Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution

Protesters line the streets of Tunis demanding reform

If you live outside of America, there is a good chance you have heard about the enduring Tunisian protests that have recently resulted in the collapse of the Tunisian government and the fleeing of the country’s authoritarian (and now former) President. The development of Tunisian protests is quite amazing for its speed geographic and ethnographic inclusiveness and the eventual outcome of these events will without a doubt significantly influence the other supposedly democratic, authoritarian regimes throughout the region.  Before getting into analysis, it is helpful to first look at how and why this revolution evolved.

Despite being one of Washington’s most important regional allies, the regime of the ousted Tunisian President, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, was the front of one of the most heavy-handed regimes in the region.  Ben Ali seized power in 1987 and ruled over a period of general economic hardship while preventing many of the most basic freedoms to Tunisians. Amnesty International, Freedom House and Protection International all declared that Ben Ali’s government was authoritarian and not democratic, while The Economist‘s 2010 Democracy Index listed the North African government 144th of 167 countries in terms of democratic freedom.

[tweetmeme] While general protestations have been heard about political and media oppression for years, the current mass protests began to truly take hold last month when a man set himself on fire because he was denied the simple right to sell vegetables, taking away his livelihood. The man, Muhammad Bouazizi, was certainly not alone in his struggles as unemployment and underemployment are rampant in Tunisian society.  Economic issues were compounded by the recent global economic downturn and greatly highlighted by the juxtaposition of the excesses of the President and his family – a charge of corruption has been murmured about for years, but overtly exposed by Wikileaks releases.

Four weeks after the death of Bouazizi, protests that had previously been local had spread to the national level despite Ben Ali’s effort to violently crush the protests, his unwavering opposition to all the demands of the protesters and his allusion to the protesters as terrorists.  On Thursday, Ben Ali appealed to Tunisians to stop the growing protests among promises to not seek reelection and to order soldiers not to shoot at protesters.  A curfew was implemented and then extended on Friday.  The curfew extension was followed by the announcement that Ben Ali had dissolved the Parliament and the cabinet while promising new elections within six months. Emergency law soon followed and a few hours after that, the President was out of the country.

The fall of the Tunisian government was fast and spectacular, but the events are far from over. Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi took the reigns of the government after the departure of Ben Ali – a move that is perhaps unconstitutional.  Protesters, though happy about the success, are not placated by Ghannouchi who is considered to be an extremely close ally of the former President and, according to reports, just as corrupt as Ben Ali, but without an independent political mind; Tunisians jokingly refer to the disrespected Prime Minister as Mr. Oui Oui due to his inability to say no to the former President.

With the unpopular Ghannouchi now leading the country, it is clear that perhaps the protests are far from over, with the threat of a military coup over still looming. The uncertain future of the country and the protests are leading many to wonder what the short- and long-term future holds for Tunisia:

With no clear leadership with the moral authority to get people to go back to their homes, it may be days before the situation resolves itself. What interim president Ghanouchi does tomorrow in his meeting with the opposition — whose very definition will be controversial, notably over whether En-Nahda’s Islamists could become part of an interim coalition government — will be crucial. Right now, there does not seem to be any indication that Tunisians are accepting any government as legitimate. Ghanouchi will have to either move quickly to build a credible alliance (here the international community may have a role in confering legitimacy) or step aside for someone who can.

The question of what role there should be for longtime regime cronies such as Mr Ghanouchi is crucial. On the one hand he and others like Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane represent known quantities. They can be seen as managers that might not play a role in future governments. Yet public opinion is now divided on this, weary that if they remain one of the main grievances against the Ben Ali regime — its cronyism and corruption — will not be addressed. Because the Ben Ali network was in business with everyone, this is difficult: few are entirely innocent, especially among the officials who have the capacity to run government in the short-term.

Another alternative, particularly if violence endures, is for the army to take over. It already seems to be moving to impose order, and may enjoy some of the moral authority to end the violence if the pictures of people kissing soldiers on the streets are anything to go by. But that would also alienate some of the protest movement.

With the success of the Tunisian protests, it is interesting to see how Tunisia’s neighboring authoritarian regimes react to crises of their own.  protests led by poor economic conditions – similar to the origins of the Tunisian protests – are currently taking place in both Algeria and Jordan while last year’s food crisis in Egypt is not yet out of the collective Egyptian memory.  In Algeria – an oppressed state, similar to Tunisia – the situation is not as dire, due mainly to the relative wealth of the state whereas in Jordan, the King has taken immediate measures – funded by the US – to lower the prices of basic commodities to limit the unrest.  The implications of the unrest that ultimately revealed the fragility of one of the region’s most oppressive regimes will not be lost on the leaders of these other countries.

For continuing updates on the situation in Tunisia, Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic and Foreign Policy have been providing very thorough updates, as has Al Jazeera.

Photo from Real Clear World

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