An interim government in Tunisia is still functioning, but barely. Weeks of protests lead to the ouster last week of Tunisia’s long time ruler, ben Ali, In recent days unrest has continued as protesters demand that no members of the former regime be allowed to remain in the government. The dramatic upheaval in Tunisia, which seemed to have come as a surprise to most of the rest of the world, is being watched especially closely by Arab leaders and activists in the region. join us to talk about what’s happening Tunisia and what it may mean for other Arab countries and the U.S.


  • Nadia Bilbassy Senior U.S. correspondent, MBC TV -- Middle East Broadcast Centre.
  • Noureddine Jebnoun Adjunct assistant professor, Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University
  • Richard Murphy Served as U.S. Ambassador to Syria, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia, and former Assistant Secretary of State for Near East and South Asian Affairs under President Reagan


  • 10:06:54

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Tunisia's interim president, Fouad Mebazza, has promised a complete break with the past. His pledge reflects an attempt to appease protesters who continue to demand that all members of the former government be stripped of power. Joining me to talk about the uprising in Tunisia and why it's being so closely watched by Arab leaders elsewhere, Nadia Bilbassy of MBC TV -- that's Middle East Broadcast Centre -- Noureddine Jebnoun, he's adjunct assistant professor at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.

  • 10:07:48

    MS. DIANE REHMJoining us from a studio at NPR in New York, Richard Murphy, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Syria, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia. Of course, we welcome your comments, your questions. Join us on 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to Feel free to join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning, Nadia.

  • 10:08:28

    MS. NADIA BILBASSYGood morning, Diane.

  • 10:08:29

    REHMAnd good morning to you, Noureddine.

  • 10:08:31

    MR. NOUREDDINE JEBNOUNGood morning, Diane.

  • 10:08:32

    REHMAmb. Murphy, it's always good to have you with us.

  • 10:08:36

    AMB. RICHARD MURPHYGreat pleasure to be with you.

  • 10:08:38

    REHMNoureddine, give us some of the background. What led up to this uprising?

  • 10:08:46

    JEBNOUNSo, last Dec. 17, disturbance erupted in Tunisia after Mohamed Bouazizi, a young, unemployed graduate, who was going down to sell, like, fruit and vegetables on the street, immolated himself in protest after authorities has -- had beaten him -- and beaten him or prevent him to work. Then his act crystallized and ignited, like, the Tunisians feeling of humiliation and lack of justice to which they had been subjected for more than 23 years. And then...

  • 10:09:28

    REHMWhy was he singled out?

  • 10:09:32

    JEBNOUNHe's singled out because he was a symbol. He was -- you have thousand and thousand of Ali Buoazizi in Tunisia, graduated from universities but unemployed. And the system is very corrupt, based on nepotism, based on favoritism, clientelism -- all those element pushed, like, the young people to revolt, to rebel against Ben Ali's regime.

  • 10:09:58

    REHMAnd how did they initially erupt?

  • 10:10:03

    JEBNOUNAs I said, it started by Sidi Bouzid -- which is a city in the south of Tunis capital, which is, I think, 140 miles from Tunis -- and then spread through the whole country from the south to the north and from the east to the west.

  • 10:10:23

    REHMNoureddine Jebnoun, he's at Georgetown University. Nadia Bilbassy, can you give us an update on the situation in Tunisia as of this morning?

  • 10:10:37

    BILBASSYSure, Diane. We have, so far, five ministers from the ruling or salvation government -- temporary government -- resigned. And the opposition, and the mass demonstration in the streets, demanding that nothing -- nobody from the previous government should serve now. And, therefore, they're the one who are calling the shot in the streets and saying basically that we have nothing to do. We toppled a dictator, but we have not toppled the dictatorship. We want to make sure that nobody is going to serve. We want to make sure that opposition leaders are allowed to come back from exile, whether it's in London or in Paris. We have people inside, mobilizing mass demonstrations on every Tunisian city.

  • 10:11:14

    BILBASSYAnd, therefore, for the time being, this government is supposed to self -- temporarily and in 60 days, they're supposed to have election.

  • 10:11:23

    REHMWhat role did the police and the military play in the austere of the government of Ben Ali?

  • 10:11:30

    BILBASSYThis is a very interesting point, Diane. First of all, this is a new phenomenon we have not seen in the Middle East. Number one, the army stayed neutral, and we have not seen the army playing that role before. In fact, the army was seen as supporting the people, and this is -- we have seen probably in other revolution, the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine and in Eastern Europe. Even some people were seen posing for photographs with the army. They went to the army for protection from the police. The police are the bad guys who represented the regime.

  • 10:11:57

    BILBASSYThey're the one who opened fire when people initially demonstrated in the street, leading to the killing of about 100 people. But the army seems neutral. There is also talk that -- actually, the army initiated the sphere with telling bin Laden that his regime is about to crumble, and they led him leaving the country. We don't know if this is true or not. But at least we know, for the first time ever, that the army stood on the side of the people, and that might not be the case in the rest of the Arab world.

  • 10:12:23

    REHMNadia Bilbassy of MBC TV. And turning to you, Amb. Murphy, you say that while the U.S. might applaud this move toward democracy, we're in something of an uncomfortable situation. Describe what you mean.

  • 10:12:46

    MURPHYWell, we don't want to see chaos this -- which is a near possibility at this moment in time with the continued movement in the streets of the capital and the other centers in Tunisia. We need to work with the liberals, with the moderates and -- in the middle term up to the time of the elections that have been called -- to help set the stage that there is really a fair competition and that either the Islamists or the current ruling parties don't outmaneuver the moderates whom we would like to see succeed in the future of Tunisia.

  • 10:13:34

    REHMAnd what has our relationship been with the former ruler of Tunisia?

  • 10:13:44

    MURPHYCertainly, been close. I don't think our eyes have been closed. WikiLeaks reminds the public that our embassy in Tunis has been reporting on corruption and the -- I think the ambassador called -- titled one of his messages, "What's Yours is Mine," describing the ruling family. But in many other areas it has been a closed relationship then, I think, dominated, particularly, by a very firm support of the regime -- former regime against international terrorism and, particularly, al-Qaida in the Maghreb.

  • 10:14:28

    REHMRichard Murphy, he served as U.S. Ambassador to Syria, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia. He is former assistant Secretary of State for near east and South Asian affairs under President Reagan. Do feel free to join us, 800-433-8850. Noureddine, I know you want to add something.

  • 10:14:55

    JEBNOUNYeah, I don't -- I am not, you know -- I am not concerned about the so-called chaos. Take the case of Spain. Spain began its transition to democracy, but without any prior democratic experience. This is after Franco -- this is what's happening now in Tunisia. People try like to build the civil society, try, like, to say to the government, we are moving forward toward a genuine democratization. The chaos, the risk of chaos is from the militia and from the praetorian presidential guard left by the fallen president Ben Ali and who are now try to cross the country, going to Libya and to be, like, equipped by weapons from Gaddafi and to come back and to try to spread fear and uncertainty within the Tunisian society, just to say either Ben Ali or the vacuum either like the dictatorship or the chaos.

  • 10:15:57

    JEBNOUNThis is the real concern about the chaos is not -- the Tunisian people are really civilized. You know, the country is the first country that abolished slavery in 1848, the first Arab country had, like, a constitution in 1861 and the first Arab country that, like, you know, abolished polygamy in 1956. And this is the first country which fired its dictatorship in 2011.

  • 10:16:35

    BILBASSYLet me also add that Tunisia has one of the most educated population in the Arab world -- very high master degrees, PhDs. It's a secular society, very enlightened. If you saw the demonstration, Diane -- as I saw them in Arabic television of mass movement of people -- you'll see women uncovered, no veils. It's very rare to see this is in the Arab world. You'll see Che Guevara's posters replacing that of Hassan Nasrallah, which is -- this is something completely new. We haven't seen that before. So I think -- I agree that Tunisia is not out of the danger zone yet. But, I think, considering the history of the country, considering the important -- both opposition from the secular and Islamist party that eventually, they will lead it to success.

  • 10:17:19

    REHMWhat about the economic and political conditions that led up to this uprising?

  • 10:17:26

    BILBASSYWell, I mean, basically, if you look just at the regime and examine the amass -- the wealth that he'd amassed at the expense of the people, I mean, the -- now we're talking about the Swiss government freezing the assets of Ben Ali. We're talking about his wife, which is a very interesting character, and we should look at her, Leila Trabelsi, and her family. This woman came from a very humble background. She managed to climb her way up to the highest position, and they were talking about $5 billion been stolen from the coffers of the Tunisian people, basically, to help a lifestyle of luxury for the ruling family, basically.

  • 10:18:05

    REHMAnd do we know the actual rate of unemployment in Tunisia?

  • 10:18:11

    JEBNOUNI think the rate of unemployment amongst the youth is about 30 percent, you know, which is very high in Tunisia. And this is due to the -- as I said, the corruption. Corruption became an institution under Ben Ali.

  • 10:18:27

    REHMNoureddine Jebnoun, he is at Georgetown University. The phones are open. When we come back, we'll hear from many of you. Stay with us.

  • 10:20:04

    REHMJust before the break, Nadia Bilbassy, you were talking about the wife of the president. We've just had an e-mail from Bill in Cleveland, Ohio, who says, "Did the wife of Ben Ali, in fact, abscond with gold bars from the State Treasury, as has been mentioned in reports? And have the family's accounts now been frozen in France, as has also been speculated?"

  • 10:20:38

    BILBASSYWell, according to French sources, they're saying that she managed to take 1 1/2 tons of gold from the Central Bank. There's no way to verify that, but this is what they're saying. But they arrested 33 members of the Ben Ali-Trabelsi family, and they have -- it exposed today on television, precious gold and diamond and luxurious lifestyle of yachts and private jets, et cetera. In fact, she's been dubbed as the Imelda Marcos of the Middle East or the Marie Antoinette of France. I mean, this woman seems to have, like, no limit when it comes to greed. And it always amazes me in the Arab world. They're not happy with 1 million or 10 million or 3 million. They have to have 5 billions and 10 billions.

  • 10:21:17

    REHMNoureddine Jebnoun, you were born in...

  • 10:21:21


  • 10:21:21

    REHM...Tunisia. You have been there since you came here to this country in 2005. How did you see the population there? Some of this has come as a surprise to the world. Did it come as a surprise to you?

  • 10:21:42

    JEBNOUNIt was not a surprise to me. This remind me in 2005. I get, like, a kind of discussion with a friend, and I told him the next time he will be abandoned by the Army. I was professor of the War College at the National Defense University in Tunis, the Command and General Staff College, where I taught, like, strategy and geopolitics. And I know well the attitude of the military personnel toward this regime, so the population was impoverished by this regime. So we are talking about this Tunisian miracle, but Tunisian miracle is falling apart because you have almost, like, 20 percent of the population controlling more than 40, 45 percent of the richest in this country. So -- and the imbalance between development and investment between the cost and the countryside is very, very huge in Tunisia.

  • 10:22:47

    REHMAmb. Murphy, during this time of upheaval, what do you believe the position of the United States government can or will be?

  • 10:23:03

    MURPHYWe've long had the public position, rhetorical position, that -- well, I think George W. Bush expressed it very tersely, that stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. Now, we can all agree with that. We can applaud it. But the question is, how do you implement that? Fine, we can see the results of a lack of liberty, stagnation, resentment, violence. But we have, in these various countries, a number of interests. I mentioned, in regard to Tunisia, it was a very militant, anti-terrorism program of the Ben Ali government. We like that, and that certainly influenced the overall public tone of our relationship with Tunisia, as was the public tone in Europe, in France and other countries who have been closer, actually, to Tunisia than our own government.

  • 10:24:04

    MURPHYWe have to be tough-minded. We have interests around the area in -- of a strategic nation -- nature, military, economic. And yet, as Americans, we have to stand by our values. We are great preachers, and we know how other countries should behave in order to develop. But we've -- we're not always very adept at presenting our case to the leaders in other countries and to the public. So it's -- we'll have to work this one through.

  • 10:24:40

    REHMI must say, I think some people were taken aback by Secretary of State Clinton's comments the other day. When she spoke at the Forum for the Future, she said that, "Each country, of course, has its own distinct challenges, and each its own achievements. But in too many places, in too many ways, the region's foundations are sinking into the sand. The new and dynamic Middle East that I have seen needs firmer ground if it is to take root and grow everywhere." Do you believe that the U.S. can be instrumental as we see unrest, for example, Lebanon, with Hezbollah stepping out, that whole Parliament in question now, unrest in Turkey, Saudi Arabia? What more can the U.S. do, Mr. Ambassador?

  • 10:25:56

    MURPHYA lot, as she said, as Secretary Clinton said, will be colored by the situation in the individual countries. The president can lay out the broad parameters of our policies, and she certainly made a very strong statement there at the conference in the Gulf last week. The theme has been picked up by the -- an Arab summit, or summit of -- maybe it's foreign minister summit these last days, where the secretary general of the Arab Leagues spoke of -- that the Arab soul is broken by poverty, by unemployment and general recession. He didn't talk about the political repression, which was certainly a very clear characteristic of the situation in Tunisia that stimulated the blowup, starting in December.

  • 10:26:55

    MURPHYThey have trouble admitting that. Do -- can we talk directly and effectively about ending political repression? We can talk in general terms. We can encourage, and should be encouraging, civil societies, non-governmental organizations, to help those societies develop. We did learn, to our chagrin, that just calling for early elections is not always an answer, and that those who are better organized on the ground are almost certainly going to win, and they're not always groups which we find consonant with American interest.

  • 10:27:36


  • 10:27:36

    BILBASSYI think -- just to pick up on what Amb. Murphy said -- he's absolutely right. Just to look at the malaise that beleaguered all the Arab world, it's the same. It's poverty, unemployment, you know, political repression, lack of freedom, et cetera. But each country is different and unique. Tunisia might not have a great strategic interest to the United States. Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt does, and the problem with these regimes -- and maybe the grievances from the Arab people always toward successive American administrations -- they always supported dictatorship for the sake of stability at the expense of the people, for the fear that the Islamists will take power.

  • 10:28:11

    BILBASSYNow, the situation in Egypt is different because we know if there's election, the Muslim Brotherhood will win. It's the same for Jordan, the same in Saudi Arabia, probably even with elements of Salafis and link to al-Qaida. Tunisia is different, as I said, because of the secular nature of the country. But saying that, I think the writing is on the wall for the rest of the regimes. I mean, some of the most interesting reading I've seen that it's not going to be a domino effect. It's not going to be the Berlin Wall of the Arab world, but it's going to be something like the solidarity movement in the Gdansk in Poland, which basically started the whole revolt against the regimes. It took nine years for the Soviet Union to crumble at the time, and this is what's going to happen in the Arab world.

  • 10:28:49

    REHMDo you agree, Noureddine?

  • 10:28:50

    JEBNOUNYeah, it depends on the original context. The role that Libya will play may be by trying to sabotage inside the Tunisian society and to sound like, maybe, mercenaries, you know, to destabilize the country. The position of Algeria, if they will accept an emergent, you know, democracy in the country -- the other point that I would like to, you know -- to emphasize, people in Tunisia -- and I am in constant contact with people there. They are -- they were disappointed with the American position since, you know, this revolution came out and started because the United States didn't condemn directly the regime of Ben Ali when he unleashed his police and his snipers and started killing people.

  • 10:29:36

    JEBNOUNBut just Mrs. Clinton, she, you know, through statement, she said, like, we are concerned. Which concern has nothing to do with condemning the regime because the Americans, the French, the Brits, the German, you know, they consider, always, the dictator, Ben Ali for being, like, their friend. He's a tyrant friend because, you know, he's keeping a firm hand on all those Islamists. This is the issue. This is the issue.

  • 10:30:09

    REHMNow, here's an e-mail from Saeedu (sp?) in Cincinnati, Ohio. He says, "Being originally from Mauritania, which has a similar history of dictatorship, I am hoping that these events spread throughout the Maghreb. However, I am also concerned about the Islamist threat. What are the chances that al-Qaida will take over these countries if the populations revolt?" Noureddine.

  • 10:30:42

    JEBNOUNSo, I think, Islamism is a highly diversified and complex ideology. Islamism in Tunisia does not always equal radicalism. And that radicalism is not necessarily synonymous with terrorism. The Islamist movement is a general concept in the Arab world and in the Maghreb, including, like, (word?) of Islamic thought from Ardugan to Taliban, including Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, Sheikh Rashid Al-Ghannouchi, Abbassi Madani, Sheikh Yassin, you know, and others.

  • 10:31:12

    JEBNOUNSo we should understand that during the colonial period, this region overdosed -- you know, a traumatic Westernization. And Islamism manifests itself as a direct reaction of this phenomenon. Okay. What they would like to say -- and, here, I would like to paraphrase my friend, Jean-Francois Berger, who is a great political science -- he is French. And he said, you know, the Quran cannot explain Osama bin Laden any more than the Bible can explain the Irish Republican Army.

  • 10:31:48


  • 10:31:48

    BILBASSYLet me add something, also, that you asked, Diane, in the beginning. What generate the sympathy? The act that Bouazizi, the young, 26-year-old unemployed university graduate took. It wasn't a suicide bombing. He did not kill himself, and he did not kill civilians. He went and he burned himself alive, something new in the Arab world. You see this with the Buddhist monks in Asia and Vietnam, but not in the Arab world. All of a sudden, there are so many Bouazizis all over in Algeria, in Egypt, in Mauritania, as the caller just mentioned. So this has generated sympathy, because it wasn't just an opposition holding up a card to say, down with the regime.

  • 10:32:25


  • 10:32:25

    BILBASSYThis guy was willing to burn himself.

  • 10:32:27

    REHM...we are left with the question of whether al-Qaida could step in.

  • 10:32:33

    BILBASSYWell, that's my point. I think, because of the sympathy to this person, I don't think they can -- of course, they're always trying to exploit any political chaos. There is no doubt about this. But in Tunisia in particular, I think, as Noureddine just said, the Islamists are different even (word?) which was -- now, it's a new name for the Muslim brotherhood, was banned during Ben Ali. And now he's leader. Al-Ghannouchi, who has no relation to the prime minister, is returning. He's talking about an open Islam that embraced democracy and embraced all kind of pluralism in the Tunisian society. So it's different from Salafis and al-Qaida.

  • 10:33:04

    REHMNadia Bilbassy is senior U.S. correspondent for MBC TV. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to Sofyan (sp?) here in Washington, D.C. Good morning. You're on the air.

  • 10:33:29

    SOFYANHi. How are you doing?

  • 10:33:29

    REHMI'm fine. Thanks.

  • 10:33:31

    SOFYANHi. I just want to let you know I'm a U.S. Navy veteran, and my father is a Tunisian military veteran. We served in the same time in two different countries. One thing you need to know about Tunisia is, even if al-Qaida try to come tomorrow, I will guarantee you, 90 to 95 percent of the people that live there would actually topple them just like they toppled their dictator. I know what Tunisians are. Compromise their open society. They rely heavily on tourism. People speak three, four, five different languages. They are business-minded, or, you know, they are very educated. As a matter of fact, I believe they are the most educated in all the Arab and African countries per capita, so the notion that terrorism or al-Qaida -- and I worked in anti-terrorism -- will come to Tunisia is really a -- no. It's -- it will never happen and...

  • 10:34:26

    REHMNoureddine, do you agree?

  • 10:34:27

    JEBNOUNYeah, I agree. You know, al-Qaida is there before this revolution. And if you want to talk about al-Qaida, you should go back to what happened in Algeria in the '90s -- 1990, 1991. Those -- the annulment of those elections by the military junta and the coup d'etat, the military coup against, like, the democratic process, and then the infiltration by the intelligence -- Algerian Intelligence services of all those Islamist movement. And it seems like the al-Qaida justify the authoritarianism in North Africa and, especially, in Algeria and justify kind of close military and security cooperation between those regimes and the United States. So the equation is either us or the vacuum.

  • 10:35:17

    REHMHmm. All right. To Bristol, Tenn. Good morning, Norman.

  • 10:35:23

    NORMANGood morning. As a U.S. citizen, I'm actually embarrassed by the hypocrisy of some of our leaders here, that they are dictating to these other countries and pointing fingers with what we've seen happen in this country with the way the previous administration took us into these illegal wars. And the way Congress is fighting and grappling, it's -- to me, it's just -- it's disgusting.

  • 10:35:49

    REHMAmb. Murphy.

  • 10:35:53

    MURPHYDiane, I'd like to say that I certainly hope -- and I defer to Prof. Jebnoun, given his background, his experience in Tunisia. I certainly hope that what we are seeing is a new political class, the youths who do not favor either a secular tyranny or Islamic radicalism. I think that's a great -- that would be a great development. And I do think we have been, as a nation, too ready to blur the distinctions between Islamism, terrorism, Islamic radicalism. I think we have to be more careful in our analysis and our public political pronouncements about the movements that we really do oppose, such as al-Qaida.

  • 10:36:44

    JEBNOUNYou know, I talked to the youth those recent days. And what they told me, openly, we want to escape from those -- from this face-to-face with France, with this Francophonie. And we'd like the United States to help us, to open, like, the country to us to come here to study, to make the English, like them, the language of business, the main language in the country instead of France. Because, what France did, what the French government did -- it's a mis-assessment of the situation. Until the last minute, they want even to send to us their police, their sheriffs to oppress -- to back Ben Ali and to oppress, like -- to oppress the people in Tunisia. And Tunisian people, they said we would like to be more close to the United States and to have a good relation with the United States and to come to the universities here. This is what the youth want.

  • 10:37:37

    REHMNoureddine Jebnoun, he is at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.

  • 10:40:02

    REHMAnd welcome back. We have callers on the line from Columbia, Miss., Alexandria, Va., Fort Worth, Texas. We'll try to get to as many as we can. Let's go to Columbia, Miss. and to Alena. You're on the air.

  • 10:40:22

    ALENAYes. Diane, I listen to you every day.

  • 10:40:26

    REHMThank you.

  • 10:40:26

    ALENAThank you very much for the outstanding programs you have.

  • 10:40:31

    REHMThank you.

  • 10:40:32

    ALENAI would like to congratulate the lady journalist, which she's telling you the fact about the Tunisian people. And I like to congratulate the Tunisians for the outstanding effort to get rid of this thief dictator. Congratulations to Tunisian brothers. Don't kill each other. Bring this man to the justice. Call the ICC to bring him back and try him right there.

  • 10:41:16

    REHMThank you so much for your call, Alena. Noureddine Jebnoun this was truly, in a larger sense, a revolutionary revolution...

  • 10:41:31

    JEBNOUNMm hmm.

  • 10:41:31

    REHM...because it came from the people, by the people.

  • 10:41:35

    JEBNOUNBy the people, yeah. So it comes -- it came from the people, by the people and, hopefully, will be for the people. In this case, the army played a very important role, the neutrality of the army in Tunisia. The Tunisian Army has its idiosyncrasies in comparison to the other armies in the Arab region. It's very republican army. It's a small army, 45,000 soldier. Very professional, efficient, operational, efficacious. In comparison with what Ben Ali, like, you know, left was, it's almost 180,000 policemen. It's sclerotic, and the large security apparatus is infiltrated by militias.

  • 10:42:25

    JEBNOUNAnd the army is -- took the side of the people and said that the fallen president will not shot -- will not fire on the people. And he mentioned the chief of staff. The president gave him the choice to resign or to fire, and he choose to resign. This is very important, never happened in the Third World, including Latin America or Africa or the Arab world. This is the first time and...

  • 10:42:54

    REHMThere is another factor, which is modern technology, the fact that WikiLeaks, social media played an important role here. Nadia.

  • 10:43:08

    BILBASSYAbsolutely, Diane. And this just say that this revolution has been dubbed as the Jasmine Revolution. We didn't mention that. This is -- will add to the Velvet to the Rose, to the Orange revolutions that toppled communism in Eastern Europe. So I was saying to you that there are so many factors, actually, why this is successful. First, it didn't even come on the bank of American tank like we have seen in the toppling of Saddam Hussein, another dictator in the Middle East, at the expense of hundred thousands of people dead and a war that cost so much money and life, et cetera. It started with the people, as you said. It's a massive movement. Social media has played a vital role.

  • 10:43:42

    BILBASSYMy Facebook was flooded with messages demanding the release of political prisoners, saying down with the dictator. Now, the traditional Arab media cannot maybe been relied upon to tell the Arab people what's happening. So people resorted to other means, which is Twitters, Facebook, text messages to organize masses of people in the streets, and I think this is very important. And because of WikiLeaks has confirmed everything that we knew about the corruption within the Ben Ali family, it give people another dimension to say maybe this is a new first WikiLeak revolution.

  • 10:44:17

    REHMAnd to Amb. Murphy, here is a question from Antoine who says, "Are there lessons from the Iranian Revolution in 1979 where the middle class switched sides for the situation in Tunisia? Or is it more like the peaceful evolution in Spain or Korea?" Amb. Murphy.

  • 10:44:44

    MURPHYI would say it's closer to the Spanish...

  • 10:44:47

    REHMHmm. Hmm.

  • 10:44:48

    MURPHY...situation. You know, there is great excitement now -- uneasiness, obviously -- in the part of some of the other regimes in the area and a number of commentators talking about Gdansk and the Berlin Wall. Authoritarianism has been broken through. But, you know, a lot is going to depend on how clever some of these other regimes are in preserving themselves. Are they going to listen to opinions such as Secretary Clinton expressed? Or is that going to be too painful? Now, some of them may get hold of the idea that it's time to open up politically, to listen to their people and take note of what the youth are asking for, which is certainly jobs. They don't have anything to survive on, so many of them, but it's also a need to be able to express themselves and to take a share in running the country.

  • 10:45:44

    REHMAnd now a call from Robin Wright, who has certainly been in that area, has written extensively. Good morning to you, Robin.

  • 10:45:57

    MS. ROBIN WRIGHTGood morning, Diane. I actually was in Tunisia in the 1970s when Ben Ali's predecessor was elected president for life. But I have a question about the Islamic issue -- because you've addressed al-Qaida -- but what about those in exile? People like Rashid Ghannushi who, unlike Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran who was in Iraq most of his exile, the Tunisians have been largely in Western Europe. Rashid Ghannushi has been in London for more than a decade. What role are they likely to play? Many of them talked about going back. What do these people who are not al-Qaida sympathizers, who've talked about freedom of the press and who've been talking about some of the issues that the protesters are now addressing, what role will they play?

  • 10:46:45


  • 10:46:45

    JEBNOUNI think Ghannushi, even when he will go back to Tunisia, he has, like, a very specific discourse about the -- which is very moderate to be part of the government because we couldn't have a government without -- by ignoring the Islamist. The Islamist must be like a part of the political equation. The problem here, he spent, like, more than 20 years outside the country. And I think he was cut from the reality on the ground. You have youth. You have -- some of them were radicalized by the previous regime and how to be able to bring them and to build a kind of confidence with those youth -- this is young people. This is very important. This is a huge challenge for the (word?) and for the Islamist movement in Tunisia.

  • 10:47:33

    REHMThanks for your call, Robin. Let's go now to Fort Worth, Texas. Good morning, Alpha. Alpha, are you there? As I understand it, the question from Alpha was, given the fact that France is a former power in Tunisia, what is the attitude there? Why now, given what's happening in Tunisia?

  • 10:48:01

    JEBNOUNI remember the speech of President Sarkozy two years ago in Tunisia. He said, we prefer Ben Ali than Taliban. He reduced the whole society, very civilized and very smart society to Taliban, black or white, you know. Ben Ali, he presented himself like a rampart against terrorism, against Islamism, which is not true. He created the situation in the ground to justify, like, repression to justify, you know, authoritarianism. This is what those dictatorship -- this is what those Arab Pinochet try to do when they are abroad just to say to the United States, either us or you will have, like, Islamists. And with Islamists, you will not be able to get anything. You will not be able to negotiate with those people.

  • 10:48:47

    REHMAre there any leaders who can rise to become cultural leaders as we saw in Poland? Are there, within that mass of young people or states partisans, people who would rise?

  • 10:49:07

    JEBNOUNYeah, we have, for example, Judge Mokhtar Yahyaoui, who was, like, fired in 2001 because he protested against the absence of the independents of the justice judiciary body. This guy will be able to lead a kind of civil society or an opposition within Tunisian society. Now, I think it's -- we are in the -- it's the momentum of learning. We try to learn.

  • 10:49:41

    REHMIt's early.

  • 10:49:41

    JEBNOUNWhat's -- yeah, we try to learn what's democracy, what's pluralism, what's freedom speech, freedom of expression, speech -- freedom of thought. This is -- we are in just, like, a step of learning. And...

  • 10:49:56

    REHMDo you want to go back?

  • 10:49:57

    JEBNOUNI want to go back, but to contribute, to help, like, my compatriots. But I haven't any intention to run for any political position now, yeah.

  • 10:50:09

    REHMNow, you want to wait and see what happens?

  • 10:50:12

    JEBNOUNWait and see what happen. And the transitional, you know, period -- this transitional period for six month, what we'll do because I think the priority is to start, like, thinking about rewriting the constitution. Because what we have now, we haven't even a presidential system. We have a presidentialist system, you know. What we need, we need a parliamentary system, where the prime minister could be held, like, you know, responsible before the parliamentaries of the people. This is what we need. We need a kind of check and balance between the three main power -- judiciary, executive and legislative.

  • 10:50:53

    REHMAll right. To Alexandria, Va. Hassan, good morning.

  • 10:50:59

    HASSANGood morning to you, Diane. How are you?

  • 10:51:02

    REHMFine. Thank you, sir. Go right ahead.

  • 10:51:05

    HASSANI am so happy, as every Arab happy today, to see this dictator gone. I am very frustrated with American media -- did not cover the protest for 30 days. They covered them the last day when he fled, and all what United States said -- they worried about an ally is leaving. And all the media talked about the protesters as rioters. I pay attention to this. Why United States media call them rioters instead of demonstrators, for one? Second, why Mr. Ali, the president, fled to Saudi Arabia? Did United States ask Saudi Arabia to accept him? I need, really, to know because this -- we think this is a good sign for the Arab world to follow suit. I think, unfortunately, the opposite.

  • 10:52:03

    HASSANThe United States is going to enforce their grip in the barrack, Saudi Arabia, all the Arabic people. And, remember, these dictators are -- they're -- just thanks to the United States' support and keep them in power. And Mr. Murphy, the ambassador knows that very well, but I like him to be very honest and courageous to say the truth about it and to, please, drop the Islamic thing.

  • 10:52:32

    REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for your call. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Nadia, do you want to begin?

  • 10:52:39

    BILBASSYYes. I mean, talking about why he ended up in Saudi Arabia, because no other country will take him. I mean, there's a report saying that he tried to land in France. They said no. He tried to land in Malta. They said no. He tried to land in Egypt...

  • 10:52:49

    REHMDid the U.S. exert any influence in getting this out and to take it...

  • 10:52:53

    BILBASSYI don't know, but I doubt it because the Saudis have a history of hosting these people. I mean, they have Idi Amin of Uganda who committed atrocities. They had Nawaz Sharif who was deposed. And so the official line was basically that it is the hospitality of the Bedouin Arabs that whoever comes to them, regardless if he was a dictator or not, they have to be accepted. Saying that, he's not allowed -- according to the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, he's not allowed to practice any political activities or to say anything. And it seems like he's going to stay there temporarily, and he's going to move on.

  • 10:53:25

    JEBNOUNYou know, under Ben Ali, you have at least 30,000 Tunisians were imprisoned and jailed. Three thousand were seriously tortured, and more than 80 were killed and disappeared.

  • 10:53:39

    REHMWhy did you leave?

  • 10:53:41

    JEBNOUNI left -- I just -- I resigned then from a position. I was, like, professor at the war collision in Tunisia. And I left because I don't agree with the policy of this government, I said. And I think if I stayed there, the risk, like, to stay alive, it's not very high for me, you know. So...

  • 10:54:02

    REHMThen there's the question of why the Tunisian people put up with this for so long. Is it a confluence of -- as we said it -- social media plus this young man self-immolating plus our growing unrest? I mean, everything, sort of, came together.

  • 10:54:25

    BILBASSYRight. I mean, in the history of revolutions in general, we don't know what that moment that sparks that particular event at that time. I remember I was in Gaza in '87 during the First Intifada. Why, the Palestinian didn't revolt for 30 years, and it took one accident. It was a car accident at the time that sparked the intifada. But there is -- of course, there's accumulation of all the factors that we talked during the show with political oppression, you know, with lack of freedom, with -- but the bottom line here, it is they are reducing the Arab people to a nation of beggars -- all the dictatorship in the Arab world. Just to give you some statistics, Diane, I mean, the Arab world has the highest number of unemployment in the world.

  • 10:54:59

    BILBASSYThey have 115 million out of the working force of 300 million people. Most of them cannot find jobs. The 20 percent of the Arab people live on less than $2 a day, and 40 percent lives on $2.70 a day. We're talking about -- this is one of the wealthiest nations on Earth, and yet this is the statistics that we have to deal with.

  • 10:55:21

    REHMAmb. Murphy, do you believe that what has happened in Tunisia may, indeed, spread to other Arab countries and affect the way the United States deals with the Arab world?

  • 10:55:41

    MURPHYI don't think it'll spread immediately to other Arab countries. But the new media has certainly kept the entire region aware of what's been going on in Tunisia, which wasn't the situation a decade ago. They had to listen to the voice of authority through the newspapers, the radios, their television. Today, they don't. They have their own channels. The challenge to us is going to be critical over these, let's say, next six months in Tunisia to identify the liberals, to support the moderates. And we better be humble in doing so. We've not always been correct in picking the eventual winners, but we have to listen carefully.

  • 10:56:24

    REHMAnd I'll have to stop you right there. Richard Murphy, he's the U.S. Ambassador to Syria, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia. Noureddine Jebnoun, he is adjunct assistant professor at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. Nadia Bilbassy, she serves on our Friday News Roundup panels. She is with MBC TV. Thank you all so much.

  • 10:57:00

    JEBNOUNThank you for having me.

  • 10:57:00

    BILBASSYThank you, Diane.

  • 10:57:01

    JEBNOUNThank you, Diane.

  • 10:57:01

    REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.

  • 10:57:05

    ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is And we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.

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