"Every Arab leader is watching Tunisia in fear. Every Arab citizen is watching Tunisia in hope and solidarity."
— From the Sidibouzid Twitter feed
Last year when a friend's college-age daughter was awarded a scholarship to spend the summer studying Arabic in Tunisia, I had to admit my own knowledge of the North African nation was limited. What impressions I did have were of a stable, politically quiescent nation, known more on the world stage for its beautiful Mediterranean beaches and tourist industry than its authoritarian government.
Indeed, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali enjoyed a carefully crafted image in the West as a forward-looking ruler, despite what political scientists might describe as his "democratic deficits." He was a modernizer who promoted women's rights and didn't like Islamic radicals. In recent years, Ben Ali had even permitted a handful of weak opposition parties to occupy seats in parliament.
Of course, there was always that nagging question: What kind of democracy is it when the president regularly receives over 90 percent of the vote in elections? The latter reality either made Ben Ali one of the world's most popular leaders over the last 23 years, or just another authoritarian strongman whose formal beneficence toward civil society reflected only the latter's inability to challenge his dictatorial rule.
All that is history now. Armed with growing courage and solidarity, the Tunisian people in their many thousands repeatedly took to the streets over the past month, steadfast in voicing their desire for jobs, democratic freedoms, and an end to corruption and class privilege. From the government came false appeasements the people no longer believed, as well as open threats they did believe—police snipers on rooftops, shooting down their own people in cold blood.
Last Gasps from the Rotting Edifice
The last day for Ben Ali's rule unfolded at an extraordinary pace. The morning began with about 200 people demonstrating outside the Interior Ministry building in central Tunis, says Youssef Gaigi, a Tunisian activist and blogger in an on-scene phone interview that day with Al Jazeera.1 As word quickly spread through the city of the peaceful crowd gathering in front of the ministry, the floodgates opened. From across Tunis thousands of people began to arrive at the ministry building, demanding the president's resignation.
Tellingly, the President's televised speech the night before had promised an end to media censorship and more democratic reforms. While such rhetoric might have played well for the international media, at home it was no longer working. "The president just repeated the same speech he made in 1987 when he was sworn," Gaigi told Al Jazeera. "'We will be a democratic country, we will offer you freedom,' but we know it is not honest."
More critically, Ben Ali's last-ditch effort to stay in power included a promise for an end to police shooting live ammunition at demonstrators. But as Gaigi and others reported, everyone knew gunfire could still be heard overnight in Tunis. That afternoon as it became clear the crowd of 40,000 would not disperse until it had gotten what it came for—the president's resignation, security forces moved in with tear gas and clubs.
Instead of restoring order, however, the resulting confrontation only accelerated what was quickly becoming inevitable—Ben Ali's ouster. Within hours state media broadcast the dismissal of the government, followed shortly after by the stunning announcement that the President had fled the country. Fittingly, the old dictator was on his way to the safe haven of the Saudi dictatorship.
Interim President Fouad Mebazza, the speaker of parliament, has since announced a new coalition "unity" government to include opposition leaders, with a new presidential election promised within six months. The six opposition parties represented in the Chamber of Deputies include the Social Democratic Movement, Popular Unity Party, Union of Democratic Unionists, Liberal Social Party, and the Green Party.
Meanwhile, the streets of Tunis remain tense. The dictator's presidential security force of 1,000 armed men appears responsible for much of the street violence, according to many reports, shooting at buildings and people from unmarked cars in a chaotic campaign of terror to induce chaos. On Sunday a pitched gun battle was reported between police and soldiers near the presidential palace in suburban Carthage. Notably, General Ali Seryati, a former security chief and senior advisor to Ben Ali, was arrested over the weekend after being detained by civilians.
What's Next for People's Power?
In response to the backlash from the regime's diehards, I asked Gaigi what the people in the neighborhoods were doing to protect themselves. "Barricading the streets after curfew," he said in an email on Sunday from Tunis. "All the youth are gathering to spend the night together and make sure no one passes unless they know the person, the person is not suspicious, or it is the army. Even the police have problems crossing the barricades since they are part of the problem. The people will let them cross if they know them, and if they do not look suspicious, otherwise they would immobilize them and deliver them to the army. The army is closely collaborating with people in different neighborhoods to catch the [security] militias."2
Such a description suggests the larger challenge now facing Tunisia's Jasmine Revolt, as it is now described. The "people's power" that toppled the rotting edifice of dictatorship and crony capitalism of Ben Ali represents the fertile soil for a new, democratic Tunisia. But for this vision to succeed it will take a sustained effort to organize and mobilize ordinary Tunisians in defense of their own power, for democratic rights and economic justice.
As the dust clears now from the first modern popular uprising to depose an Arab dictator, both the strengths and the weaknesses of the people's revolt are being revealed. To a large degree the Tunisian national uprising was a spontaneous social phenomenon, thriving on its own self-generating momentum. In fact, there were no existing political organizations with enough influence to derail, for the sake of some rancid compromise, the rising wave of the people's power.
Critically, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), the country's only legal trade union and long a regime supporter, turned against the president in the days leading up to his downfall. In various regions of the country, local unions reportedly played key roles in the mobilizations. Can the once moribund UGTT now serve as a rallying force for new, sustained mobilizations in defense of ordinary Tunisians economic interests? Or, will new organizations arise out of the struggles of a now awakened population?
Significantly, new Tunis street demonstrations are already taking place, demanding that the new government exclude all representatives of the old regime. Currently, the defense, interior, and foreign ministries remain in the hands of members of Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally party. It remains to be seen how these challenges will play out.
In the end, the people of Tunisia have taught the entire world that the cry for justice is more powerful than the tanks and torturers of despotic regimes. Indeed, who would have thought a month ago that Mohammed Bouazizi's desperate act setting himself on fire would eventually set an entire nation on fire?
Such is the power of a people who are no longer afraid.
Mark T. Harris has written for Utne, Dissent, Z, and other magazines. He is a featured contributor to "The Flexible Writer," fourth edition, by Susanna Rich (Allyn & Bacon/Longman, 2003). Website: www.Mark-T-Harris.com.
1. "Tunisia: Protests Continue." AlJazeera English, Jan. 14, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/user/AlJazeeraEnglish#p/search/29/BPyvrWblA0I
2. Tomboktoo blog, Youssef Gaigi. http://tomboktoo.wordpress.com.