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Tunisia’s Wall Has Fallen

For the first time in decades, Tunisia is free of one-man rule. The extraordinary events of December 2010 and January 2011 have been nothing less than a political revolution: The consistent pressure of popular fury forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali first to make an unprecedented promise to relinquish power; then pushed him to step down; and finally halted an attempt at unconstitutional transfer of power, setting the stage for elections to be held at an undetermined date in the near to mid-term future.

The uncertain aftermath has begun: Three days after Ben Ali’s January 14 departure to exile in Saudi Arabia, the caretaker head of government Mohammed al-Ghannouchi announced a “national unity” cabinet composed heavily of members of the long-time ruling party, the Rassemblement Constitutionel Democratique (RCD), who will retain (at least for now) the ministries of interior, defense, foreign affairs and finance. Opposition parties classified as “legal” under Ben Ali also acquired posts. The announcement came after a night of gunfights reported around the presidential palace, opposition party headquarters and major banks, as well as drive-by shootings elsewhere in the capital of Tunis. The Guardian, citing human rights activists, attributed the attacks to militias made up of security men loyal to Ben Ali, while Ghannouchi said on state television that “the coming days will show who is behind them.”

Much more consequential were the protesters outside the presidential palace on January 17 voicing their anger at reports that RCD members would be part of the interim cabinet. The protests were dispersed with water cannons, but popped back up when the cabinet was named. Several opposition members of the interim cabinet, three of them affiliated with the countrywide labor federation, the Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT), promptly resigned their posts amidst renewed “RCD out!” demonstrations. Ghannouchi and others have now tried to quell the unrest by announcing their own resignations from the RCD, though not from the interim government. The outcome is very much in doubt. In any case, however, the original and remarkable achievement of Tunisian demonstrators stands: Ben Ali will not be back.

“Bread, Water and No Ben Ali”

The fast-paced and utterly unexpected fall of Tunisia’s dictator originated in what at first looked like a jacquerie of hungry, disenfranchised youths. Quickly, however, and spontaneously, the protests became overtly political as well as economic. They were certainly not the result of top-down manipulation by a specific party pursuing a ready-made political agenda, as the regime tried to pretend.

On December 17, Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year old street vendor from the town of Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire after police confiscated his merchandise, telling him he did not have a permit to sell his goods. The desperate gesture of this under-employed university graduate immediately sparked protests throughout the country. Anger at the status quo ignited within Tunisians of all generations, social classes, professional categories and ideological sensibilities, despite the forceful police crackdowns, which likely killed some 200 people. (The UN said on January 19 it could confirm some 100 deaths, including 42 in a prison fire that claimed the lives of many protesters, but this number is almost certainly too low.) The uprising began as a movement against unemployment and high prices, particularly for food, but it rapidly transformed into a revolution demanding civil liberties and the ouster of the man who had long suppressed them. “Bread, water and no Ben Ali,” the crowds chanted.

Accustomed to setting his own schedule, Ben Ali was compelled by the protests to address the people three times in one month. He first attempted, on December 28, to pass off the unrest in the usual manner of autocrats as the work of “extremists.” On January 11, chastened, he pledged to create 300,000 jobs, hoping to calm the streets with state largesse. Two days later, he finally acknowledged the political nature of the protests, telling the country he would not run for reelection in 2014, freeing all protesters who had been arrested and lifting restrictions on the media. The unanimous verdict of the Tunisian people was: too little, too late. In the early afternoon of January 14, Prime Minister Ghannouchi announced that the president was temporarily unable to perform his functions and that he would take over until new elections could be organized. Opposition figures, however, immediately pointed to the breach of Article 57 of the constitution, according to which the speaker of Parliament, and not the prime minister, assumes the presidential role in cases of vacancy at the top. On the morning of January 15, the Constitutional Court, Tunisia’s highest authority on such matters, declared that “the post of president is definitively vacant,” leading Ghannouchi to give way to Fouad Mebazaa, the parliamentary speaker, who promised to hold elections within the constitutionally prescribed period of 45 to 60 days. The opposition forces vociferously object, and want to delay the elections to six or seven months from January to allow more time for logistical arrangements and campaigning.

The Tunisian events, though surprising to most everyone, are not a random outburst of frustration. Rather, they represent the logical consequence of an unsustainable formula for fake political and economic stability, the very formula that many Western policymakers have lauded as the “Tunisian miracle.” While dramatic, the self-immolation of Bouazizi (who later died of his burn wounds) was only the trigger rather than the cause of the protests, whose roots are much deeper and older.

Ben Ali’s international backers often portrayed his rule as beneficent. In April 2008, on an official visit to Tunis, French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared that “some people are way too harsh with Tunisia, which is developing openness and tolerance in many respects.” “The space for liberties is progressing,” he continued.[1] Sarkozy was echoing the sentiments of his predecessor Jacques Chirac, who had argued when visiting Tunisia in December 2003 that “the first of human rights is the right to eat…. From this point of view, one has to acknowledge that Tunisia is in advance of other countries.” Since the late 1990s, meanwhile, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, European countries and the United States have singled out Tunisia for systematic praise as a model of economic reform in North Africa. In 2008, for example, the World Bank called Tunisia a “top regional reformer” in the domain of easing access to credit and the Bank’s present country profile marvels that the Mediterranean nation has doubled its exports of goods and services over the last decade. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, president of the IMF, stated in November 2008 that the “Tunisian economy is going well” and that Tunisia is “good example for emerging countries.”[2] On both the political and economic counts, however, the reality has been much darker.

Following his 1987 coup, which removed the long-time “president-for-life” Habib Bourguiba, Ben Ali methodically stamped out the few political and civil liberties that Tunisians had managed to attain. He was a master of staging demonstration elections that returned him to power with more than 90 percent of the vote. After two such sham electoral victories in 1994 and 1999, he amended the constitution in 2004, eliminating the three-term limit on the presidential mandate, so that he could run again in 2009. The RCD won every legislative election in this period in a landslide. Through the party apparatus, the regime carefully tracked the activities of labor unions, student associations, women’s rights groups and media outlets, as well as dictated the content of cultural events. The program of state surveillance manifested itself at three levels: First, political activists were subject to severe repression and intimidation at the hands of the police. Tunisia was among the most heavily policed states in the world, with about 100,000 policemen in uniform in a country of 10.4 million. Torture of political prisoners has been repeatedly documented and denounced by domestic and foreign human rights organizations. Second, the president’s party established a very complex and pervasive regime of monitoring of ordinary citizens, described by the French political economist Béatrice Hibou as a “control grid” (dispositif de quadrillage). A Tunisian citizen had to take care not to incur the local RCD watchdog’s wrath in order to conduct her ordinary life undisturbed. Officials might otherwise interfere with her enrollment at a university, her exams, her wedding or her desire to open a restaurant or shop, buy property, give birth in a hospital, obtain a passport or even buy a cellular phone. Third, and due to the intrusive state measures, paranoia spread among the populace. After 23 years of internalizing fear, Tunisians became their own censors.

Repression, however, is not the only factor accounting for the resilience of the regime. Rather, the longevity of the authoritarian system has come about through a combination of coercion and consent, what Hibou, in her book La Force de l’obéissance (2006), called a “security pact.” By the terms of this tacit deal, in exchange for relatively easy access to credit and consumer goods, the Tunisian people were expected to acquiesce to the lack of civil and political liberties. Credit and consumption, indeed, were a large part of the “Tunisian miracle.” The regime had compromised the old productive base of the economy by adopting the usual IMF and World Bank recommendations to sell off and downsize public-sector industries and agricultural cooperatives. In its place grew a more contingent economy of textile enterprises and call centers operated by foreign investors, who offered short-term and low-paying jobs, and tourist resorts on the country’s sun-splashed beaches. Tourism and call centers, where Tunisians record the orders of Western consumers, are two of the main exports in the World Bank’s accounting. The promise of credit, which as elsewhere was to have aided Tunisians in starting small businesses, has proven ephemeral, in part due to rampant corruption: Persons with connections in high places took the most lucrative opportunities for themselves. Under Bourguiba there was a strong and dynamic middle class, highly educated and entrepreneurial. The corruption and bad governance of Ben Ali’s reign have contributed to the increasing pauperization of this middle class and the dramatic rise of unemployment, especially among university graduates. Forty-six percent of youth who have university degrees, as Bouazizi did, have no jobs commensurate with their education. The avarice of the president and his wife’s relatives gradually alienated Tunisian and foreign investors, who were tired of paying a tithe to the reigning family, and preferred relocating to the more transparent Gulf countries. The so-called economic success story of Tunisia became a nightmare for the Tunisian people.

When the protests erupted in mid-December, press coverage referred to them primarily as social movements, a “revolt against misery and corruption”[3] or, as the satellite channel Europe 1 put it, a “revolt of the youth.” The protesters’ motives were assumed to be limited to economic frustration and despair of social advancement. Initially, commentators insisted as well that the demonstrations were disorganized, almost random, lacking in structure and direction. Most important, the movement was alleged to be unsustainable: In the absence of leadership from formal opposition forces, many analysts argued that it could not succeed. As late as January 11, French journalist Christophe Ayad described an “alternative” to Ben Ali’s regime as “difficult” to envision, explaining that “all the opposition formations, no matter how respectable, are anemic (exsangues).”[4] Earlier, on January 6, the reporter Marie Kostrz defined the Tunisian opposition as completely “disconnected from reality” and assured her audience that the “political void created by Ben Ali leaves no illusions for Tunisians: No one argues that the regime will collapse in a week or in a month.” Her article quoted an analysis by the political scientist Vincent Geisser, who claimed that “change won’t be radical, and will come from inside” the regime.[5] Despite all these negative predictions, the popular movement not only continued, but also turned into a revolt that ended the 23-year tenure of a brutal dictator.

Stereotypes Challenged

The last month’s events were propelled by an organic convergence of various currents of discontent. Successively joining the unemployed graduates who started the movement were students, lawyers, bloggers, artists, hackers, housewives, children, doctors, professors and shopkeepers—each group harboring specific grievances and using its own symbolic vocabulary, but all united in overall purpose. These divergent clusters of protest coalesced into a movement of civil resistance with stunning speed, adapting along the way to the regime’s tactics of repression.

The transformation of Tunisia’s “First Family,” as the US ambassador in Tunis called them in cables revealed by Wikileaks, into an extraordinarily predatory power is the key to understanding why the “security pact” identified by Hibou dissolved so rapidly and with such seeming ease after 23 years. The middle class and the professional bourgeoisie (among them, the lawyers, professors and doctors who joined the protests) stopped accepting the pact as it became clear that one side was no longer honoring it. It may be argued that, in contrast to such countries as Syria, where the Asads and their relatives are also steeped in corruption, the reigning clans of Tunisia got so greedy that they lost their ability to redistribute even a small portion of the booty among the upper reaches of society. They neglected to keep the complicity of the bourgeoisie in place. Beyond the cross-class dimension, three aspects of the popular uprising were particularly critical.

The first, which has attracted somewhat breathless coverage in the West, was information sharing. The state-run media was, of course, a fount of disinformation, and the regime exerted great effort to muzzle other media and prevent citizens from learning the details of what was happening. On several occasions in the past, the state has blocked the websites of foreign media outlets and shut down the Internet reporting efforts of Tunisians themselves. Police intimidation of journalists and warnings to foreigners to stay indoors were largely effective on this occasion, as well, in keeping the foreign media mute. The major exception was the Qatar-based satellite channel Al Jazeera, which consistently braved the police in the streets and won over many Tunisians with its strong emphasis on the protest movement story from its very inception. The Tunisian events were not simply another illustration of the mighty “Al Jazeera effect,” though, since much of what this and other channels broadcast was made possible by a unique collaboration with Tunisians. There has been no official Al Jazeera bureau in Tunisia since 2006, when, incensed by the channel’s coverage, Ben Ali recalled the Tunisian ambassador from Doha. Especially at the outset, the channel had to rely on amateur videos, photos and interviews sent in by Tunisian protesters themselves.[6]

In December and January, more to the point, Tunisian youth managed to share critical information with each other, including live audio and video, about the exact unfolding of events. Using such Web 2.0 platforms as and other social media, the movement broadcast its own news of kidnappings of protesters and its own summaries of the analyses of international observers, as well as the time and location of upcoming demonstrations. The protesters also used these devices to compare notes on the respective roles of competing security institutions, such as the army and various police units, giving them insight into the progressive weakening of the apparatus of repression. The Tunisian events have accordingly been dubbed the first “Twitter revolution.” In his last speech, delivered on January 13, Ben Ali offered to stop censoring YouTube and other Internet outlets, provoking a swift and dismissive response. The majority answer on Twitter and other social media platforms could be summarized as follows: “We don’t want free YouTube or virtual democracy. We want a true regime change, conditioned upon the departure and eventual trial of Ben Ali, and the organization of free elections.” Perhaps misled by years of complaints about Internet restrictions, Ben Ali appeared to believe that the protesters’ demands were about means of communication, rather than politics and justice.

The intense public debates that characterized the past month did not take place solely on the Internet, however. They also occurred in the streets, which were transformed into a sort of large coffeehouse where excitement at the recovered freedom of speech coexisted with fear under the threat of state violence. Indeed, hundreds of people were killed and injured. Yet in addition to, and taking precedence over, the brutality, a remarkable sense of happiness, loquacity and humor filled the streets of cities like Tunis, Gafsa, Sousse and Sidi Bouzid. Each demonstrator tried to outdo her neighbor’s story of regime depredations, not only describing her personal confrontation with deprivation and everyday corruption, but also proposing a line of political analysis and formulating predictions about the future. Institutions that had been de facto instruments of the regime adapted to this awakening of civil society in very short order. For example, the UGTT, which supported Ben Ali from the late 1980s forward, changed its attitude entirely. Beginning with postal workers and primary-school teachers, numerous local and regional chapters of the UGTT organized grassroots-level debates about the course of events. The sense of collective delight that emerged from this recovered right to speak was a challenge to the widespread notion that the “Arab street” is a space of little but anomie and diffuse anger.

A surprisingly under-covered aspect of the Tunisian demonstrations is the impressive visibility of women, also in contrast to stereotypes about the “Arab street” that propagate the image of a male-dominated public space. These stereotypes are closely tied to others about religion. Along with his fellow dictators, Ben Ali had long gulled his backers in the West with the idea that if the “Arab street” was ever opened, it would be filled with enraged Islamist men, calling for the imposition of shari‘a law and the intensification of gender inequality, if not also jihad. Yet at all the major demonstrations leading to Ben Ali’s flight from the country, men and women marched side by side, holding hands and chanting together in the name of civil rights, not Islam. The national anthem, not “Allahu akbar,” was the dominant rallying cry, and the women were both veiled and unveiled. The tone of the protests was rather one of reappropriating patriotic language and symbols: Women and men lay in the streets to spell “freedom” or “stop the murders” with their bodies and worked together to tear down and burn the gigantic, Stalin-style portraits of Ben Ali on storefronts and street corners.

The question now is how this confluence of social actors will respond as the transition away from Ben Ali jerks forward. Certainly, the announcement by Ghannouchi that the RCD would retain the key ministries in the interim cabinet was widely perceived as a mockery of the uprising and an insult to the dead and wounded. Thousands of people have streamed back into the streets, despite the curfew maintained by the army and police, chanting for the dissolution of the RCD and the resignation of the prime minister and all members of the caretaker government who were part of Ben Ali’s regime. The public debate now appears to structure itself around two major trends. Some argue that it is crucial to give the interim government a chance to organize itself and achieve some measure of stability, while the bulk of the people denounce the illegitimacy of the interim arrangements and demand “a new parliament, a new constitution and a new republic” right away. Such was the slogan of the thousands of protesters marching in the streets of Tunis on January 19. Although the situation remains very uncertain, at publication time it seemed that the balance of power in the streets favored the detractors of the interim government.

The persistence of protest following the departure of Ben Ali secures a momentous legacy for the events in Tunisia: In terms of political symbolism, this revolution is the equivalent for the Arab world of the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. It has shown, if nothing else, that the region’s many dictators do not have to rule until they die, whether of natural or unnatural causes. No matter what happens over the coming weeks and months, and even if it is interrupted or “stolen,” the Tunisian revolution has set a dramatic precedent for how democratization from below might begin.


[1] Quoted in Marc Semo, “La volte-face tardive de la France,” Liberation, January 17, 2011.

[2] Oumma, January 13, 2011.

[3], January 13, 2011.

[4] Christophe Ayad, “Autour de Ben Ali, la politique du vide,” Liberation, January 11, 2011.

[5] Marie Kostrz, “Revolution de jasmin: qui pour remplacer Ben Ali en Tunisie,” Rue 89, January 6, 2011.

[6] Le Monde, January 19, 2011.

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