself to death in protest. What soon followed was a rash of violent street protests against the Tunisian government that finally led Mr. Ben Ali to flee the country on January 14, thus toppling the nation’s government.  In response, an interim government of unity was quickly set up, led by prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi. It promised to restore order and bring free elections as soon as possible. Mr. Ghannouchi quickly freed 1,800 long-term political prisoners and promised that many others would soon be freed as well under the new regime.

But in this short time frame, the new government has quickly proven to be unpopular, attracting complaints from many protesters that it is too exclusionary, and that, although it allows members from many parties, it specifically exempts members of the Tunisian Communist Party and many once-powerful Islamic groups from participating in it. The new government even jailed the owner of Tunisia’s largest and most popular private television station, stopping its broadcast, saying the owner’s affiliations were too “Communist.”

Photo Courtesy of Magharebi

But what of sociological fairness here? Tunisia is certainly not alone in having a political leader who is among the well-to-do. Many countries hold affluent leaders, and Tunisia, in many ways, was fortunate to have a leader who, although rich, was not afraid to lead a country with one of the highest educational and social welfare policies in all of Africa. Tunisia is also markedly different from many other countries in the region that suffer a period of major civil unrest, in that the discontent in Tunisia was not expressed under Islamic customs, but instead with a secular tone. The Tunisian revolt was not purported by political, religious extremists, but by working members of its government-benefited working class.

One theory we may pursue for determining the cause of the revolt in Tunisia is to argue that, far from being the cry of religiosos, the uprising was actually due exactly to the type of educational perks and opportunity the country has engendered since the rule of the country’s first post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba. Is it ironic that a college-educated person is the one who started the protests saying that in stark contrast to what his country provided, he in fact actually had no opportunity at all? Is it circular and fatalistic that the protests were carried out in the somewhat socioeconomically successful capital of Tunis, calling for even better wealth distribution and educational opportunities?  What is the satisfaction level of people in a country whose economy is albeit not as thriving as those in nearby Europe, but is nonetheless a successfully post-burgeoning one that decides it must oust the president and topple the government to believe they, the citizens, will even be heard?  Is what is in many ways one of the most successful governments in the region actually one of the most unfortunate and misaligned for its people?

Since the 1960’s and even before, it has been a widely held maxim in this country and elsewhere that knowledge is power, and understanding society is one of the keys to a successful working economy. Obviously a person requires education to succeed in society, and one of the goals of successful societies has been to make education available to more and more citizens to give them that chance to succeed in society themselves. Knowledge was seen as critical to advancement in society and unconditional to making one’s way peaceably in life as a whole. But here in Tunisia, we are faced with the very offspring of a success-driven economy bringing the system to its own ruin. The very people the government intended to and played a critical role in helping get on their feet turned violently against them.

Photo Courtesy of Magharebia

It’s easy to say that, given the current global recession, that frustrations among the poor have been higher worldwide, and that fuel for resentment has been present in rising rates of unemployment and inflation. But if these factors are indeed the case, why didn’t Tunisia’s uprising begin in rural outlays, where poverty rates and the number of uneducated are highest? Why did it start in a city with more opportunity and less religious extremism than virtually any of its neighbors? The answer has to be resentment. It is resentment of what was known to be a political system operating virtually to the letter within the confines of how one would realistically expect a bourgeoisie government to act. It doesn’t make sense that the educated masses were jealous of their own opportunities at climbing the rungs of society; they were jealous because they were smart enough and educated enough to know that the government simply had more. It wasn’t like the American Revolution, where revolt was to gain certain personal freedoms; it wasn’t like other regional revolts in Africa and the Middle East, where specific Islamic dogma was desired in the government. It was simply a case of the haves versus the have-mores.

An interesting point should be raised here. Can a society indeed get too smart for itself?  Is education in itself something that will teach us that someone will almost always be wealthier, and that we would have been better off born under a specifically different star?  Is societal Enlightenment the very thing that will turn society against itself? Is it too much to know that an independently wealthy ruler is someone who is just that—independently wealthy—and, although they may be guilty of some level of corruption, at least they give us the opportunity to make something of ourselves in life? Tunisia was, and still is, by and large a successful African nation, but something here pulled the plug. In America and Europe, reforms are generally brought by discontent at personal conditions and people wanting relief from that. But here in Tunisia, it almost seems like it was a degree of asking the government to do the impossible—to make opportunity where opportunity already existed and to reform, in an impossible way, that which did not largely need to be reformed.

Photo Courtesy of Magharebi

So at the end of the day we can take our coats, and we can take our hats, and we can bring the lunch Tupperware home to fill again for the next day. But the question remains. Do we want our streets to be safe? Do we want our government to have the ability to actually rule us and take the administrative roles in managing our society they normally do for our betterment? Or do we want to resentfully learn that this is too great a feat for them and that we must, in our civilian way, be their equals, toppling them for being basically, too “big”. We as industrialists, in our quest for excellence, have learned that governments rule us, and we have learned that they are indeed elite; the ironic thing is that the dangerous part seems to be that fact exactly. If we are to succeed in a global economy, we need to be glad for what we have and know when it is time just to butt out, and live and let live. If Tunisia had known these simple facts beforehand, I think they would have saved themselves, and the world, a heck of a lot of grief.

Andrew Weston founded and was the executive director of The Conservation Trust for five years.  His first novel, “This Bluer Reality”, should be published soon, and he is working hard on his second, “The Home Fire”, as we speak. Find him on Twitter @AndrewRWeston

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