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Tunisia on My Mind: An essay by Dr. Nader Hashemi

Dr. Nader Hashemi is a professor in Middle East and Islamic affairs at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. In this piece, he reflects on the significance of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution for the rest of the region.

It is hard to exaggerate the excitement, optimism and hope that is sweeping across the Arab and Islamic world at this moment. If one had to reach for a parallel, the toppling last week of Tunisia’s longstanding dictator, Zayn al-Abidin Ben Ali, is viewed from within the region as the political and moral equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Last week, after a month of country-wide protests, fueled by a combination of deep-seated economic and political grievances and triggered by the self-immolation of a poor street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi– now a hero across the Arab world, Ben Ali ordered his army to shoot protestors in the street. General Rachid Ammar, head of the armed forces, steadfastly refused and within hours the Ben Ali regime collapsed. Several oberservations are worth noting.

First, why Tunisia? A small country of about ten million on the North African coast nudged between Algeria and Libya, Tunisia rarely received much press coverage. It has long been viewed as stable society visited by Western tourists as well as an American ally in the war on terror.  While ruled by a repressive regime, Tunisia had registered respectable development scores for poverty reduction, literacy, education and population reduction. The per capita income is double that of Morocco and Egypt and higher than Algeria’s, an oil-producing nation. Eighty percent of Tunisians own their own homes.  Tunisia was the last place anyone thought was, or expected to be, on the verge of revolution, reinforcing the historical point that such events can rarely be predicted in advance.

Secondly, the uprising appears to have been leaderless. Unlike neighbouring authoritarian regimes who tolerate some dissent and have prominent opposition groups and leaders, the Tunisian regime has been one of the most brutal in the Arab world. Only Syria and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were arguably worse. During Ben Ali’s twenty-three year reign, thousands of Tunisians have been jailed, killed or have fled into exile. Censorship and surveillance have been everywhere. The regime was effectively a police state, reflected in part by the fact that the internal security forces outnumbered the national army (180,000 to 45,000).

Without an organized internal opposition and charismatic dissident figures, how were the protests organized?  It is too soon for clear answers but reportedly Facebook, Twitter and cell phone technology were effectively utilized by small groups of activists at the local level to bring people into the streets. A parallel exists with the rise of Iran’s Green Movement in 2009.

Thirdly, the dearth of non-violent opposition movements is often bemoaned by a West that assumes Muslim societies are inherently violent. Yet despite longstanding Western support for these same repressive regimes, of which Ben Ali’s dictatorship is a prime example, the Tunisian protests that toppled the regime have been largely non-violent.  All of Tunisian’s exiled oppositions leaders and groups have stressed the peaceful and non-violent nature of their struggle; indeed, the only violence visited upon Tunisian society in recent months should be attributed to the internal security forces and the remnants of old regime (who were trained, armed and supported by Western nations).

Finally, the rapid collapse of the Ben Ali regime reveals the regime’s underlying weakness. Political legitimacy had vanished and Ben Ali’s support base extended no further than his own family.  When Tunisians stopped being afraid and the Tunisian army refused to comply with Ben Ali’s orders, the entire edifice of his kleptocratic regime collapsed.

Tunisia is headed for uncharted waters but the initial indicators seem positive. The ancien regime has fallen, the ruling party has been dissolved and a national consensus seems to exist in support of free elections and a quick transition to democracy.  Will there be a domino effect across the Arab world? While it is tempting to think so, it should be remembered that each society and authoritarian regime is unique and the social conditions that have led to a non-violent revolution in Tunisia do not necessarily exist in other countries. But there is no denying the symbolic power of recent events for Arab and Muslim societies.

Rami Khouri, the prominent public intellectual and commentator on the Middle East, has compared recent events and their regional effects to Polish communism and the Solidarity trade-union moment in 1980. While the Polish regime and other East European dictatorships survived for another decade after the rise of the movement, the countdown had begun. “As happened with an unknown electricians’ union in a Gdansk shipyard in 1980 that required years more to transform an entire political universe a decade later,” Khouri recently observed in the Financial Times, “I suspect Tunisia’s impact on the Arab world will similarly play itself out in stages . . . The transformation of much of the rest of the Arab world is likely to follow in a less dramatic manner — but it will follow for sure.”



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