Why did we never know how rotten Tunisia was?
Thanks to the west taking his side, President Ben Ali got away with his corrupt rule for 23 years
Be honest. Prior to last week's dramatic events, had you ever heard of President Ben Ali of Tunisia - or that he had ruled the country as a corrupt dictator for 23 years?
Tunisia stands at number 143 out of 179 countries when it comes to freedom of the press. It's a place, where, according to a 2008 Amnesty International report, human rights abuses by its security forces "continue unabated and are committed with impunity".
Yet if you've been living in the west, and getting your news from the mainstream media, you'll have been cheerfully oblivious to all the nasty, undemocratic things that were going on in the northernmost country in Africa, a country that many of us have visited for beach holidays in Hammamet and Jerba.
The lack of western media interest in Tunisia in recent years is in sharp contrast to the extensive coverage given to anti-democratic developments in other countries.
In Iran, every crackdown from the authorities on the opposition, seems to make front page news. In Belarus, the arrest of opposition figures following last month's presidential elections was widely reported, with the publication in the US and Britain of a plethora of articles reviving the old label of Belarus as "the last dictatorship in Europe".
So how come Iran and Belarus make the headlines, but not Tunisia?
The simple answer is that President Ben Ali's regime, unlike those in Tehran or Minsk, was pro-western, and was supported by both the US and major European nations, including France, the former colonial power. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the mainstream western media focuses on the democratic failings of regimes which don't do the west's bidding, while ignoring the often much greater abuses in countries that toe the western line.
Under Ben Ali (above, right, with Donald Rumsfeld), Tunisia co-operated in Washington's 'war on terror' and was praised by the neo-conservative Front Page magazine for waging "a continuous - and largely successful - battle against Islamic radicalism". Only recently, the US voted through another $12m in military aid to Tunisia; it's been calculated that Ben Ali's regime received $631m in US military aid between 1987 and 2009.
Tunisia has also followed the 'right' economic policies, opening its economy to western capital, with Ben Ali selling-off over 160 state-owned enterprises.
"As far as I know, western countries are backing the dictatorship in Tunisia and giving it financial and media support. Tunisia is being presented by the west as a model of a free society," declared Abdul-Raouf Ayadi, vice-president of the proscribed organisation Congress for Democracy, after the October 2009 presidential elections which saw Ben Ali re-elected for a fifth time, with almost 90 per cent of the vote.
Those elections, according to Human Rights Watch, saw "severe constraints on freedoms of expression, the press, and assembly" and the assault by plain-clothes policemen on Hamma Hamammi, official spokesperson of a banned opposition party, and his wife, at Tunis-Carthage airport.
Yet while moves against the opposition in Belarus have led to calls for tougher sanctions from the west, Tunisia faced no such threat. On the contrary: US State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said after the elections that America was committed to working with Ben Ali and his government. This was despite a cable in July 2009 from US Ambassador Robert Godec - we now know anout thanks to WikiLeaks - who described Tunisia as a "police state with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems" .
Now though, with the man who the US State Department was committed to working with having left the country, the west is having to change tack. President Obama has praised "the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people", and called on the Tunisian government "to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people." What a change from the position in October 2009!
What's clear is that last week's events in Tunisia caught many by surprise. The US was hoping that what happened in Tunisia would have happened in Belarus in December, or in Iran in June 2009. But rather unpleasantly, the first 'people power' revolution of 2011 has been the toppling of a pro-western regime.
The worry for Washington now is that similar popular uprisings will topple other corrupt pro-western regimes, such as the ones in Egypt and Jordan. President Obama may talk of his commitment to democracy, but the reality is that if there were genuinely 'free and fair elections' across the Middle East, the result would be the election of a host of radical, anti-western governments.
Up to now, pro-western dictators could rely on their human rights abuses and anti-democratic practices being largely ignored by the western media. But in the new digital age, things are changing fast. Some are already calling Tunisia's uprising the world's first WikiLeaks-inspired revolution.
President Ben Ali spent 23 years locking up opponents, fixing elections and accumulating a vast fortune for his family – and until last week he got away with it. But pro-western despots of the future will find staying out of the limelight - and staying in power - much more difficult. ·