Tunisia: the uprising as a lever for political change?

Since December 17, 2010, Tunisia has been experiencing an unprecedented popular uprising in a tightly controlled country, in response to Mohammed Bouazizi’s suicide, a young seller of fruits and vegetables in the town of Sidi Bouzid. His suicide, motivated by the lack of career prospects, awakened the social complaints of a large segment of the Tunisian society. From the region of Sidi Bouzid, the movement quickly spread to other cities across the country to finally reach the capital on last December 25. It has also extended to various layers of society in a movement of solidarity. Faced with this turmoil of Tunisian society, the Ben Ali regime has used its classical repertoire of actions: strengthening the control of the media and the Internet to prevent  « media defamation hostile to Tunisia, » disproportionate use of force and repression against protesters, disqualification of the movement that would be, according to President Ben Ali, politically manipulated from abroad by « certain parties who do not want the good of their country », or a budget allocation of the equivalent of 3.3 million euros to the poor region of Sidi Bouzid.

The sources of popular discontent are, originally, economic and social because the crisis has exposed the failures of the Tunisian development model. Firstly, there is a mismatch between the large investments made to promote education and knowledge, which make the country a large pool of graduates, and the economic model that favors industries with low technological value such as tourism, textiles and agriculture, which rather ask for unskilled employees. Also, the imbalance between the coasts and inland, to promote the development of the tourism sector leaves large areas in need. Finally, the massive liberalization undertaken since the 90’s placed the country, of course, in the IMF’s good books, but mainly contributed to the widening of social inequalities, by the budget cuts and the presidential clan’s grip on the economy they created. These structural problems, coupled with the economic crisis have resulted in widespread unemployment among young graduates and increased poverty of the inland. The tacit social pact between the regime and the Tunisian people, based on the exchange of purchasing power against the docility of Tunisian society and its renunciation to political freedom, is being questioned.

This questioning led the demonstrations, initially focused on social demands, to take a more political turn. Indeed, there is no space for debate and no lever action to tackle national problems collectively. Freedom of expression is muzzled. Civil society, either silenced or infiltrated by the ruling party, is reduced to a trickle. Tunisian media are docile and do not leave room for dissent. There is no organized opposition which has been dissolved or discredited by the regime. Another catalyst of the current social crisis is also the recent publication by Wikileaks of a telegram regretting the excesses of the presidential clan and the predation system in place. Faced with such a system, society is left powerless. Despite the closed political system, repression and the blocking of any dissent, young people had therefore no alternative to express their outrage and social demands but to demonstrate.

But in front of the current social unrest, some have concluded too quickly to a near end of the regime. This is not counting on the striking power of the regime which has certainly lost a source of legitimacy with the economic crisis, but is focusing on that which remains: force and repression. Another weakness of the movement is that it is not structured and has mainly materialized by spontaneous popular uprising without strong leadership. The fragmentation of the opposition and its elitism do not suggest that it could take over the uprising. The political vacuum created by the regime makes difficult the structuring of a credible « liberation » movement especially since it will certainly not receive the support of Western powers, strategically allied to the government, whose silence since the beginning of the frond has been instructive.

MEDEA team