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Mainstream, Vol XLIX, No 8, February 12, 2011

Tunisia - Jasmine Revolution: Lessons Learnt, Challenges Ahead

Saturday 19 February 2011, by Arvind Kumar


On Monday, January 17, while I was waiting at the Frankfurt airport for a connecting flight to Dublin, my eyes were drawn to an editorial in the Financial Times, European edition. The editorial read: “The Jasmine Revolution: Tunisians rid themselves of a corrupt old order”. This editorial made a valid point: noting the collapse of autocracy in Tunisia, it reiterated the notion that no nation will forever be able to endure political repression, denial of civil liberties and rampant corruption among its rulers.

It all started with the death of one Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit and vegetable vendor, that led to a spiralling series of events in Tunisia culminating in a popular revolt which resulted in the final downfall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. It began in mid-December when 26-year-old Bouazizi was selling vegetables on the streets of his rural village without a licence. The police confiscated all his produce and the poor young man immolated himself in protest. This news could not spread through the mass media which was under strict scrutiny by the state but the ‘suicide-news’ did spread via Facebook and other social networking sites which the government had not banned.

Highhandedness and corruption had already distorted the business life in Tunisia and broken the usual contacts between the state and its citizens. Bouazizi’s death became a pretext for demonstrations against the authoritarian govern-ment and people came out on the streets in rage. The government in its usual style attempted to crack down and this culminated in hundreds of arrests and several deaths. On January 14, Ben Ali fled the country to move to Saudi Arabia: an exile by his choice ending 23 years of autocratic rule. On January 15, the head of Tunisia’s Constitutional Council declared the presidential post vacant and disclosed that the new elections would be conducted within 60 days time. A caretaker government, including some of the Opposition members, has taken charge.

The American media in their usual style claimed that the disclosure of alleged corruption in Tunisia was made public by the website WikiLeaks. P.J. Crowley, the spokesperson of the State Department, dismissed their claim. Crowley remarked: “The Tunisian revolution is not a Wiki revolution, the Tunisian people knew about corruption long ago. They alone are the catalyst of this unfolding drama.”1

There is no denying the fact that the ouster of Ben Ali has become one of the most positive changes in Tunisia’s governance since it won political independence from France in 1956 and therefore it is pertinent to underline some of the lessons from what is being dubbed as the “Jasmine Revolution” by the Western media. One, as Rami Khouri of the American University of Beirut holds, the dramatic overthrow of the Ali’s regime in Tunisia will certainly inspire renewed agitation for change in many sectors of Arab society and will also trigger pre-emptive moves for containment by the established regimes. He feels, however, that the Tunisian story is capable of spreading a ‘solidarity-movement’ as it had happened in Poland which sparked off a decade-long process off slow transformations across the entire Eastern Europe.2

Two, there has been massive violence which ensured the ouster and exile of Ben Ali and his extended family, but on a closer scrutiny one finds that the worst excesses were committed by the security forces of Ben Ali and not by the people or even by the Army. In fact the people have shown commendable restraint since the time the chaos began in mid-December.

Three, the Tunisian events beyond any doubt will have far-reaching impact on the Arab world. And for this one needs to understand the underlying contradiction prevalent in the entire Arab world. On the one hand the region’s leaders have a proven ability to use force or to offer liberalisation and economic subsidies to cling on to power. On the other hand, despite a popular protest on the streets for about a month now in Tunisia, a strong grievance among the Arab citizens has been that such protests have been traditionally countered by the powerful innate conservative forces in these societies that have restricted mass protests and regime overthrow in the modern Arab world.3

THE Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia has for several reasons unleashed powerful challenges to the political order in the entire Arab world in the days to come. If we turn to history, it was since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that both France and Britain aborted the normal evolution of constitutional provisions in the Arab colonies which were trying to come out from the womb of the erstwhile Ottoman Empire. For Britain, the focus remained to secure the western approaches to India. Subsequently, since the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War what guided their attitude were securing cheap oil in the Gulf, safeguarding racist Israel and restricting Soviet communism. Viewing the contemporary situation in Tunisia, David Gardner wrote from London:

The past thirty years have seen waves of democracy burst over almost every other despot-plagued region of the world, from Latin America to Eastern Europe and from sub-Saharan Africa to South-East Asia. Yet the Arab world remained marooned in tyranny. In the post-communist era no other part of the world, not even China, is treated by the West with such little regard for the political and human rights of its citizens.4

Another challenge is the underlying contra-diction in the Arab world. In fact, there exist two Arab worlds. The former comprises wealthy energy producers in the Gulf with a small population where paternalistic and tribal welfarism keeps most citizens materially comfortable and consequently they are politically docile. The latter belongs to more than 320 million Arab population who reflect the Tunisian profile as manifest in the socio-economic mayhem, widening disparity between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, dreadful environmental degradation and considerable political tensions. About 65 per cent of the Arab population are under 30 years of age and thus youth employment remains a major challenge to be addressed.

As far as the big power players of inter-national politics are concerned, both the United States of America and European Union had no genuine reasons to be upset about their entanglement in Tunisia because for several decades their tacit approach has been to buttress Arab autocracies lest something more sinister (meaning Islamic extremists) take command. Their real fear was that the only alternative to Arab dictators happened to be ‘radical Islam’. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has already exhorted Arab leaders in Doha for the required reform. She said: “Extremist elements, terrorist groups and others who would prey on desperation and poverty are already out there, appealing for allegiance and competing for influence.”5 Thus it is evident that Ms Clinton could not even mince her words properly and blatantly equated all shades of political outfits competing for establishing a novel political structure to ensure democracy in Tunisia.

It is interesting to note that although the chants of allah-u-akbar (god is great) were heard in the monthlong protest and agitation, Islamist groups had literally no role in the uprising that uprooted Ben Ali and there do not exist social conditions suggestive of the fact that people in Tunisia will vote any political or religious fanatics to power.6 Of course, the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has already lent its support behind the overthrow of Ben Ali’s autocratic regime. There is definitely a volatile situation in Tunisia and it can have far-reaching consequences for the Arab world. Alfadel Chalak wrote in a Leftist Lebanese newspaper:

Whenever we look across the Arab world, we see wars. We see civil wars, wars among ethnicities, wars between sects and ethnicities, wars among sects, and war among authorities, sects, ethnicities and the poor.7

These are some of the several hidden challenges for the Arab world in general and Tunisia in particular. Notwithstanding these challenges, there appears to be a sea of possibility ahead and, as David Gardner has correctly remarked, “Wake up and smell the Jasmine: it is the Politics, stupid!”


1. The Wall Street Journal, Vol. XXVIII, No. 244, January 17, 2011, p. 9.

2. Financial Times, European Edition, January 17, 2011, p.11.

3. Ibid., p. 10.

4. Financial Times, European Edition, January 17, 2011, p. 6.

5. The Wall Street Journal, Vol. XXVIII, No. 244, January 17, 2011, p. 11.

6. Ibid., p. 10.

7. International Hearld Tribune: The Global Edition of the New York Times, January 17, 2011, p. 4.

Dr Arvind Kumar, a Research Associate at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, recently went to Dublin, Ireland to attend a Curriculum Development Workshop on “Peacekeeping and Peace-Building in Europe and South Asia”. He teaches Indian Foreign Policy at Zakir Husain College, University of Delhi.

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