All entries for January 2011

January 18, 2011

Wind from the Sahara? Tragic declines on both shores of the Med

Tunisia and Sicily are less than 100 miles apart, and the Italian islands of Pantelleria and Lampedusa are even nearer the Tunisian shores. As a child in Sicily, I remember that when the wind blew from the South, pink sand would accumulate at my granny's windows: not from the beach, but from the Sahara. Today, Tunisians make a large part of the Sicilian workforce in jobs Italians don't want to do anymore, starting from fishing; while Italians make the lion's share of tourists in Tunisia. The former prime minister Bettino Craxi, Italy's "strong man" in the illusory economic boom of the 1980s (when Italy seemed to overtake Britain as 5th world's economy), died in exile in Tunisia after having been overthrown by the corruption scandals of the early 1990s.

Over the last few days we have seen parallel developments on both shores of the Sicily channels. Two old corrupt rulers in a tragic decline reaching their tragic end. Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali had been in power for 23 years. I have never been to Tunisia myself but I met scores of Tunisians in Italy and France, and I was intrigued by the fact that all, whether students or just waiters of fishermen, expressed a total despise for Ben Ali: this was for me intriguing, because the other leaders of North Africa (Bouteflika, Ghaddafi, Mubarak, and to a lesser extent even Mohammed VI, who at least is handsome), while no more democractic than Ben Ali, had at least managed to develop some reverence in a part of the population. Ben Ali's regime was just based, apparently, on corruption and police control. And foreign support: France, USA, Italy. Now, we have witnessed the first revolution ever against an Arab government. The demography and economic crisis of Tunisia is not much different from that of Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan: the trembling may propagate very easily, exactly at the time when in another Arab country, Lebanon, major rehearsals of civil strife are being prepared.

One detail may explain why this first revolution has taken place right now. Over the last two years the migration controls across the Mediterranean have been tightened in a ruthless way (as shown in the documentary "South of Lampedusa"), displacing migration routes from Sicily to the Greek-Turkey border. Emigration was a major valve for discontent in North Africa: once this has been tightened up, it had to explode. Now, the Italian Right, which supported Ben Ali, is screaming at the danger of waves of refugees...

On the North side of the Channel there is an equally despised ruler, who however has managed to create a social-cultural supporting bloc. His troubles with under-age girls, to which we had sadly become used to, have reached new depths over the week-end with new revelations and allegations, and now the old dirty man is locked in his residence in the same way as Ben Ali was in his last days in Tunis last week. The Vatican is finding it more and more difficult to keep supporting him, and so the more international part of the otherwise provincial Italian bourgeoisie. He has been, on and off, in power for 17 years. A long time which will leave a mark, for instance in the 10% of the Italian surface which has been opened up to developers' speculation...

If you are not yet convinced of the similarities between Tunisia and Italy, look at this video (if you understand French or the Italian subtitles): Berlusconi, appearing at his personally-owned private Tunisian TV Nessma (watached in the whole Maghreb region) in the Summer 2009. The purest expression of mediatic power of the same person and his culture (football, women, jokes) on both sides of the Med. With one astonishing detail: while within Italy he pretends to be tough on immigration, to his Maghreb audience he claims to warmheartedly welcome all Tunisians who want to come to Italy and even promises to all of them jobs, houses, education and health care (the relevant point is at 3'59" of the second part). I wonder if Tunisians could be as stupid as the Italians who believe him.

Last year, African immigrants revolted against the mafia in Calabria, a job Italians very rarely do; now it is the Tunisians' round, to set the example by overthrowing their corrupt ruler. Can the wind from the South blow again?


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