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In Tunisia, an ‘Explosion of Frustration’ in Protests

January 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Judy Woodruff talks to Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the African and Middle East Division at the Congress Library, for more on the political upheaval in Tunisia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Late today, President Obama condemned and deplored the use of violence against citizens peacefully voicing their opinion in Tunisia.

In a statement released by the White House, the president said, “The United States stands witness to the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard.” He called upon the Tunisian government to hold free and fair elections in the near future.

For more on Tunisia, we turn to Mary-Jane Deeb. She’s chief of the African and Middle East Division at the Library of Congress. But the views she expresses here are her own.

Mary-Jane Deeb, thank you for being with us.

MARY-JANE DEEB, Library of Congress: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This seems to have unfolded so quickly. What has brought it to this place?

MARY-JANE DEEB: I think it’s — it’s an explosion. It’s an explosion of frustration of anger and the fact that things are happening throughout the region.

I mean, the last year’s events in Iran, the young people going out there, in Cairo, in Egypt, the cops with the Muslims going out in the streets and protesting, elections that are fake, an anger. Algeria, also, you see the rise there. In other words, what happened with one man burning himself was really the straw that broke the camel’s back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Tunisia, do you think the protesters will be satisfied with this caretaker president who was the prime minister?

MARY-JANE DEEB: Well, it depends.

Mohamed Ghannouchi is a politician that’s respected by most of the people in Tunisia. And the important thing is whether he is going to call for elections rapidly, whether there will really be free and fair elections. It will depend on how he behaves.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tell us more about who these protesters are. Are they a broad cross-section of society? What — who do they — what do they represent?

MARY-JANE DEEB: They’re young people. The majority, the vast majority are students, school students, high school students and university students. There are women. There are lawyers.

The interesting thing here is, A, they’re not Islamists. They’re not fighting on an Islamic platform, which is new in a way. They’re also using blogs, Facebooks to communicate. They are making demands that are purely economic and political. They are completely secular.

And, in a way, that is new. It’s different from what happened in the past decade.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you say completely secular. They wanted the removal of this president. They seem to have gotten that.

MARY-JANE DEEB: Absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re — what else do they want? They want free, fair elections.

MARY-JANE DEEB: They want freedom of speech, free press. They want to be able to…


MARY-JANE DEEB: Jobs, absolutely. They want to be able to travel freely, speak freely, write freely, communicate with the rest of the world, and be part of the global community.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you know this country so well. What’s the likelihood they’re going to get what they want?

MARY-JANE DEEB: It possible.

I have a feeling that this is the beginning of a house of cards falling throughout the region. It is very much something that has been simmering under the surface, not only in Tunisia, but in Algeria, but in Morocco, but in many parts of the Arab world, certainly in Iran, perhaps in Pakistan as well.

I mean, what was interesting was to see the lawyers in their robes at the beginning a few weeks ago coming down in the streets. The inspiration was Pakistan, young people using — filming the events taking place. This is the example of Iran. In other words, each country is learning from the other. And those young people are in touch with each other. They communicate freely. They get the support from each other.

So, it’s the beginning.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But — and in many of these countries, the government, the police, oppressive enough, repressive enough that the people aren’t able to accomplish what these young people in Tunisia have accomplished. What does that say about the system there, though, that may set it apart?

MARY-JANE DEEB: You’re right. I mean, Tunisia’s military is much weaker, let’s say, than the military in Algeria or in Egypt.

On the other hand, the governments have cultivated the generals and top brass, but have forgotten that the army is also made up of young people, who don’t have salaries high enough to pay for — to get married, to have families, to — to — they are part of the Tunisian society. And the military in many of those countries are also dissatisfied. And I’m expecting something coming through the military.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For Americans watching this…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … what is the American — what is the United States’ interest in Tunisia…

MARY-JANE DEEB: Tunisia is part of North Africa. North Africa is important for the United States for different things, first of all, energy. Well, Tunisia is part of the Mediterranean, and Algerian, Libya are the energy sources. If it’s unstable, then instability in Libya and Algeria could take place very easily.

The second thing is its proximity to Europe. And the third is that Tunisia is one of the countries that has worked with the United States to fight terrorism. And, so, an unstable region makes it difficult to have partners in the region in the fight against terrorism, in economic development in the region, and…

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, from a U.S. point of view, this is a positive development, or it’s not clear yet?

MARY-JANE DEEB: It is certainly a positive development, in the sense that you have a young population asking for democracy, open and wanting to change. It’s not a population that has overthrown a government in order to become more Islamist or to turn against the West. It is not against the West at all. So it’s positive.

The negative side is instability in the region. And that, in the short run, is always a negative.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mary-Jane Deeb, the Library of Congress, thank you very much.

MARY-JANE DEEB: Thank you.