Tunisia has been (belatedly) cast into the international limelight as widespread protests led to the ouster of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s ruler of 23 years, and only it’s second President since independence in 1956.
Government corruption and high unemployment, combined with a lack of political freedoms have lead to growing resentment among the population. Although Tunisians hardly required an outside reminder of their predicament, the recent release of WikiLeaks documents showing American recognition of these problems may have served as a catalyst for public unrest. The final straw came when a 26-year old university graduate, Mohammad Bouazizi, set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his fruit stand by police and high unemployment.
24 Dec: Protester shot dead in central Tunisia
28 Dec: Protests spread to Tunis
8-10 Jan: Dozens of deaths reported in crackdown on protests
12 Jan: Interior minister sacked
13 Jan: President Ben Ali promises to step down in 2014
14 Jan: Mr Ben Ali dissolves parliament after new mass rally, then steps down and flees
President Ben Ali’s hasty departure to Saudi Arabia led to initial confusion as to who was in charge, after which parliamentary speaker Foued Mebazaa was sworn in as interim president. He is promising to hold down the fort in a coalition government until elections are held within 60 days, in line with Tunisia’s constitution.
But with political opposition having been stamped out under Ben Ali’s rule and the army enforcing martial law, it remains doubtful if proper elections can be held on such short notice. On Al Jazeera’s list of three possible successors to Ben Ali, two were part of Ben Ali’s government (and are therefore unpopular). The third on the list, Progressive Democratic Party leader Nejib Chebbi, is largely unknown outside of a small circle of activists and intellects.
On Saturday, Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of a banned Tunisian Islamist movement, said he would return in the next few days from exile in London. Tunisia under Ben Ali has been brutally and efficiently enforcing a secular nationalist form of government by either jailing, executing, or exiling any traces of Islamism within its borders.
With ministers from an unpopular government, little known secular reformists, and exiled Islamists all looking to join the new political order, what will happen to Tunisian politics is anyone’s guess. Unless the new government is viewed as legitimate, stable, and quickly effective, which is unlikely to happen should elections be held within 60 days, then a post-Ben Ali Tunisia may trade repression for turmoil. The lessons of Ben Ali’s expulsion from government are yet to be learned since much will depend on how Tunisia emerges from the current political vacuum.
Still, the events in Tunisia are already affecting neighboring states, many of whom have similar social, political, and economic problems. Neighboring Algeria was embroiled in anti-government protests over rising food prices shortly after Tunisian protests broke out. Thousands protested food and gas prices and denounced the government yesterday in Jordan. A small group gathered in front of the Tunisian embassy in Cairo to show support for what happened in Tunisia and the blogosphere is filled with expressions of solidarity. According to Amr Hamzawy of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center, “This is going to be quite inspiring for people who live in similar conditions. It really is an indication of how weak authoritarian regimes really are. It just took Tunisians three weeks from December to today to get rid of him, and they got rid of him. This really does away with the aura of strong autocratic rulers … Objectively we are looking at the same ingredients in Morocco, Egypt, Algeria and Jordan. Whether it will happen is another issue.”
While public sentiment is certainly growing against Arab governments, their weakness should not be overestimated. They are on high alert and are accustomed to suppressing dissent. Given the Islamist nature of political opposition in neighboring states, they may also be more motivated than Ben Ali to hold on to power. Michael Koplow explains:
Unlike other Arab leaders such as Morocco’s King Mohammed VI or Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, [Ben Ali] has been unwilling to adopt any sort of religious title or utilize Islamic imagery to justify his rule. Most importantly, Ben Ali never attempted to co-opt Islamists by controlling their entry into the political system, but instead excluded them entirely from the political dialogue.
This history is vital to understanding why the protests were successful in removing Ben Ali’s government. There is an appreciation within the corridors of power in Tunis that the Islamists are not at the top of the pile of the latest unrest. The protesters, though they represent a threat to the political elite’s vested interests, have not directly challenged the reigning creed of state secularism.
Agaist this backdrop, it may be fortuitous for the US that it was Tunisia’s government that fell, as opposed to one of its neighbors. By comparison, a revolution in Egypt, the most populous Arab country, would have been comparable to Iran’s anti-American Islamic revolution. But Tunisia’s population of 10m and reduced risk of Islamic takeover means that the possibility of a new, more progressive government may actually make America’s case for Arab reform easier.