The United States’ second-closest ally in the Middle East, Egypt, is on the verge of collapse. It is perhaps understandable, therefore, that the origin of its revolutionary fervor – Tunisia – has been overshadowed. But the small, otherwise tranquil North African country is indeed where it all started. The bold, unrelenting protests in Tunisia over the past month and a half brought down the 23 year-old regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and inspired Arabs throughout the region to stand up for their rights and revolt against their apparent rulers-for-life.
On December 17, 2010*, twenty six year-old Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi lit the fuse that ended his life and ignited the current unrest sweeping the Middle East. Bouazizi, a street vendor, set himself on fire in despair and in protest of his treatment at the hands of local authorities. Earlier, officials had seized his wheelbarrow full of produce and beaten him in public. The tragic circumstances surrounding Bouazizi's self-immolation sparked protests in his rural hometown. The protests, which sometimes turned into violent riots, quickly spread to other areas and the capital, Tunis. The Tunisian government responded first with repression, unleashing state security forces on the demonstrators, arresting activists, and shutting down the internet. Eventually, Ben Ali shuffled his cabinet and offered to create 300,000 jobs, but it was too little too late. The protests and violence continued, and by January 14, the president and his family were on an airplane to Saudi Arabia.
In the aftermath of Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution, as it has come to be called, some wondered why Ben Ali's regime cracked. Tunisia was, after all, an oasis in the bleak environment of the Middle East. It has a secular identity and friendly relations with the United States and Europe. Its economy is more prosperous, its population better educated, and its women enjoy more rights than in many Arab countries. Further still, Tunisia does not face the specter of an Islamist takeover or even terrorism, giving it the appearance of more stability.
But Tunisia's high rankings on economic, educational, and other indicators belied its repressive core. Ben Ali's regime was one of the most brutal in the Arab world. Since he came to power in 1987, Ben Ali arrested and tortured thousands of dissidents, put a virtual stranglehold on the media, and blocked civil society organizations. So extreme was the repression that Tunisia may be the only Muslim country without an active Islamist opposition group. Members of the Islamist al-Nahda (“The Renaissance,” in Arabic) movement were jailed and exiled in the 1990s. According to Nathan Brown, an Elliott School professor and an expert on the Middle East, the Tunisian regime essentially “squashed out politics.” In other Arab countries, one at least knew who was in the opposition, even if he could not speak to them. This was not the case in Tunisia, where Brown said, “no one knows what's on the menu.”
The severity of repression in Tunisia suggests it played a greater role in fomenting and sustaining the uprising than other factors. This is not to say that factors like economic hardships and organized opposition did not matter. Clearly they did. As the media reported, Bouazizi, catalyst of the Jasmine Revolution, was indigent. His family said he did not even have the money to pay the bribe that officials expected in order to repossess his cart. Some of the protests that ousted Ben Ali, including one on December 27 in Tunis organized by trade union activists, focused on unemployment and the high costs of living. Others led to the looting of lavish property belonging to Ben Ali's relatives.
But political grievances seem to outweigh economic ones. Tellingly, Bouazizi did not make the fateful decision to torch himself until after his town's governor refused to hear his complaint. Who knows how history would have played out had Bouazizi received a modicum of justice? Similarly, the Tunisian people refused to back down even when Ben Ali went on television to acknowledge their hardships and offer to create jobs. After decades of losing their civil and political rights, they settled for nothing less than regime change, inspiring many others in the Arab world to follow their lead.
*The original published version of this article incorrectly stated 2011 as the year of Bouazizi's self-immolation.
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