Birth of the Arab Spring- ten years on

Mike Phipps explores the impact in Tunisia, where it all began

Ten years ago, on this day, December 17th 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor in the city of Sidi Bouzid, set fire to himself in protest against the repeated harassment, humiliation and confiscation of his wares by local police.  He died a fortnight later, just 26 years of age.

It was an extreme act by a desperate young man.  Allegedly spat at and slapped by the authorities for not being able to pay them a bribe – he earned about $5 a day selling fruit – his martyrdom sparked a revolution that would transform not just Tunisia, but much of the Arab world.

Some 5,000 people joined his funeral procession. Many shouted, “”Farewell, Mohamed, we will avenge you.” The protests spread like wildfire across the country, including the capital. They were so intense that President Ben Ali, who had ruled Tunisia for 23 years, was forced to flee on January 14th, just ten days after Bouazizi’s funeral.

Ben Ali symbolised autocratic government in North Africa and the Middle East. He had come to power in a coup in 1987 and had subsequently won ‘elections’ with over 90% of the vote.  Arbitrary arrest, detention and torture characterised his regime and a large percentage of the population were thought to be in the pay of the secret police.  In terms of press freedom, Tunisia was ranked 143rd out of 173 in 2008. After he fled, Ben Ali was accused of drug trafficking and money laundering and was sentenced in his absence to life imprisonment for theft, murder and violent repression.

Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation had a far-reaching impact across the Arab world.  Several men emulated it, in an attempt to bring an end to their own autocratic governments.  It was a time when anything seemed possible. As Robert Fisk wrote at the time, “If it can happen in the holiday destination Tunisia, it can happen anywhere.”

One commentator said, the Tunisian revolution “brought down the walls of fear, erected by repression and marginalisation, thus restoring the Arab peoples’ faith in their ability to demand social justice and end tyranny… Tunis may have been an extreme example, but all Arab regimes are variations on the same model, which obediently follows Western-instructed economic ‘liberalisation’ while strangling human rights and civil liberties.”

In Tunisia, the revolution which followed Bouazizi’s death targeted not just the corrupt system that demanded bribes from honest traders. The protests highlighted high unemployment, poor living conditions and the lack of basic freedoms. There were scores of deaths and injuries, most of which were the result of action by police and security forces.

It was a revolution made by young cyber-connected activists, of the kind much discussed in Paul Mason’s Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, in a country where even graduates had no future unless they had the corrupt connections. And it continued after Ben Ali’s departure, against the presence of his supporters in the government that replaced him, for constitutional reform and democratic elections at all levels.

Demonstrations of 100,000 plus forced the caretaker government to resign just six weeks after taking over. The new government dissolved the secret police and announced elections to a new constituent assembly. A court banned Ben Ali’s party and confiscated its assets, and the political police were disbanded by government decree.

Free elections were held in October 2011 and former dissident and veteran human rights activist Moncef Marzouki became president. He set up a Truth and Dignity Commission to investigate gross human rights violations committed by the state and to provide compensation and rehabilitation to victims.

While the process towards a new constitution was bumpy, the mobilisations of 2011 had a lasting impact on Tunisian society. In 2013-4, when the reform process stalled, it was a coalition of civil society organisations, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, initiated by the country’s genera l trade union, which played a central role in breaking the deadlock. In 2015 the Quartet was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for its efforts in helping to create a peaceful, democratic, pluralist order in Tunisia.

The most notable achievement of Tunisia’s Revolution, noted one analyst five years after it began, “is the space for political critique, assembly and speech that the revolution carved and has protected. In only five years, public debate in Tunisia has been marked by contentious and open discussions about previously taboo topics, including religion and political orders, rule of law, stability vs. reform, gay rights, national consensus and political compromise, artistic expression, and the meaning of revolution and a democratic polity. It is the revolution that has made such discourse possible.”

 A National Museum of the State Security System opened in 2015. Former political prisoners lead guided tours, recounting their stories of persecution, imprisonment and torture, providing insight into the workings of the former regime’s security apparatus.

Artists are in the forefront of pushing back the boundaries of debate. One recent film, Kaouther Ben Hania’s 2017 Beauty and the Dogs, whose production would have been unthinkable a decade earlier, deals with the taboo subject of a college student who is raped by police officers.  She is treated with impassive contempt by health officials and told she must complain at the police station where the officers are based. Understandably, the student, Mariam, is reluctant to do so.  In one memorable scene, she is harangued by a fellow student, Youssef.

Youssef:  Do you understand what’s going on here? Why did we have a revolution? People have died for their rights! So these monsters can pay! If we accept to be humiliated, forget about it! Forget about it … You have to grab your rights with both hands. If you give up, they’ll eat you alive! Do you understand?

Mariam: Why are you lecturing me? After what happened to me, I shouldn’t just file a complaint. I should slaughter them and drink their blood.”

Today Mohamed Bouazizi Avenue in the city where the young street trader was martyred honours his memory. There is a monument to him at the site where it happened.  People are no longer afraid to speak up, but the social issues raised by the Tunisian Revolution have not been resolved. Corruption continues to be widespread and unemployment remains high, especially among young people and recent graduates.

A series of technocratic governments has not stopped the dominant neoliberal economic model from asserting itself, while the plight of the poorer sections of society remains similar to what it was a decade ago.

Today the EU is proposing a new set of trade deals with Tunisia, the economic and social consequences of which could be disastrous, according to some analysts. The deal will exacerbate already existing power imbalances. The EU is exerting unacceptable pressure on the country to agree to it, and has excluded from consultation key social groups who are likely to be negatively impacted by the agreement – small farmers, agricultural and other workers, small and medium producers, consumers and beneficiaries of public services. Very few Tunisian companies stand to benefit.

As Layla Riahi and Hamza Hamouchene argue, “Ultimately, to stop the bleeding of Tunisia’s wealth and the suffering of the less privileged in society, as well as to unmask the local profiteering oligarchy, a change in the economic approach that has been followed in recent decades is desperately needed. The only way forward is to walk firmly on the path of decolonization towards a new liberating and transformative alternative economic order, not only for Tunisia, but also for other subjugated countries in the region and across the global South.”

The Tunisian revolution is a long way from completion.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Image: A French protest in support of Mohamed Bouazizi, “Hero of Tunisia”. Source: Flickr[1]. Author: Antoine Walter,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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