What’s happening in Tunisia?
Since 17 December 2010, Tunisia has been going through a popular uprising, which resulted in toppling the head of state, Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali who ruled from 7 November 1987 to 14 January 2011. The revolt started when Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, immolated himself after being denied permission to sell vegetables in the central city of Sidi Bouzid. He was a graduate with no other job to support his family. The city reacted with angry, spontaneous demonstrations, which soon spread to other parts of Zidi Bouzid governorate, and four people were killed by the police. In neighbouring Kasserine and Thala,
protests turned more deadly when police killed at least 50 people there. Nationwide demonstrations followed, led by lawyers, trade unions as well as legal and illegal opposition parties, calling for “Jobs, freedom and national dignity”. The Government responded with dismissal at first, then promises of free speech and regional development. People persisted in peaceful but more vocal demonstrations until Ben Ali, who failed to bring the army on board, was forced to flee the country.
What are the main grievances?
Unemployment, particularly of university graduates; uneven regional development; repression of descent and corruption of top officials and Ben Ali’s family are the main grievances. Tunisia, known as popular tourist destination, stable country and relatively prosperous economy, maintained a repressive political regime and an economic development model, which disadvantaged the interior parts of the country. The president’s family amassed great wealth, largely through favourable contracts. High unemployment affected a highly educated young population. Free speech, including bans on YouTube and critical websites and individuals were the norm. Yet, Western governments hailed the “Tunisia miracle” and propped Ben Ali for keeping Islamists at bay.
Has anything like this happened before?
Tunisia has had various revolts and unrest since its independence from France in 1956, notably serious unions-led protests in 1978 and the “Bread Riots” of 1984, but the scale of the current revolt, some have called it a revolution, is unprecedented. The scope of the protest, the speed with which it grew and the clearly politically radical content it developed are new. Like 1984, it was spontaneous and triggered by economic factors; but this time, concessions did not stop people from elaborating radical demands and seeing them through thanks to sustained popular protest.
What are the implications for the wider Arab world?
Most observers were surprised that a revolt would emerge from Tunisia, that it would not be Islamist in content and that it would bring about the collapse of an authoritarian government. Popular support has been expressed in Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria; countries whose people share similar grievances. Already copycat protest suicides have been noted in Algeria and Egypt. This successful revolt has shown that it was possible to dislodge authoritarian states without resorting to violence or the army. Social media have been key to bypassing news restrictions and organizing protest. (About 2 million Tunisians are on Facebook). Arab cyber activism has been emboldened by the Tunisian example. Breaking free from fear is now a reality, and neighbouring people are closely watching Tunisia. Arab governments have already began lowering prices of essential goods and appeasing their dissatisfied citizens to pre-empt any emulation of a completely homegrown revolt.