It began with one man and ended with many.
December 17th 2010, was the beginning of a long overdue process of defying the authoritarian rule that darkened the lives of Tunisians.
As with any great revolution, that initial spark, within an atmosphere ripe for change, is it all it takes to mobilise the masses. Mohamed Bouazizi, living in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid, trying to make a living in an already terrible economy, is the spark for the winds of revolution that have blown through Tunisia in the last couple of months. And he looks to be the cause for these gusts of change to blow over to neighbouring countries too.
It was due to the constant seizure of his fruit and vegetable cart- on which he depended upon for his and his family’s livelihood, abuse at the hands of town hall inspectors and reluctance of those in the regional governor’s office to help that caused him to make a stand. Consequently Bouazizi’s self-immolation, though his family insist he did not intend to kill himself, led to a flooding of labour activists in the streets. Though incensed by discontent with recent economic and labour conditions, their struggle also importantly highlighted political grievances at a continued autocratic and corrupt rule. All over Tunisia, ripples of protest created disconcerting waves for the country’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who has been in office for nearly 24 years, with at least 93% of the votes every election(!!) The protests escalated and reached Tunis, upon the death of Bouazizi earlier this year and many thousands marched in the streets on the day of his funeral. The protests were considered to be the worst the President had ever faced during his rule.
January 14th 2011, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali boarded a plane and fled Tunisia.
He had been ousted. Not by a coup. But a revolution led by the popular masses.
After two decades of a kleptocracy, the voices of those previously unheard seemed to now resonate loud and clear.
Uncertainty is certainly due to now reign in Tunisia. Following Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi’s brief assumption of power, parliamentary speaker Foed Mebazaa has been sworn in to undertake presidential duties. As according to the constitution, a new presidential election must be held within 60 days and Mebazaa has claimed that attempts will be made to form a new government, with the consultation of oppositional parties too- a coalition you might say? I see a pattern forming here. However, as Ben Ali had most of his oppositional politicians imprisoned, it does indicate that only his own cronies remain. Therefore, even with Ben Ali out of the frame, this picture doesn’t seem all that different to the days before Bouazizi’s protest. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has commented that though they are ‘’not taking sides’’, a ‘’peaceful resolution’’ is hoped for and that Tunisian authorities need to ‘’focus on creating job opportunities for young people in Tunisia.’’ Indeed the key issues of unemployment and a corrupt political system need to be addressed and it is this that the Tunisians are seeking to see in this interim administration. Even with Ben Ali removed, the system and even the constitution remain tainted and in need of reform.
A remarkable addition to the movement was the protest that also took place on the web. Despite media censorship, many Tunisians were still, through social mediums like facebook and twitter, able to access information, images and videos of both the protests and the government authorised police brutality, that was supposedly ‘legitimate’ self -defence. Furthermore recent wikileaks exposures on the corrupt ruling elite in Tunisia, and in particular Ben Ali and his family, have been argued to encourage the mobilisation of the protest. Tunisians, though their every political opinion censored, were well aware of their malignant government, but it had never been proclaimed so publicly. Indeed, wikileaks played a role in highlighting that even the U.S.- Ali’s supposed allies- viewed him to be an ineffective leader. Notably, the people had enough to protest about, but the wikileaks cables undoubtedly did give the movement additional impetus.
Dubbed the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ due to it being the national flower, it is hoped that the revolution will blossom further and especially to neighbouring nations.Protests and riots have also been rife in Algeria and Jordan recently. This is due to high unemployment and rising prices swathed with corruption and repression, to a level similarly faced by the Tunisians. These common problems, which are key elements to a popular uprising, and given the results in Tunisia in ousting Ben Ali, are likely to instigate change in these countries too, as many political analysts claim. On Friday, dozens of Egyptians joined a group of Tunisians outside their embassy in central Cairo, amid scenes of jubilation and a heavy police presence, and chanted: "Listen to the Tunisians, it's your turn Egyptians!" Apparently, Mubarak’s plane is waiting for him too.
However, though most onlookers are hopeful of the notion of popular uprising itself becoming popular, negative consequences are likely to occur too. Most certainly many Arab leaders witnessed the events in Tunisia with great fear and this fear was exacerbated with Ali’s departure. Though in some cases it may result in leaders ruling with less repression, the opposite is as, if not more, likely, especially in the short term. Condemnation of the uprisings from such leaders like Gaddafi, the longest running dictator and close ally of Ben Ali, denotes that popular will, means very little, and more violent ‘’defensive security measures’’ may be used to combat uprisings in neighbouring Arab countries.
Are we being too hopeful in the movement and too quick to call it a revolution for a new Tunisia, free from the nepotism of Ben Ali’s rule? The month long violence has resulted in over 45 deaths, with many more injured. It may be argued that death is a consequential unfortunate feature of revolutionary activity, especially on such a large scale. Indeed, deaths caused by the security forces, part of their ‘legitimate defence’ are expected to occur as the government try and maintain any last grips of control on the people. Curfews and home raids are evident of this clamp down, with the military taking control on the streets. So questions are raised on whether the people have in fact endangered their own people by partaking in the uprise? Was the movement too rushed without political consequences fully realised?
Tunisia, though considered by western governments to be relatively forward in its progression to secularism, has always since the days of Bourguiba been fated to a dictatorship rule. However with Bourguiba’s, and later Ali’s, hard line approach to militant Islamists and a perceived increase in women’s rights, through the ban on polygamy and compulsory free education, rights were taken away in other key areas. Notably though freedom of opinion and expression are granted by their Constitution, the government had great control over the media, exercising great censorship and were even said to have hacked into Tunisian’s internet accounts. Foreign governments, preaching ‘modern’ democracy were and are still aware of these kleptocracies, yet they stand back and if anything ally themselves with corrupt dictators, suiting their own personal gain. So how will western governments react now that Ben Ali has gone? Clinton’s response is somewhat indicative, calling for a ‘’peaceful resolution’’ after the protestors ‘’provoked’’ the government in to responding with violence. And our own Mr Hague said: "I condemn the violence and call on the Tunisian authorities to do all they can to resolve the situation peacefully’’, whilst the French remain somewhat tight lipped on the Tunisian situation in comparison to their views on Iran, North Korea and towards Ivory Coat President, Laurent Gbagbo. This all suggests that according to these governments that the events of Tunisia are merely violent skirmishes, that can be ‘’resolved’’ ‘’peacefully’’ rather than a revolutionary movement.
Furthermore trade and industry could well be negatively impacted due to the results of the revolution. This being the case, despite the initial discontent lying with the state of the economy and lack of employment. Though a change of guard may not usher in a completely democratic system, enthusiasm of a better economy seem dashed when considering the fallout the events have had for Tunisian tourism. This is due to reports of fear for tourists safety and the Foreign Office warning British nationals to leave Tunisia ‘’while airspace is still open’’. Over this weekend, 3,000 British tourists left Tunisia on emergency holidays, as violence continues. Does this bode well for the future of ‘new’ Tunisia? This is especially so in regard to the future of trading with other nations, when foreign governments; both western and Arab, are not all that joyful and responsive to the events of the ‘revolution’.
After many decades of dictatorial rule, we cannot expect long term and stable change to come about so quickly. This Jasmine Revolution, apparently ‘safe’ from ‘Islamist’ movements, needs to be ‘manoeuvred’ strategically by the more left wing liberal intellectuals in order to set up a new truly democratic Tunisia. Construction is as key, and a definite requirement, following the supposed destruction of Ben Ali’s rule.
Regardless, the Jasmine Revolution of Tunisia is testament to two points. Firstly, the courage of Bouazizi demonstrates the strength and the weighting of one man’s actions. In all contexts, this must never be forgotten. And secondly, the events in Tunisia significantly demonstrates the strength of the people to enact change themselves, in their own country, without ‘’requiring’’ or ‘’depending’’ on foreign intervention or invasion. It is this that paves hope for a new future for Arab democracy.