Ben Ali and the lap dancer
I normally write my column very early Friday morning and do my best to file my copy by 9 a.m. It is never less than a near miss and, to my mortification, I frequently miss that deadline. It is not only that parting with one’s text is always a harrowing experience – it is for me anyway – and that I hate to leave any work for the editor. It is not only that I try to put myself in my copy editor’s shoes and go through the five Cs check list. Is it clear, correct, concise, complete and consistent? Does it say what it means? Does it mean what it says?
It is also not only that I waste a lot of time downsizing my article to the required 850 words. For some obscure reason all my first drafts are about 1,000 words long and, as those of you who write will know, taking out 150 words that you could swear are absolutely necessary is as agonising as having to choose which of your children has to be thrown out of a lifeboat to prevent it from sinking and causing the death of all the others. No wonder that “taking out” is also military slang for killing.
It is also, and perhaps mainly, that the time-lag between my writing of the column early on Friday and your reading it on Monday may make all the difference in the world. Especially in what I called, last time we met on this page, these “fragile times”. Between my writing of the last article on Friday, January 14, and its appearance on Monday, January 17, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, was refused entry by France, almost came to Malta and, finally, found asylum in Saudi on January 15.
The Tunisian “jasmine revolution” set the tone of my article. Popular protests in Tunisia and Algeria throughout the previous week were a very clear sign these were not sporadic and isolated political developments. The insurrection had deep social and economic roots. It was also increasingly evident these were not passing troubles and would not just go away. More importantly for us in Malta, a stone’s throw from Tunisia, it was also clear we were close to a period of severe regional turbulence the impact of which we cannot avoid.
When I finally mailed my article to the editor early Friday morning, knowing that my reference to developments in neighbouring North Africa would be overtaken by events before it reached the reader on Monday, of course, the reader did not need my article to follow the unfolding of events in Tunisia and Algeria. Those of you who were interested and who understood the regional (if not global) importance of those events, followed them on television, radio and internet.
Nevertheless, I felt that had I been able to hold on to my article until the last moment, I would have been in a better position to argue that what was happening – what is happening – is nothing less than an epochal sea change for our fragile corner of the world. Had I known that President Ben Ali, Tunisia’s ruler since 1987, had in fact ran away from his own people, I would have been able to argue with a greater degree of confidence that, yes, things were really changing. Since then, popular protest has spread east as far as Yemen. What we should be watching very closely, however, is North Africa, especially Egypt.
How pathetically lost the governing members of our own political class are in the face of what is happening around us was crystal clear from the few words Lawrence Gonzi exchanged with Peppi Azzoppardi on the evening of January 14, when the Prime Minister mumbled something to the effect he was on call just in case President Ben Ali decided to come to Malta.
On the one hand, by referring to the Ben Ali saga, the Xarabank supremo gave Dr Gonzi a brief respite from the embarrassing questions put to him regarding the double salary he gave himself and his ministers at a time when many are finding it difficult to make do with one salary or a measly pension. It also provided the opportunity of establishing a psychological link between images of citizens peacefully protesting that same evening in Valletta with those of Tunisians rioting. The good stay indoors and the bad take to the street.
On the other hand, we witnessed a case of classic blowback. The reference to Mr Ben Ali exposed Dr Gonzi’s utter unpreparedness. Had his Foreign Affairs Minister not prepared a contingency plan? Had a position not been already worked out? France made it clear it did not wish to be embarrassed by Mr Ben Ali seeking to land on its territory. What had the Maltese government preventively decided just in case Mr Ben Ali were to ask?
But, then, though we may be slow to understand that people across the political divide are upset with what this government does and what it fails to do, we – who protect students from books and books from students – act fast when it comes to more vital issues. Take, for example, the recent urgent arrest and arraignment, on January 23 – a Sunday – of a Romanian lap dancer. The police charged her with offending morality and being dressed indecently in public after they allegedly found her giving a topless performance in a Paceville nightclub at 3 in the morning. Pronto! Who said the Maltese Establishment is inefficient?
This article appeared on Dr Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on January 31, 2011. You can access the original at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110131/opinion/ben-ali-and-the-lap-dancer