Tunisia 2011

Mohamed had a vegetable stand, this was his family’s plight
Ever since his father died on a construction site
He was one of six siblings and now this would be his fate
Working the streets of the city to put food on everybody’s plate
He couldn’t afford the bribes the cops would make him pay
So sometimes they’d knock his cart over and get him back that way
Last December they smashed his scales to put him in his place
And then for good measure a cop spat in Mohamed’s face

He went to see the governor, maybe there was something he could do
Word came from on high — we don’t talk to people like you
Mohamed Bouazizi now was living on a wire
He went and bought some paint thinner and he set himself on fire
Word spread through the region and soon you’d hear the same
Of proud and desperate people going up in flame
Sometimes windows open, sometimes the floor, it creaks
But no one knew what would happen in only a few weeks

When the dictator ran away

People tried to hold a march for the immolated dead
Police met them there with truncheons and bullets to the head
People headed to the capital, they would not be deterred
Sometimes this is just what happens to a dream deferred
The police kept up the attack — thousands wounded, hundreds killed
With blood the streets were covered, with gas the air was filled
But the people held their ground — Tunisia’s daughters and their sons
And one day the cops had had enough — they just put down their guns

When the dictator ran away

Now someone had to deal with this rebellious riffraff
So Ben Ali called a meeting of his chiefs of staff
He said these terrorists have decided to go out on the attack
It’s time for you, the Army, to take our country back
It’s time for you, the Army, to go and make a stand
Show these terrorists that we are in command
It’s time to gun these criminals down — that’s what he said, now go
The general got his orders and the general said no

When the dictator ran away

Ben Ali got in a plane, tried to go to France
But he was a hot potato so he did a little dance
Ended up in Jidda to live there in exile
While his fellow warlords shiver from the Tigris to the Nile
All across Arabia you can hear them talk and sing
Those who’d dare throw off their shackles, who would shout “let freedom ring”
Where we’ll be by next year is for anyone to say
But many will recall where they were on the day

When the dictator ran away

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“Tunisia, 2011” appears on the CD, Big Red Sessions.

When there’s a lot of poverty and unemployment combined with a sense that this situation exists due to bad policies coming from the top, society is a powder keg.  Add to the powder keg that elusive combination of a flashpoint event and a widespread sense of optimism, and you have a mass movement.  Mass movements can go in lots of different directions for lots of different reasons.  The ones that overthrew Ben Ali and then Mubarak were quite impressive, and worth celebrating.

I would add, too, though, that to me it seems a real shame that governments like Mubarak’s and Assad’s in Syria got to be governments that inspired such widespread opposition in the first place, because the Arab nationalist movements that these governments came out of seemed for a long time like a better alternative for people than those offered by colonialism or political Islam.  But the secular governments in Egypt and Syria became very corrupt.  (One of the richest men in Syria, for example, is the president’s uncle, who owns the telecom industry.)  Ripe for various foreign powers to fight proxy wars with each other in the Middle East, as they so often have done in the past.