Published in the Gaurdian.
In the 1970s, the young Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was the most impatient exponent of Arab unity. In 1973, he flew to Tunisia in order to convince his next-door neighbour to form a union with Libya. What happened during that summit says a lot about why Tunisia is the first Arab nation to overthrow a dictator through peaceful mass protest.
The first president of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, 70 years old by then, sat at a simple table with a microphone in front of him and a small glass of water to one side. He wore a French suit, his grey hair was slicked back, and he had on a pair of square dark glasses. He looked like Jorge Luis Borges. But, unlike the Argentinian author, Bourguiba wasn’t a gifted orator. As a public speaker, the Sorbonne graduate lacked tact and was given to excitement. “What is the point of uniting 1.5 million Libyans with 5 million Tunisians?” he asked, mockingly.
It became clear, as Bourguiba went on, that he had two objectives in mind: to deflate and mildly humiliate the young Nasserist Libyan, and to outline his vision of the Arab world. Bourguiba’s thesis was as simple as it was poignant: for the Arab people to build secure states and societies, they ought to concern themselves not with Arab unity, but with education and development.
Sadly, his first motive reduced the credibility of his second. He stated his opinion, that Tunisia was socially and politically superior to its north African neighbour, with enthusiasm and, one couldn’t help but detect, delight. As the Tunisian crowd cheered, the Libyan leader sat to one side looking unimpressed.
Gaddafi was only 31. He had all the confidence and swagger of a young man at the height of his powers. He sat in his military uniform, his shaven chin pointing up. Every now and then he would laugh or yawn theatrically.There was little doubt as to what Gaddafi made of the older man’s remarks.
As there was little doubt, among Arab observers and commentators, that Bourguiba, the seasoned politician, knew perfectly well what he was doing – that this was the best way to offend his hot-blooded guest. This fact, as well as the Tunisian’s lack of enthusiasm for Arab unity, served to distract many Arabs from the valuable and pertinent recommendations the Tunisian president was offering.
This was a heady time. The bitter taste of 1967 was still in the mouth. Every Arab state had a European ex-colonial power breathing down its neck. Yet winning independence was within living memory, and confidence was still high. In the middle of it all there were these two north African men, born more than 30 years apart, both dictatorial, both with prisons full of dissidents, both with egos the size of their two countries combined, and each pointing towards a different path. Bourguiba favoured institutions and a robust bureaucracy, while Gaddafi distrusted institutions and sought to dismantle every union and club.
One of the main reasons Tunisians were able to rid themselves of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali – who was bequeathed to them by Bourguiba – was less because of the claim, endlessly repeated in the western media, that Tunisia is more European in its thinking than its neighbours, and more because of the extent to which Tunisian civil society and state bureaucracy have been allowed to develop since independence.
We Libyans are just as hungry for a just and accountable government as our Tunisian brothers and sisters. The lack of resilient institutions will make our task more difficult. However, a worried Gaddafi was the first Arab leader to give an address on television about the events in Tunisia. He obviously disapproves, but also hopes to quell the protests that have started in some Libyan towns and cities.
I am, by instinct, wary of revolutions. The gathering of the masses fills me with trepidation. But seeing the Tunisian crowds in Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the familiar street throbbing like a hot vein, was one of the most glorious things I have seen in all of my 40 years. From before I was born, we Arabs have been caught between two forces that, seemingly, cannot be defeated: our ruthless dictators, who oppress and humiliate us, and the cynical western powers, who would rather see us ruled by criminals loyal to them than have democratically elected leaders accountable to us. We have been sliding towards the dark conclusion that we will forever remain trapped between these two beasts. The men and women of Tunisia took us back from the brink of that precipice.