Roots of the Tunisian Intifada

January 19, 2011

Protests are continuing in Tunisia after a so-called "unity government" started breaking apart early this week. The government was formed after Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia's iron-fisted president for 23 years, was toppled and fled the country. But the new government contains many high-ranking members of Ben Ali's government, and opposition leaders who were part of the new regime resigned in protest. Meanwhile, reports of demonstrations continuing around the country show that Tunisia remains at a crossroads.

Researcher Lutfi Zaitoun wrote this analysis of the factors that led to the revolt in Tunisia and the toppling of a dictator for the Afro-Middle East Centre Web site. It was written before the protests spread to the biggest cities in the country, and before Ben Ali was toppled, but it provides a useful account of the backdrop to the uprising.

IT HAD never occurred to the young Mohamed Bouazizi, a native and resident of Sidi Bouzid, that his decision, made in a sudden moment of despair and after he had been attacked by a municipal employee, to pour gasoline on himself and set himself alight in a dilapidated Tunisian area plagued by drought would light the flames of popular anger in such a manner that--were such indignation to spread--it could pose a threat to all major Tunisian cities and cause radical changes in the political structure of the country.

The people of Tunisia, this small country in the Maghreb that stretches along the Mediterranean coast, have been assisted neither by history nor geography, and were provided with no terrain which might protect them from the havoc caused by the state, or by which they might find protection as they repel the state when it transgresses in its unjust treatment of its subjects.

The people of this country have now begun to take to the streets, after long periods of silent patience and ostensible calm, as if they were an inanimate object--like a single mechanism, in order defiantly to face the state and alter the balance of power in their favor.

Former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
Former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali

An examination of the modern history of Tunisia will reveal two categories of popular uprisings:

1. The type of uprising which was experienced during the colonial age. These were essentially civil uprisings that usually took the form of direct action against an unjust government decree or one marked by unconscionable arbitrariness. Such uprisings were fleeting conflagrations that would quickly abate, as in the case of the event of January 26, 1978, on the occasion of the general strike called by the General Union of Tunisian Workers. Another example was what came to be known as the bread revolt of January 1984.

2. Another type of uprising, which sometimes punctuated the period of monarchy and colonialism, happened as a result of the dismantling of tribal and clan ties. Such uprisings are referred to as contingent revolts or peasants' rebellions. One of the most significant of these was the 1864 revolt of Ali bin Ghadhaham, which nearly swept away the rule of the Husaynid dynasty. This uprising was followed by the peasants' revolt of 1906, which triggered the longest and most far-reaching resistance against French colonial rule.

This kind of uprising usually begins in rural areas--which face the brunt of the coercive force of centralized economic policies--and slowly spreads over a period of time before it eventually reaches the major cities.

What is taking place in Tunisia today seems to be closer to the second category, which had characterized Tunisia prior to the colonial era. This renders it extremely difficult to predict the course that events will take, but it should not prevent us attempting to comprehend the reasons which have led to this Intifada and to the currently prevailing attitude.

Underlying reasons

1. Twenty-five years ago, Tunisia engaged in a structural adjustment program as dictated by the International Monetary Fund. Participation in the program began with the enactment of harsh economic measures, and a non-transparent and brutal program of privatization of the public sector.

The reform program achieved relative success. It yielded, for the state, a respectable income, and provided a mechanism by which large numbers from future generations of young people might be made to enter the job market. Those Tunisians who have been influenced by the large-scale deployment of propaganda instruments, favorable announcements by the international economic and monetary institutions on the subject of the Tunisian "miracle," and a vigorous and repressive state security apparatus have accorded their government ample opportunity to ensure the success of this economic experiment.

The reform program was given effect at the time that the prevailing circumstances in the rest of the region allowed comparisons between Tunisia and its neighbors. Libya was suffering from suffocating Western sanctions, and Algeria was reeling under the effects of civil war. The conditions in both countries favored Tunisia. It also occurred at a time when Western powers were pouring large amounts in loans and grants into Tunisia's coffers.

The Tunisian regime experienced no difficulty in silencing those forces which might have disturbed its program of reforms. It set about the task of effectively wiping out the Islamic political current, best represented by the Nahda (Renaissance) Movement, the most important political movement in Tunisia at that time. The state succeeded in this by employing a substantial degree of physical and psychological violence--under the cloak of international protection and supported by the slogan of the "war against terror" and fear of the spread of Islam.

The Tunisian regime also abolished and eradicated the trade union movement that was best embodied in the General Union of Tunisian Workers, by means of a systematic domestication process which eventually transformed the way trade union organization was understood, changing a movement traditionally known for its defiant defense of the interests of the desperate and vulnerable working class to being, primarily, a supporter of the liberalization policies of the state.

2. The repressive state machinery then wasted no time in pouncing on the entire spectrum of opposition forces and those components of civil society with a secular inclination. The result was to turn Tunisia, only two generations later, into one of the most closed governments in the world, politically speaking, and one of those with the greatest decline in freedom of expression. Tunisia became devoid of any institutions functioning as intermediaries between the state and society other than a massive security apparatus, which eventually included 150,000 policemen in a country where the population does not exceed 10 million.

3. The structural adjustment program took place contemporaneously with a considerable expansion in the number of university students, which increased ten-fold in the period of the reform program. Student numbers rose to nearly half a million, and they were pushed into the job market at a rate of 80,000 students per year. This, it should be remembered, was happening in a country where the maximum absorption capacity of entrants into the job market din't exceed 15,000 new posts annually.

The consequence was to elevate Tunisia to being the country with the highest unemployment rate in relation to those holding higher education certificates, with some 230,000 job-seekers possessing tertiary education degrees. Most of these unemployed people reside in inland areas. The town of Sidi Bouzid is ranked first in this list, with an unemployment rate that reaches 32 percent, as against the national average of 18 percent.

4. The emergence of an influential layer on the fringes of the state machine, consisting mainly of the president's relatives, his wife and those families associated with him through marriage ties. This layer went to extreme lengths in its quest for rapid enrichment through what the American ambassador, as reported in recently published Wikileaks documents, referred to as Mafia family practices, such as the forceful acquisition or expropriation of people's property, compelling and coercing businesspeople to participate in partnership ventures in exchange for protection, and seizing control of public sector entities at low prices using loan financing from national banks without any transparency.

5. A growing sense within the Tunisian bureaucracy, known for its severity and for low internal rates of bribery and corruption, of annoyance vis-à-vis the pursuits engaged in by these influential families, which had shattered the foundations of the state and threatened its collapse through a rising level of pressure brought to bear by them on large sections of the public.

6. U.S. and European patronage and protection of the Tunisian regime, which is paraded around as a rare example of a country in the global South that had succeeded in exterminating fundamentalism and realizing decent growth rates based on the yardsticks used by the World Bank, without, however, taking into account the exorbitant social costs of these policies. This cozy relationship might explain the state of bewilderment and alarm which befell Western policy-makers when the Tunisian model collapsed, and the protests--which were unprecedented in terms of both length of time and geographical spread--expanded.

Uniqueness of current protests

There are various factors which are unique to the current protests.

1. The fact that the events had their origin in the region of Sidi Bouzid, historically known for its allegiance to the ruling party, and a stable reservoir of members for the security and military establishments because alternative employment opportunities are not available to its youth.

2. The extension of the protests across the entire range of areas most affected by the crisis--that is, the poverty belt stretching from Sidi Bouzid in the south to the governorate of Jendouba in the north. These regions have historically been inhabited by the largest Tunisian tribes (Hammama, Farashish and Awlad 'Iyar), who became known for their vicious determination in resisting the Makhzan (the rule of the Beys) and colonialism.

In spite of their historical relevance and their fierce opposition to previous regimes, these tribes did not benefit from any development project formulated in the "post-colonial" period, because all these projects focused on the coastal strip, the territorial expanse of which does not exceed 15 kilometers, but which enjoys 80 percent of industrial and tourism-related investments.

3. The emergence of a popular media and information network through the use of modern means of communication and social networks such as Facebook. The emergence of these networks provided the Intifada with an independent information base and the marginalization of the state-owned information network, especially by media giants such as Al Jazeera and BBC Arabic. Information has thus been conveyed and pictures of the protests transmitted beyond the wall of censorship. This is the primary reason for the continuation and extensive spread of the protests.

4. The absence of any framing and piloting of such protests by a political elite, given the fragility of the political opposition and its enormous fear of violent repression by the state, and due to the fact that, in the event of any such political hijacking, the protests would suffer a decrease in legitimacy in the public opinion. The sole exception was the Tunisian Bar Association, which endeavored, albeit in a diffident way, to join the protests, before withdrawing.

Results thus far

Though it is difficult to argue that the protests have realized their objectives or the slogans they loudly articulated, or that they are on the way to achieving these objectives--which revolved around the right to employment, fairness in the distribution of wealth and lifting the corrupt families' tutelage over the Tunisian economy--what must be emphasized is that this wave of protests, which is in its fourth week, has effectively begun to realize some gains which were unimaginable by those who unleashed them in the first place. These include:

1. Injecting some spirit into the body of the political opposition which has been enfeebled by its internal and external divisions. For the first time since Ben Ali rose to power, in fact, the main forces of the opposition, across its variegated shades of thought, have succeeded in issuing a joint declaration which proclaimed their support for the protests and adopted its demands.

This included the banned Nahda Movement, which, in spite of the far-reaching waves of repression it has been subjected to, still represents the most important opposition force in the Tunisian arena. In the past, any collaboration with such a movement in political activity was regarded by the state as a red line not to be crossed, and which most political movements had duly observed, at least initially.

2. The same is true of the Federation of Trade Unions which, following a period of hesitation and an initial condemnation of the protests, later became unable, under the pressure of its grassroots structures, to avoid an explicit declaration of support for the protest activities.

3. At the level of governance, this period of protests has witnessed an unrestricted lack of public visibility of the president and the cabinet, and an avoidance to tackle the events by the official media. In the second week, the president attempted to soak up the effects of the popular anger by means of a technical and circumscribed cabinet reshuffle, accompanying that with the dismissal of some governors and the announcement of a 5 billion Tunisian dinar allocation for regional development in what are referred to as "shadow areas" (the interior regions falling within the poverty belt).

In the face of the protesters' refusal to accept with these measures, the president instructed the security forces to deal firmly with the protests. They then opened fire on demonstrators in the affected areas, causing dozens of casualties. Similarly, the way the media addressed the events exposed a growing rigidity and harshness, especially in the aftermath of the appointment of a minister of communication who boasts a militant leftist background.

4. In the third week of protests, the U.S. government changed its stance and summoned the Tunisian ambassador, an unprecedented move in the history of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The U.S. demanded the lifting of censorship of Internet sites and called on the Tunisian state to deal with the protests through peaceful methods. France, which wields the largest influence in Tunisia, on the other hand, expressed total support for the policies adopted by the Tunisian regime, and called for firmness in the confrontation with the demonstrators.

5. The protest movement is witnessing, in its fourth week, a major expansion, and the first signs have appeared of it spreading to the major cities (Sousse, Sfax and the capital Tunis), by virtue of students and secondary school pupils gathering in those centers.

In addition, the protests have resulted in an increasing degree of depth and politicization in the slogans raised, with newer ones beginning to focus on the call for the resignation of the president and the departure of his family. The slogans also started to assume a religious flavor after many people were shot dead by the police.

What the future holds

It is difficult to predict the direction that the current protests in Tunisia will assume. This is due to the fact that the protests require new tools of political analysis because the traditional tools dealt mainly with short and rapid urban protests, as mentioned above.

Despite this, however, it is possible to state with confidence that the first victim of this protest movement has been the project of hereditary rule in Tunisia. Before these protests, rumors had already begun circulating suggesting a possible candidature for presidency by the first lady, whose influence in the country's politics had increased to an unprecedented and abnormal level, and on other occasions, there were rumors of an eventual candidature on the part of some the president's in-laws.

The second victim is the economic influence wielded by the families who had sponsored corruption, after they were referred to in protest slogans, including in the central slogan: "Employment is a right, you band of thieves!"

In the absence of any prospect for an economic solution, especially because of the escalating crisis in the states of the global North which had been supporting the regime in Tunisia, and the regime's abandoning the policy of denial and deception which it had previously adopted--to such an extent that the prime minister had refused to acknowledge that the Tunisian economy was experiencing the effect of the global financial crisis that is still shaking the major world economies--the only option that is open to the Tunisian regime is that of greater political openness.

That option would be given effect to partly by it releasing its iron grip and by making genuine space for freedom of expression and organization. The situation might reach a stage where an attempt will be made to allow for these freedoms while reinforcing the governing elite by means of some independent people, and, at the same time, escalating the level of repression against those who continue the protests.

If such a political stance were to be adopted, it would be a perilous route for the elite, and would threaten a total societal conflagration. However, the introverted, military-like personality of the president, which is harsh and inclined to uncompromising decisiveness, will not incline towards such an approach.

In 1999, U.S. official Bruce Wilkinson wrote a master's thesis on the security challenges Tunisia would confront in the ten years thereafter. Although the text of the thesis remains a secret, the U.S. Defense Department published a synopsis of it.

The import of what is contained in the summary is that, in the period from 1999 until 2010, Tunisia would witness economic crises which would arise, essentially, out of its inability to fulfill the employment needs of its people, and it would experience a reinvigoration of the opposition movements as a result of the wide diffusion of the means of communication, particularly the Internet. Another point made in the summary is that the Tunisian state would attempt to exercise firm control over the situation via programs of economic development focusing on employment and social welfare. In the event that the state proved incapable of bringing such projects to fruition, the summary argued, it would be left to the army to play a role in controlling the internal situation.

It is possible that Bruce Wilkinson did not expect that what he had predicted would be actualized to such an extent as to resemble a fulfilled prophecy. However, the noise of the military vehicles heading for the regions where the protests are taking place only reinforces the veracity of a scenario of military unrest unfolding against the backdrop of the incapacity of the political opposition to provide a framework to the protests, and to convert them into an integrated movement of peaceful change, without excluding the following possibilities:

1. The possibility that the state will succeed in curbing and fettering the events, especially should the major cities which enjoy the biggest demographic and political weight not be set alight by the protests. Such a possible shackling of the protests by the state would be effected through the dual medium of repression and the attempt to gradually absorb the protest movements; and;

2. The state's total disintegration in the event that the army refuses to join in the violent suppression of the protests once they spread to the major cities. In such a case, the vital nerve centre of the state will disintegrate, and its capacity to maintain a firm stranglehold over the prevailing conditions will be lost.

First published at the Afro-Middle East Center Web site. The article was published as a partnership between AMEC and the Al Jazeera Center for Studies.

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