A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Which is the Greater Crisis: Lebanon or Tunisia?

Of the two crises engaging the Middle East at the moment, most Middle Eastern media yesterday elevated the Lebanese political crisis above the Tunisian uprising (I'll now accept Brian Whitaker's word because it's clearly become that) in the headlines. But if you have only one Middle East crisis to worry about, which should you concentrate on (assuming you're not too busy with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process collapse or the imminent secession of southern Sudan, or Iraq, or Iran, or Afghanistan)?

Having posed the question, let me note that I don't know the answers (yet). No one does. But the situation in Tunis seems truly out of anyone's control, the government's or the protesters', and therefore much more of a wild card than the Lebanese crisis, in which Hizbullah and its allies are pushing the issue to the edge, but still have the ability to pull things back. Lebanon is engaged in a political game of "chicken," while Tunisia is riding a tiger and can't figure out how to dismount.

I deliberately don't report every wild claim that turns up on Twitter, but over the past day and a half or so there have been wild ones coming out of Tunis that have stayed out of the mainstream media: the head of the Army was fired; the head of the Army was dead; the head of the Army had led a coup and declared himself President. The Presidential Palace was cordoned off, or was it on fire?, or was that the ruling party headquarters? Ben Ali had fled to the French Embassy, Madame Leila was on her way to Argentina, or the UAE, or both, and the rest of the Trabelsi family were in Canada. None of these things were true as far as I know, though the Trabelsis do like to travel. All this may have been prompted by the unusual sight of Army troops in the heart of the city on Avenue Bourguiba, Tunis' elegant but somewhat downmarket variant of the Champs Elysées. (The grim Interior Ministry anchors one end, rather as if the French rebuilt the Bastille on the Champs Elysées.) Such rumors are fueled by the tight control on information the government is enforcing, which means Facebook posts and tweets are often the sole source of information, however imaginary, and videos online may or may not be good guides to the real situation.

On the other hand, when rumor runs rampant, it can fuel the fury in the streets. If you think that victory is near, you fight even harder. By this point, the demonstrators can smell blood in the water: the firing of the Interior Minister, release of some of those arrested, and a promise of investigating "allegations" of corruption. (Of course since the main allegations of corruption cluster around the President's in-laws, I assume few protesters will be impressed by this promise.)

On the whole, I think we're nearing an endgame in Tunisia. Either the government will break, or the uprising will. I don't know which. In Lebanon, on the other hand, we're at the beginning of another kabuki drama which could explode if someone miscalculates, but could also resolve itself, even if it takes months or years to hammer out the compromise.

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