Fascinating Tunisia, Astonishing Tunisia

by Prof. Bichara Khader
Director of the Center for Studies and Research on the Contemporary Arab World

Catholic University of Louvain



Who could have anticipated such shake-up? Who could have dared hope, only three months ago, that the Tunisian people was able to bring to its knees an execrate regime, whose stability and solidity had been preached by Europe and others? Even those neophytes of Arab politics were caught off guard, astonished by the turn of events, surprised by the swift victory and maturity of the Tunisian people.

It is therefore not surprising that the uprising of the Tunisian people has had an electroshock effect. It came indeed as a certain surprise: an unemployed young man immolated himself in Sidi Bouzid after being harassed by police, triggering a generalized movement of protest. The movement started in the central-western region of the country (Kasserin, Sidi Bouzid, Feriana, etc.) and spread, like a line of gunpowder, to the entire country and caught fire.

Convinced that the protests were the latest of many uprisings this country has witnessed throughout history, police resorted to harsh measures: teargas and real bullets. But the growing desperation of the Tunisian people caused these manifestations to grow and spread. Deaf to the calls of the street, Ben Ali first chose to remain silent, confident of the efficiency of his policy force, going public only to point out the “excited” and “subversive” elements of these “riots”, before coming to reason and recognizing the “errors committed” and pronouncing the words of another famous General (but of different stature) “I have understood you”. But it was too late; protests had reached a point of no return. Ben Ali turned to the army for help, but they chose against it and, led by the Chief of Staff, refused to fire on the crowd. As a result, the regime collapsed and its hunted dictator chose to flee.

Tunisians are as surprised as anyone by such turn of events. Convinced of the dictator’s clawed hold on the country, they had not expected to witness such fragile feline in the face of a fearless people.

I often boast about my close eye on the political, economic and social developments of Tunisia. Nonetheless, I must recognize having been caught off guard. I had always all-heartedly called for change. I had incessantly repeated that “night is at its darkest before dawn” and that “after a winter of dictatorship will come a spring of freedom”. However, I had become increasingly pessimistic: the degree of longevity and resistance of Arab authoritarian regimes in the face of the turbulences of the world had led me to assume that their sustainability was not the sole fruit of internal factors, but of a number of external factors of geopolitical nature as well. This became obvious in ther aftermath of 11 September 2001 when the fight against terrorism had become such an obsession that the West had intentionally silenced its calls for the respect of human rights and other freedoms, thus turning these authoritarian regimes into “anti-terrorist policemen”.

What a godsend for regimes desperate for greater legitimacy, to be given such a task! It was in the name of a “rampart against terrorism” that the Tunisian regime was able to tighten its grip over any demonstration from civil society, linked or not to Islamism, by locking up, muzzling, torturing and exiling, accompanied by a deafening silence of the established predicators of human rights.

In the past, the West has backed Arab regimes for their guarantee of stability in terms of energy supplies and trade relations. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, it had supported a number of moderate regimes said to be “pro-western”, such as Tunisia and Egypt. With the Iranian revolution of 1979, it was vital to prevent the spread of an Iranian contagion, for which the Arab regimes were considered ramparts against revolutionary temptations and religious subversion. Positions based on the idea of a “better the devil you know” and the notion that stable dictatorships are more respectable than “bearded Islamists”, were widespread across Western chanceries. Thus, these regimes did not only survive because of the sophistication of their control and repression tools, but also thanks to their instrumental roles in the stability of trade flows, the fight against Communism and the fight against terrorism.

The problem was that a number of regimes, in the case of Tunisia for example, took repression and corruption to such a level that even the Americans began to show their concern, as Wikileaks documents have revealed. An indent in Western support of these regimes had thus appeared.

This was not a determining factor in the Tunisian revolution, but it clearly played its part. Notably, the sophistication of control and repression methods; Ben Ali’s widespread hold over all fields; the generalization of corruption; the impact of a global economic crisis on a Tunisian economy already weakened by a subcontracting economy threatened by competition; the weak rise in the range of products; the excessively vertical nature of its relations with the EU; a weak horizontal integration; a heavy debt; and an administration plagued by nepotism and vote-catching.

It is this kind of system the Tunisian people has just taken down. Its own blood has written the epitaph of the Tunisian dictatorship, maybe even that of dictatorship in the Arab world. In doing so, it has taught a huge lesson to all those who could only see “inert and docile crowds” on Arab streets, it brought about a singling refutation of culturalist theses claiming that “Arabs and democrats, this is a contradiction in terms”. It gave a lethargic EU a shaking-up, who was about to reward Tunisia with a new “advanced status”. It shed light on suspicious friendships between certain European states and authoritarian regimes of the South.

The Arab people followed the Tunisian revolution with great enthusiasm, if not with a certain envy. Arab regimes have tried to drag the attention away from it, or, at least, minimize its significance. They consider themselves to be out of danger, but freedom is a contagious thing.

A number of lessons can be learnt from Tunisia. First, the maturity of its people: it remained unified and its movement spontaneous: no political party or religious organization oversaw the protests. The Tunisian people showed great courage and outstanding cool: it chose not to respond with counter-violence to police aggressions. Pacific from start to end, the wave of protest outplayed the stubbornness of the friends of the despotic power.

Better still, the slogans of the crowd were all “secular”: freedom, employment, dignity. I did not hear once “God is great”, despite the unquestionable “reislamisation of Tunisian society” and the belief, stressed by one protestor, that “God is in the hearts of Tunisians, but it is not in the street”. Tunisian Islamists maintained a low profile and did not seek to control the protests, or even claim its results. This is a novelty in Arab countries: a clear distinction is made between religious and political claims. This says a lot about the progress of securitization taking place in Tunisia, for which the initial germs go back to Bourguida himself.

The women have been efficient actors of the movement. Spearheads of social change in Tunisia, they did not remain on the side or get marginalized. They are today referred to as examples in all Arab countries.

Finally, this revolution is not one of “empty stomachs”, but one of “big brains” full of dreams and hope for another Tunisia. Fingers were pointed at the economic questions, such as youth unemployment, corruption and vote-catching, but it was the quest for freedom that drove the protestors.

With the dictator now deposed, it is now time to conquer democracy. But this will be a bumpy ride: the technostructure and the base of the dictatorship must be dismantled (militia, secret service, single-party state, etc.); proper elections must be organized; a democracy of appeasement and inclusion must be put into place. The army, whose credibility has remained largely untouched, must oversee a smooth transitional process, without considering itself “the saving figure of the nation”. Many other “saviors of the nation”, have become, across other horizons, the “gravediggers of democracy”!

Since its independence in 1956, two presidents have led Tunisia: Bourguida and Ben Ali. Let’s hope that the Tunisia of tomorrow will manage, in respect of its “founding fathers”, to free itself forever of its raptorial leaders.