The Jasmine Revolution: The Beginning of the End of Tunisian Dictatorship

Over the past several weeks, the world has watched with absolute amazement as a mass popular protest in Tunisia has toppled the country’s decades long dictatorship. Inspired by the suffering of a young man and motivated by their anger over high levels of poverty, unemployment and food prices, Tunisians, young and old, male and female, rallied in several cities, many in peaceful protest of the Ben Ali regime and its corrupt ways. It took only days of increasing protest and violent opposition, to force the reprehensible Ben Ail from power and fleeing for his life. Revolutions in the traditional sense are a rarity these days; due mostly to a combination of a general lack of popular support, political defeatism and tight control over populations by autocratic regimes. However, the rise of web-based communications technology has led to increased political awareness, particularly amongst the world’s youth. Political savvy organizers have used mass media and communications to undermine traditional government controls. Events in Tunisia sparked waves of consciousness throughout the country and throughout the larger North Africa, Middle East region. Through mass protest, Tunisians exposed the tremendous weakness of their hollow government and made great gains for political reform. However, their continued protest is needed more so than ever to ensure that lingering autocratic elements do not threaten the Tunisian people’s sacrifices. 

Tunisia first obtained its independence from its former French colonizer in 1957; however, like so many other African nations, independence only meant a new form of dictatorship for the Tunisian people; this time at the hands of one of their own. After 1957, power was concentrated in the hands of Habib Bourguiba, who although is credited with orchestrating Tunisian independence from France and with modernizing the country, was all too happy to assume the position of ‘president for life’, only to be ousted by his own prime minister, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Ben Ali soon proved an even worse alternative, as the advancement of human rights and the protection of basic freedoms in Tunisia, gradually diminished. In addition, Ben Ali and his family, orchestrated a widespread and despicable campaign of corruption, which involved not only robbing the country’s coffers, but the extortion of small business owners throughout the country, all to fund the family’s lavish lifestyle. Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Trabelsi, is widely and rightfully despised as the ultimate symbol of corruption and excess; she and her family is accused of an extensive racketeering network from which all family members benefited. Leila herself owned over 50 luxury cars and was known for designer clothing shopping sprees and for flying in luxury foods by way of the family’s private jet. Ultimately, with the country suffering massive unemployment, the populace grew intolerant of the President and his family’s corrupt ways. This anger and resentment served as a strong contributing factor to the President’s ouster, as well as to retributive acts perpetrated against family members after Ben Ali’s removal.

The Jasmine Revolution, though fueled by fury over government corruption and malfeasance, began with a simple, yet devastating act of self-sacrifice. A young man, college educated and yet unemployed, set himself on fire, unable to cope with overwhelming frustration over his plight. On December 17, 26-year-old, Mohammad Bouazizi, was selling vegetables on the street in the impoverished Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, as he had done for seven years. The income he derived from the vegetable sales served as the main source of livelihood for his family of eight, which included his mother and several brothers and sisters. In this town of so many downtrodden, Mohammad was considered lucky to have any income at all. Mohammad’s troubles on this particular day began when a local policewoman confiscated his vegetable cart. When he tried to pay the fine for selling without a license, the policewoman refused the money, physically slapped the young man, spat in his face and then insulted his dead father. Feeling quite humiliated, Mohammad approached the provincial government headquarters, seeking recourse; however, local officials refused to hear his complaint. It was then when the dejected Mohammad returned home, doused fuel all over him and set himself on fire.

It did not take long for news of Mohammad’s plight to spread, not only throughout Tunisia, but the world. Mohammad initially survived his self-immolation, and his continued suffering garnered immense sympathy from Tunisians. Mohammad’s story was not unique; millions of young men and women across Tunisia shared in his plight. Educated and unemployed, with no support from their own government, Tunisians, young and old, took to the streets in protest, which eventually culminated in the ouster of villainous Ben Ali, as well as his reprehensible family and associates. Revolutions are often triggered by single events that invoke the underlying anger and frustration of a people. Mohammad’s actions, which unfortunately resulted in his death on Jan. 4th, sparked an outrage amongst Tunisians that could not be contained by such hollow gestures as Ben Ali’s visit to the dying man, which in many ways was largely insulting (for the perpetrator is the last person any victim would seek comfort from). Tunisians’ persistence in protesting the Ben Ali regime soon reaped astounding and yet surprising rewards. The Tunisian government collapsed and Ben Ali did what most cowardly criminals do when facing justice: fled.

The swiftness of such events within Tunisia warrant deep examination. As similar acts of self-immolation and protest occur throughout North Africa and the Mid-East, many wonder whether other governments won’t also topple under equal popular pressure. However, the collapse of the Tunisian government, specifically the Ben Ali regime, was only partly attributed to popular protest. Political conditions within the country, in particular growing factionalism within the regime and the security establishment, contributed significantly to the government’s long-awaited downfall. In many ways, popular revolt aggravated growing frustrations within these institutions. By the second week of protest, policemen and military officers had joined the march; and many public officials had stepped down, some out of confusion, some out of solidarity with their people. When Tunisia’s ambassador to the Paris-based UNESCO, Mezri Haddad, announced that he was stepping down, he stated, “I can no longer vouch for what is going on in my country.” Many officials of course were quick to sever ties with the ruling party, the Constitution Democratic Rally (RCD), solely for self-serving purposes and in a desperate attempt to remain politically relevant.

Splits in the security establishment first became evident in the first week of mass protests. As the situation deteriorated and violence against protesters escalated, large factions of security forces, which includes the military and police, increasingly laid blame on forces loyal to Ben Ali and his regime, causing an irreversible rift that played out on the streets of Tunis and elsewhere. Security forces shortly began battling each other; gun fights between forces loyal to Ben Ali and those in opposition were reported throughout the capital and the military called for reinforcements in the South as it battled other security forces. In addition, General Rachid Ammar, the country’s top military official, has reported to have played a significant part in the events of the past few weeks. Ammar reportedly refused to carry out government orders to fire at protesters and permitted protests throughout Tunis to proceed uninterrupted at several key points. The compartmentalization of security forces was central to the Jasmine revolution’s success. Dictatorships rely heavily upon the loyalty and absolute submission of security forces in controlling the populace; without this control, Ben Ali and his regime stood no chance against popular protest. In determining whether similar revolutions are possible in other North African and Mid-Eastern countries, dictatorship control over security forces must be considered. Without a significant breakdown in unity and chain of command amongst security forces, countries like Algeria and Egypt, where protests are currently ongoing, will not easily see revolution.

Currently, the Tunisian military establishment seems to have thrown its weight behind the transitional government, which is a bit worrying, given the fact that several of its members were major players in the former regime. However, the Tunisian military is a highly professional force that is largely apolitical; hence its decision to momentarily back the transitional government could just reflect its desire to re-establish law and order. Nevertheless, Tunisians should remain wary, as a lessening in popular pressure could be exploited by former elements, allowing them to re-establish themselves politically and a newly empowered Ammar may also exploit his new position to further personal political ambitions. Currently, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, Defense Minister Ridha Grira, Interior Minister Ahmed Friaa and Finance Minister Mohamed Ridha Chelghoum have managed to maintain their posts in the transitional regime, which are all key positions within any government. All four men present a real threat to any democratic reform and are just as culpable as Ben Ali in the human rights abuses, repression and corruption that ran rampant under the former regime. Their continued presence within Tunisian government should be viewed with intense skepticism, particularly since their attempts at inclusion within the transitional regime have been somewhat unsubstantial. The current interim President Fouad Mebazza for instance is a long-time RCD member, and there are only three opposition representatives in the interim government, who have been given only minor cabinet posts: higher education minister, health minister and development minister—although the health minister recently resigned in protest of Ghannouchi and his cronies’ continued presence in the government. Ultimately, Ghannouchi’s removal is crucial to the full eradication of the dictatorship and to ensuring real democratic change.

Although the transitional regime’s composition is suspect, there have been positive developments garnered by continued mass protest, which includes the arrests of several officials from the previous regime, as well as the arrest of Ben Ali family members who tried to flee, and the issue of arrest warrants for Ben Ali and several other of his family members who did manage to flee. In addition, the ban on most other political parties has been lifted (although the chief Islamist and Communist parties remained banned), and leaders of opposition parties who had been previously exiled have now returned or are planning to return; this includes Moncef Marzouki, leader of the secular Congress for the Republic party, who has been a vocal opponent of Ben Ali’s rule for nearly two decades. Political prisoners have also been freed, including prominent journalists who were outspoken critics of the regime.

Presidential and parliamentary elections are now scheduled in six months time. All the while, protests continue, and unions have begun strikes, all in objection to the continued participation of former Ben Ali agents within the transitional regime. The actions of the Tunisian people, the current regime and security forces in the next few weeks will be critical to defining Tunisia’s political future. The Tunisian people must maintain momentum by remaining relentless in their demands for real political change and they must continue to demand support from the security establishment. The Tunisian people’s success at achieving democracy through revolution is certain to have great implications for the wider region. Success in Tunisia will motivate and inspire other peoples throughout the region, and perhaps the world, to challenge their repressive governments. It is clear that the Ben Ali regime was far weaker than believed; it took less than a week to completely devastate his dictatorship. It is only logical to assume that other similar regimes may also be lacking in ‘real’ power and may topple just as easily when seriously tested.