Something extraordinary is happening in Tunisia–but the end is not yet. The kernel of the current revolution is one of the best-educated populations in the Middle East as it confronts rising poverty and unemployment. The ideational context of the anti-government riots was set by the recent revelations of the extent of the Ben Ali government’s corruption and even kleptomania. One of several remarkable things about this conflagration is that we can pinpoint the spark that set it on fire: It was the public self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed 26-year-old college graduate after the police took away his produce cart because he was selling fruits and vegetables without a permit. From that expression of hopelessness events in Tunisia have perfectly resembled the proverbial snowball rolling downhill.
The New York Times has carried several articles covering various aspects of this remarkable story. First sequentially, though not by reporting, on November 28 of last year, Tunisian dissidents started the TuniLeaks website on the same day Wikileaks began their campaign to subvert our government’s foreign policy. As the Times recently reported, these dissidents used this new website to air the mounting alarm of our foreign service personnel at the corruption and transparent kleptomania of the Tunisian government of strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. These disclosures struck a nerve in Tunisia, where one of the best-educated and most-professional national populations in the Middle East have confronted mounting unemployment and inflation while government officials increasingly took advantage of their monopoly on power.
The clear documentation of corruption by often-indignant State Department officials did not solely provoke this amassed expression of outrage; it does seem to have set the ideational context for what came next. A 26-year-old college graduate who had been unemployed a long time sought an out as a street produce vendor; the police confiscated his produce because he didn’t have a permit to sell. Having come to the end of his rope, the young man committed suicide through public self-immolation. In the wake of this pathetic spectacle something extraordinary happened: A rash of riots broke out in mid-December, spreading to all parts of this small country until by January 10 Mr. Ben Ali ordered all schools and universities in the country closed in an attempt to deny student protesters a place to congregate. As seems reflexive when authoritarian governments face student protesters, police had already killed at least 14 protesters by this time. The following day, the riots spread to the capital Tunis for the first time. This was the point at which Mr. Ben Ali’s son–a member of parliament, presumptive heir to the…Tunisian presidency, and not incidentally one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen, left Tunisia for what, perhaps for the first time in his life, was now a friendlier business environment abroad.
Mr. Ben Ali didn’t solely rely upon the truncheon, the tear gas and the gun, however; as it became clear that the riots continued unabated he also promised political reforms, and even started firing a growing number of high-ranking officials as part of a promise to reign in corruption. By now, however, it had become clear that the rioters believed that Mr. Ben Ali himself was the problem. In addition to the Tunileaks website, dissidents used their Facebook and Twitter accounts to announce future protests–a move that made a high scale of relatively-spontaneous organizing possible, but which meant many such protest-organizers were going “all-in” as it would now be relatively easy for the Tunisian government, well-known to be truncheon-happy, to identify many of those responsible for these demonstrations.
Among his various attempts to placate the growing ranks of rioters: Mr. Ben Ali called for a release of jailed demonstrators and even internal investigations to determine whether excessive force was used to quell any riots; pledges to root-out corruption and address high unemployment, and eventually the sacking of his entire cabinet. The textbook but increasingly-desperate efforts to intimidate and attack the opposition, to smear it as the work of foreign radicals and “terrorists”–There is no evidence that these protests have an Islamist or other militant affiliation–followed by a variety of symbolic and substantive actions aimed at mollifying the protesters’ grievances made no difference in the end. Tunisian President-for-life Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunis Friday night, seeking refuge in Saudia Arabia.
Seeking to gloss over the magnitude of what had just happened, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi tried to step into the void, asserting in the indirect manner of euphemism that the President was simply temporarily indisposed to govern. In his Friday announcement upon assuming power, Prime Minister Ghannouchi insisted that he would respect the Tunisian Constitution and proceed with implementation of the reforms promised by the deposed strongman. If anything, Mohamed Ghannouchi’s presidency may go down as the briefest in history, as according to the New York Times, Facebook pages previously carrying the status message “Ben Ali, Out,” promptly switched over to a new one: “Ghannouchi, Out.” The next morning, the Prime Minister also stepped aside, prompting his succession by the Speaker of Parliament according to Tunisia’s order of succession. Though police repression reached its highest pitch by Friday, it is no longer clear who the buck stops with in Tunisian government anymore. The Speaker of Parliament is expected to call for new elections within 60 days.
So, that’s the story so far. What’s the significance? The Liberal Ironist isn’t sure there is any. For starters, I didn’t need the New York Times to clarify that this is in fact the first time a grassroots revolution has deposed an Arab dictator. (The Cedar Revolution in Lebanon in 2005 following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which called for the withdrawal of Syrian influence and new elections, was successful in its goals by a narrow conception but ultimately failed to diminish Hezbollah’s influence; it also didn’t set the deposition of a regime as its aim.) Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution occurred without any kind of Islamist appeal or backing or the spectacle of violence that often attends radical Islamism in politics. It’s also worth pointing out that this was a middle-class revolution, and that likely explains the difference. Tunisia is as modernized and educated as any Arab country (if you conscientiously factor-out all the politically-perverse effects of developing an oil-based economy in a context of weak political institutions). To that effect, the expressions by the Tunisian crowd that have been repeated in the media abroad (as the space, linguistic and narrative exigencies of journalism must not be discounted) strongly emphasize the movement’s reasonableness. If, once the dust settles, Tunisia finds it has become a democracy, time will likely show this is a function not of the discontent of the “Arab world” but of Tunisia, a relatively-small, Europhile Arab state with a large middle class, abruptly-worsening economic circumstances and a particularly complacent and opulent ruling family accustomed to using the country’s police as a cudgel. Some of these qualities are present in other Arab states, but their particular combination in Tunisia owes to Tunisian political history.
That said, the coherence of this political opportunity owes, somehow, to a man named Mohamed Bouazizi, a college graduate who festered without a job until the day he set himself on fire. The revolution came when it did because Tunisia’s dispossessed and disenchanted young adults believed a dictator’s selfishness had brought them all to that abject state; seeing their country that way, revolution became the rational thing to do.