Analysis: Tunisia - first popular uprising in Arab world

The spontaneous revolution of Tunisian people has forever changed Arab world; it has shown that grassroots revolution can happen everywhere.

Riots in Tunisia 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Riots in Tunisia 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
What happened in Tunisia stunned and embarrassed Arab and Western countries alike.
Tunisia was not a country made of revolutionary material. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s government was stable and the economy prosperous. The country had expelled Rashad Anushi and the other leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood after their party, Islamic Renewal, had obtained 17 percent of the vote in the 1987 elections.
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Since then, the West had seen in Ben Ali a bulwark against radical Islam. Tourism flourished and millions of visitors sang the country’s praise. What no one wanted to see was that Ben Ali ruled with an iron fist and suffered neither legitimate opposition nor criticism. Those who tried to oppose him were jailed or left the country.
Not many people in the West noticed that it was only a very small minority that enjoyed the benefits of the economic reforms and revenues brought in by tourists. Corruption was rampant and the Ben Ali family, and that of his second wife Laila, were the principal beneficiaries.
Millions and even billions of dollars were diverted to their bank accounts in France and elsewhere. This hijacking of state funds led to inflation, and a constant rise in the price of basic necessities, followed by an increase in unemployment. Official figures put the number of jobless Tunisians at 15%, but 20% or more is probably nearer the mark. Still, the West did not react and only strengthened its bonds with Ben Ali.
Arab countries saw in Tunisia a shining example of a seemingly open regime, while it was in fact based on stifling the opposition and having security services closely monitor events on the ground.
A month ago, Mohammed Ben Aziz, a young university graduate who had not found a job and was selling vegetables to make a living in the city of Sidi Bouzid, saw a policeman destroy the makeshift booth for which he had no license and he set himself on fire.
Many other unemployed townspeople promptly launched a fierce protest which set the whole region aflame before spreading to the rest of the country. Unrest continued to grow for a month, while world media remained mostly silent; even Arab media kept their distance.
It was generally thought that it was just another flare-up which Ben Ali would soon take care of. The world began to pay attention when similar demonstrations took off in Algeria, with many fearing a domino effect. As the situation in Algiers quieted down, perhaps temporarily, events in Tunisia became more aggravated, reaching the capital.
Once again Ben Ali brought down his iron fist; police and security services opened fire on the protesters and as many as 80 unarmed civilians were killed. Protesters grew even more determined. Then the army’s commander-in-chief announced that his troops would not intervene and the president, without stopping to reconsider, fired him.
Less than 24 hours later Ben Ali had fled, stunning many. After all, the police were still faithful to the regime and the members of the ruling party spread throughout the country were still a force to be reckoned with.
Suddenly the world was looking at a successful popular Arab revolution, one that had never happened before. There had been revolutions in the Arab world since it became independent of foreign colonial powers – the Young Officers Revolution in Egypt in 1952, revolutions in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Sudan – but they were all military coups, planned and executed by officers, even though they later said they were for the good of the people.
What happened in Tunisia was different. It was started by the people, not the leaders, and their spontaneous protest seemed to have snowballed on its own – unless evidence of a hidden hand is brought forward.
It appears to have been an authentic popular uprising, brought about by the suffering of many and the hatred of a corrupt government. It also appears that the new media – social networks, cell phones, etc. – did not play a dominant role in the events, which were there for all to see, though they did help in getting the news to the international press.
The media has found a connection between diplomatic cables recently made public by WikiLeaks pertaining to the extent of Tunisian corruption, and especially that of Ben Ali’s family, to the events. But the people knew far better than the diplomats what was going on.
France, a very close ally of Ben Ali, was the first country to be taken completely by surprise. Only last week Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, had offered to help him, demonstrating that the French government did not understand what was actually happening. Sarkozy soon set the record straight and refused to grant political asylum to a man who had been his friend a scant week earlier.
Ben Ali was subsequently forced to find shelter in Saudi Arabia. Paris also let it be known that family members of the deposed president were not welcome and froze his bank accounts. Other European countries have yet to speak up, as if waiting to see which way the wind would blow. US President Barack Obama unambiguously declared his support for the demonstrators – but only after they had won.
Independent Arab media – and they exist – are now busy accusing Western countries that supported Ben Ali, as they still support other dictatorial Arab regimes, of helping them to exist and prolonging the suffering of their people. Is this fair? Should Western countries actively engage in changing regimes in the Arab world? There is no clear answer to this question.
Would such a move be welcomed or would it lead to a still greater hatred of the West, while endangering stability in Arab countries and bringing about chaos? Iraq should be an object lesson.
Arab countries are still keeping silent. Saudi Arabia explained that it gave shelter to Ben Ali on humanitarian grounds and because of Islamic solidarity, as it had done previously with Idi Amin, Nazaf Sherif and others, but this had been on the condition that the former president not engage in any political activity on Saudi soil.
The fact is that Arab countries are worried. Royal and presidential palaces are wondering whether this revolution will be the harbinger of more. The economic situation is no better, if not worse in Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Yemen, where widespread unemployment, poverty, sickness, illiteracy, profound inequalities and the same corruption of the ruling elites run rampant.
Why shouldn’t a similar revolution take place in these countries? It’s hard to say, perhaps because the conditions differ greatly from country to country.
While Egypt’s so-called experts have been predicting a revolution for the past 20 years, Hosni Mubarak’s hand is still steady at the helm... for now. In Algeria, the army canceled the first round of elections in 1991 after the radical Islamic Salvation Front had won, bringing on a civil war lasting many years and which may not be completely over; 200,000 have died so far.
One can say that the social and economic basis for a revolution exists in every single Arab country, but this does not mean that one will take place.
Another interesting matter is the level of involvement of Islamist militants – more specifically the Muslim Brotherhood – in recent events. A radical Islamist takeover is the ultimate nightmare for the West, but also for Arab countries. Pictures of demonstrations and clashes with security forces in Tunisia do not show bearded youth in galabiyeh, which are the trade mark of Islamic militants. There is no evidence of Islamic propaganda.
The exiled leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Rashad Anushi, who lives in London, gave a measured interview to daily Asharq Al-Awsat in which he stressed the suffering of the Tunisian people and expressed his support for the demonstrators who represent, according to him, all the elements of the people.
During Algerian clashes last week, the leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front tried to participate and even to lead the protests, but failed. Its chief, Abbas Medani, who is currently living in exile in Qatar, vainly called on his followers for five straight days to join the demonstrations. The party’s second-in-command, Ali Belhaj, made a passionate speech in the center of Algiers but few came to listen.
Does this mean that something is changing and that Arabs are beginning to reject radical Islam, which brings nothing but chaos and destruction?
It is too soon to tell, but there is much to consider after what happened in Tunisia and Algeria.
Has the revolution really won? It is hard to say. Ben Ali is gone, but his supporters and the ruling party still hold all the government positions. They are well organized and not ready to relinquish their status and riches. Armed bands still roam the streets, bringing destruction and pillage. The army is slowly gaining control but the situation is still fraught with doubt.
The caretaker government wholly comprised of Ben Ali’s men has started talking with different parties’ leaders about holding elections within 60 days. That is a long time from now.
Whatever the final outcome, the spontaneous revolution of the Tunisian people has forever changed the Arab world. They have shown that a grassroots revolution can happen everywhere.
The writer is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden, and a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.