Tunisia’s Democratic Revolution

Whether the overthrow of the corrupt and autocratic Ben Ali regime in Tunisia in a mass civil insurrection will lead to a stable, just and democratic order remains to be seen, but the dramatic events in that North African country underscore a critical point: Democracy in the Arab world will not come from foreign military intervention or sanctimonious lecturing from Western capitals, but from Arab peoples themselves.

While the rioting and other spontaneous violence would seem to differentiate these recent events from the overwhelmingly nonviolent movements that brought down dictators in the Philippines, Serbia, Poland, Chile, and elsewhere, it was the nonviolent aspects of the uprising that proved most decisive. The general strike, the peaceful protests, the refusal to obey curfew orders, the explosion of alternative media, and other acts of nonviolent resistance were far more critical in the downfall of the regime than the violent mob actions, which make for such exciting imagery in the international media, but which were not representative of the movement as a whole.

While the movement was impressive in the way that it was able to transform inchoate populist anger into regime change, effectively employing mass-based tactics to destabilize an autocratic government does not necessarily lead to democracy. Recent history has shown that in such situations, the chances of bringing about a genuine democratic transformation are increased if it comes from a more protracted movement with a comprehensive strategic vision, which seeks to represent the widest range of society and maintains a more conscious nonviolent discipline. The lack of a clear, cohesive leadership group may be partly responsible for the chaos that has followed Ben Ali’s departure. Still, the movement was impressive regarding the way it eventually encompassed diverse elements, which transcended the nation’s religious and political divides, the level of tactical coordination between groups and the way they were able to bring together people of all ages and educational levels out onto the streets. And they did so in the face of severe repression; more than 100 people were killed by government forces over the past four weeks.

Demonstrations began on December 17. Originally led by unemployed youth, the protests were joined a week and half later by professional groups and trade unions, which many thought had been successfully co-opted by the regime. These peaceful demonstrations were violently broken up by security forces as well. On January 6, a general strike by lawyers was 95 percent successful. The following day, the regime arrested a number of prominent journalists, bloggers, activists and musicians. Over the next three days, dozens of protesters were shot dead by security forces, and the nation’s universities were ordered closed by the regime. On January 13, as protests gathered momentum, Ben Ali announced unprecedented reforms and promised not to seek re-election in 2014, but these concessions failed to quell the insurrection. Indeed, the trade union federation issued a formal call for a general strike. The following day, the government imposed a state of emergency and banned gatherings of more than three people, threatening that “arms will be used if orders of security forces are not heeded.” As thousands defied the regime, bravely marching upon the dreaded Interior Ministry and the general strike effectively shut down the country, Ben Ali fled on January 14.

One important aspect of what some have labeled the “Jasmine Revolution” is the role of the Internet. Ben Ali had imposed some of the heaviest press censorship in the Arab world, leading to an unprecedented level of reliance on the Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Whenever the government tried to block access, ways were found to bypass the censors. (Among the signs at demonstrations was “Freedom From 404” – the Internet error code for “File Not Found.”) Hacktivists retaliated by jamming government web sites. While it is important not to overemphasize this aspect – it was people on the streets who made the uprising possible – it is a reminder of the possibilities available for social movements even in countries under repressive regimes.

With unemployment as high as 30 percent among youth, including those with college educations, frustrations at the economic situation were a major focus of the grievances. While the economic issues were clearly important, they were directly related to the lack of democracy. As the US Embassy acknowledged some months ago, “many civil society activists speculate that corruption – particularly that of First Lady Leila (Trabelsi) Ben Ali and the broader Trabelsi clan – is the fundamental impediment to meaningful political liberalization.”

As when the Iranian regime was faced with a similar mass uprising after the apparently-stolen Iranian presidential election in 2009, the Tunisian regime blamed the uprising as the work of extremists and foreigners. This was clearly a homegrown affair, however, with a strong cultural component. Tunisian artists and musicians played a seminal role, including the popular rapper, Hamada ben Amor, also known as El General, who was arrested last week in response to a widely-circulated anti-government song and video.

The chaos which has taken place since Ben Ali fled the country could be a bad sign of things to come. There are reports that certain security forces loyal to the ousted dictator are largely responsible for the burning and looting after Ben Ali fled the country, thereby giving the Army an excuse to assert its power in the streets that, until recently, were controlled by civilians. It is unlikely that the Tunisian people will allow this to happen, however, having tasted their new-found power. In the best case scenario, this empowerment from having overthrown a dictator ensconced in the presidential palace for 23 years could lead to a dramatic growth in civil society and civic engagement in a society which had known little but authoritarian rule since independence, and, prior to that, an often oppressive French colonialism.

The Unhelpful US Role

In the course of some similar civil insurrections, like those in Iran and Burma, Washington has strongly condemned the regime and provided strong words of encouragement for the pro-democracy activists challenging their repression. In a couple of cases, like Serbia and Ukraine, the United States and other Western countries even provided limited amounts of economic assistance to pro-democracy groups. Most of the time, however, particularly if the dictatorship is a US ally like Tunisia, Washington has either backed the government or largely remained silent.

Indeed, rather than praise Tunisia’s largely nonviolent pro-democracy movement and condemn its repressive regime, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the Tuesday prior to the regime’s overthrow expressed her concern over the impact of the “unrest and instability” on the “very positive aspects of our relationship with Tunisia,” insisting that the US is “not taking sides” and that she will “wait and see” before even communicating directly with Ben Ali or his ministers. Clinton acknowledged the economic problems besetting Tunisia and its neighbors by noting that “one of my biggest concerns in this entire region are the many young people without economic opportunities in their home countries.” Rather than calling for a more democratic and accountable government in Tunisia, however, her suggestion for resolving the crisis is that the economies of Tunisia and other North African states “need to be more open.”

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In reality, however, Tunisia – more than almost any country in the region – has followed the dictates of Washington and the International Monetary Fund in instituting “structural adjustment programs” in privatizing much of its economy and allowing for an unprecedented level of “free trade.” These policies have increased rather than decreased unemployment while enriching relatives and cronies of the country’s top ruling families. The US has also been backing IMF efforts to get the Tunisian government to eliminate the remaining subsidies on fuel and basic food stuffs and fuel and further deregulate its financial sector. Adopting this neoliberal model also grossly exacerbated inequality between the coastal areas and the interior and southern regions, where the December protests originated.

A 2009 State Department cable recently released by WikiLeaks described Tunisia as a “police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems” and that “President Ben Ali is aging, his regime is sclerotic and there is no clear successor.” The country’s elites were described as almost Mafia-like in their complex networks of control, ripping off enormous wealth from almost every sector of the economy, and a series of WikiLeaks documents vividly described the extravagant lifestyle and related egregious behavior by the families of the president and his in-laws.

Some American pundits have tried to portray the uprising as the “WikiLeaks Revolution,” implying that the leaks somehow sparked the revolution. However, none of this was news to the Tunisian people. Indeed, as the US ambassador put it in one of these same documents following a lavish dinner hosted by the president’s son-in-law and heir apparent, “The opulence with which El Materi and Nesrine live and their behavior make clear why they and other members of Ben Ali’s family are disliked and even hated by some Tunisians. The excesses of the Ben Ali family are growing.” More importantly, this seems to be yet another effort by Westerners to deny agency to an Arab people who bravely faced down the tear gas and bullets for their freedom.

At least Obama’s appointees in the embassy had a more realistic grasp of the situation than under the Bush administration. In preparation for then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit in 2008, the US ambassador spoke in glowing terms about Ben Ali’s dictatorship. A memo read, “Tunisia styles itself ‘a country that works,'” adding, “While Tunisians grumble privately about corruption by the first lady’s family, there is an abiding appreciation for Ben Ali’s success in steering his country clear of the instability and violence that have plagued Tunisia’s neighbors.” According to Bush officials, “the lack of Tunisian political activism, or even awareness, seems to be a more serious impediment. While frustration with the First Family’s corruption may eventually lead to increased demands for political liberalization, it does not yet appear to be heralding the end of the Ben Ali era.”

Apparently, neither administration shared its concern over the regime’s persistent pattern of gross and systematic human rights violations. Indeed, Tunis became the home of the Middle East Partnership Initiative, a regional office for the State Department’s democratic reform program. US policy was justified in the name of the “war on terror,” even though radical Islamist movements are weaker in Tunisia than in practically any other Arab country. Ben Ali’s regime assisted the United States in “extraordinary rendition,” where suspected Islamist radicals captured by US forces or kidnapped by intelligence services were brought to Tunisia for torture. Tunisia was also one of the governments more willing to cooperate with the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in its efforts to extend US military operations and military relations with African countries.

As the popular uprising against the Ben Ali dictatorship commenced last month, Congress weighed in with support of the regime by passing a budget resolution that included $12 million in security assistance to Tunisia, one of only five foreign governments (the others being Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Colombia) provided direct taxpayer-funded military aid in the foreign appropriation bills. Tear gas canisters lobbed at pro-democracy demonstrators were inscribed with the words “Made in USA,” a reminder of whose side Washington was on in the struggle against the dictatorship.

After official silence following more than two weeks of protests and savage repression by the government, the State Department began to issue some mildly-worded rebukes over the police attacks against demonstrators. Even though most of the protests had been nonviolent, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley chose to represent the movement as its most unruly components, stating that the Obama administration was “concerned about government actions, but we’re also concerned about actions by the demonstrators, those who do not have peaceful intentions.”

US policy began to shift as the pro-democracy movement gained momentum, however. Just two days after the interview in which she appeared to back the Ben Ali regime, Clinton took a more proactive stance at a meeting in Qatar, where she noted that “people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order” and called for “political reforms that will create the space young people are demanding, to participate in public affairs and have a meaningful role in the decisions that shape their lives.”

Then, on Friday, as Ben Ali was fleeing the country, President Obama came forward with the most pointed declaration in support of democracy in the Arab world since he became president:

“I condemn and deplore the use of violence against citizens peacefully voicing their opinion in Tunisia, and I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people. The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold, and we will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard. I urge all parties to maintain calm and avoid violence, and call on the Tunisian government to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people.

“As I have said before, each nation gives life to the principle of democracy in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people, and those countries that respect the universal rights of their people are stronger and more successful than those that do not. I have no doubt that Tunisia’s future will be brighter if it is guided by the voices of the Tunisian people.”

There has long been a sense of fatalism in the Arab world that they are simply passive victims of outside forces. While it is easy to dismiss Obama’s comments as simply a matter of throwing support to the winning side at the last minute, this shift is indicative of the significance of what has happened in Tunisia: rather than Washington controlling the course of events impacting the Arab street, the Arab street is impacting policies emanating from Washington.

A Precedent?

All this inevitably raises the question as to whether Tunisia will spark pro-democratic contagion throughout the region. Tunisia’s small size; relatively large, educated middle class; absence of a strong right-wing Islamist influence; and other factors make the country unique in a number of ways. Certainly, popular pro-democratic movements in Eastern Europe and Latin American swept through those regions in rapid succession in the 1980s, sweeping entrenched dictatorial regimes from power. Vicarious fascination with the Tunisian events in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and other US-backed authoritarian regimes in the region is indicative of the hope, whether realistic or not, that democratic forces in these country could emulate their Arab brethren in Tunisia. Mohammed al-Maskati, a blogger in Bahrain, Twittered, “It actually happened in my lifetime . An Arab nation woke up and said ‘enough.'”

Despite some recent claims in US media outlets to the contrary, this is not the first time popular protests have brought down an Arab or North African government. In Sudan, in both 1964 and 1985, popular, largely nonviolent, mass protests brought down dictators in those countries. The 1985 overthrow of the US-backed dictator Jafaar Numeiry resulted in Sudan becoming the most democratic government in the Arab world for the next four years, only to be tragically cut short in a 1989 military coup. In Mali in 1991, a nonviolent revolution overthrew the Traore dictatorship despite the shootings of hundreds of peaceful protesters. Even though Mali is one of the world’s poorest countries, it has remained the most democratic county in northern or western Africa ever since.

The people of Tunisia have demonstrated their power to oust a dictatorship. The coming period will tell if they can actually build a democracy.