Morning roundup: Iraq, Tunisia, and the Arab soul

By , Staff writer

0915 ET

A suicide bomber killed about 15 in the second major attack on the Iraqi police in as many days. This one came at the police training center in Baquba, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, according to Reuters.

Yesterday's attack killed about 50 at a police recruiting center in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown. An obvious reminder that the Iraq war isn't over, whether the US pulls out on time at the end of this year or not. Tikrit and Baquba have been repeatedly "pacified" over the past 7 years -- I wrote about a major US army effort to clear Baquba of Sunni insurgents in 2005. As shocking as it sounds, places sometimes don't stay pacified.

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There's been some call/speculation in the press about the US military extending its stay in Iraq in response to these kinds of attacks, even though suicide attacks by Sunni Islamists have been a sort of background radiation to the Iraq war (both the one to get foreign troops out and the one being contested between Iraqis for local power). They've occurred in areas where US troops patrolled in force and in areas where they rarely went. They occurred before the surge, during the surge and after the surge.

Stopping them is now in the hands of the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which has a lot of work to do to convince Iraq's general Sunni Arab population that his government will serve their interests as well as those of his coreligionists.

Tunisia's uprising/revolution appears to be entering a quieter phase. Protests were smaller and scattered today, exiled opposition politicians have returned home, and the old guard who served departed Tunisian strongman Zine El Abdine Ben Ali (who has begun his career in exile in Saudi Arabia) try to figure out how to hand on to their positions.

What comes next is hard to say. US Ambassador Gordon Gray made rather tentative remarks about the outlook to Al Jazeera."I think what we have in Tunisia is a situation where ... this democratic expression is a work in progress... And it's a new phenomenon and it's something that people are doing without very much experience."

In fact there's been little democratic expression at all so far aside from the street power that pushed out Ben Ali. Tunisia's interim government is led by the same men who helped secure his rule, and a constitution and electoral system that served his dictatorship remain in place.

Will that change or will the pressure ease off enough to convince interim Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi and his friends to reach for the brass ring after making mostly cosmetic concessions? We'll see.

While Monitor reporter Scott Peterson reported yesterday that a contagion of uprisings isn't likely (and I agree with him), it appears that regional autocrats aren't taking any chances. The Associated Press reports that the oil rich Gulf monarchies are about to create a $2 billion fund to help "provide job opportunities for Arab young people in order to empower them to participate fully in their societies." Diplomats told the AP ahead of an Arab economic summit that started in Egypt today that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait will kick in $500 million each.

Tunisia has become the dominant theme of the summit and Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa captured the mood with his remarks. "The revolution that happened in Tunisia is not far from the subject of this summit... and it is not far from what is going through the minds of many...the Arab soul is broken by poverty and unemployment."

The contrast between Mussa's comments and those of his former boss, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, were a reminder of how much resistance the aging leaders of regime's like Egypt are likely to put up in the face of change.

While Mussa, who was fired as Mubarak's foreign minister ten years ago largely because of his immense popularity in Egypt and the region, made an impassioned plea for change, Mubarak didn't utter the word Tunisia at all, though he did allude to the revolt, saying it was now clear that economic progress is a "basic demand of Arab national security." It's no surprise that Mubarak might see events in Tunisia through the lens of the security state that serves him. The people of Egypt don't share his view.

Of course, if Josef Joffe is right, Mubarak should sleep easy. Borrowing from both Samuel Huntington and Karl Marx, Joffe argues that the problem for Tunisia's Ben Ali was not that his people were poor, but that they weren't poor enough. After running down indicators that show Tunisia is richer, better-educated, and more-integrated in the global economy than neighbors like Egypt, he writes:

"Such numbers would have made Karl Marx clap his hands in delight. Looking at the Tunisian upheaval he would have cried out: 'I was right.' About what? About the “contradiction” between regime and risers, between an ossified power structure and what he called the 'bourgeoisie.'

If you are poor, you have neither the time nor the energy to engage in politics. If you are not educated, you lack the cultural skills to articulate your demands—to agitate and organize. And, if you are poor, uneducated, and thus isolated, as much of the Arab world is, then you have no benchmark against which to measure your misery."

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