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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 5    Issue 18   01-15  February 2011

Stirrings of Democracy in Tunisia

Minaret Research Network

Mohammed Bouaziz, a 26-year-old educated Tunisian, lost his father, a construction worker in Libya, when he was three. His widowed mother married his uncle. Since the family has been in dire straits, Mohammed has been working since his teens. He sold fruits on a handcart to support his mother, uncle and five brothers and sisters at home. On the morning of December 17, 2010, Faida Hamdy, a municipal inspector in Sidi Bouzid, the area where Mohammed lived and earned his livelihood, confiscated his fruits and his cart and slapped him in the face for what the government considers as illegal trade. He was also thrashed by two of her colleagues.

Mohammed walked a few blocks to the municipal building, demanded his cart and fruits back, but was again beaten up. Then he walked to the governor’s office and asked for an audience, which was refused. Around noon, in a street in front of the governor’s office, he poured a can of paint thinner and lit himself on fire. Before he could be taken to hospital, he had already suffered 90 per cent burns, and eventually died on January 4. The even triggered an unprecedented wave of protests and demonstrations across the country. Labour unions quickly joined the demonstrations, which grew violent in the face of brutal retaliation by the police. The police caned the rampaging mobs, used teargas shells to disperse them and even opened fire, killing at least 78 civilians by official count. News of the unrest was quickly spread through mobile phones and the Internet. Gory images of deaths and injuries caused by the police were circulated on mobile phones and on Facebook. Aljazeera television was the first channel to carry the news.

In many places the protests and demonstrations turned violent. The main rail station of Tunis was set alight by angry crowds. Demonstrators fought the police in pitched battles, torched police stations and ransacked banks and shops. A large number of luxury cars, including Porches, Volkswagens and Kias, imported by the President’s son-in-law, were torched by the demonstrators. His villa was ransacked and trashed. Mercifully, Tunisia’s army refused to use force against protesters. On January 14 more than 40,000 people gathered at the historic Avenue Bourguiba to vent their ire against the government, braving torrents of teargas and bullets. France’s widely circulated newspaper Le Monde reported that “scenes that were unimaginable only days ago are now occurring with dizzying speed”. On January 14, the Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country and sought shelter in Saudi Arabia. A Tunisian writer commented on Ben Ali’s flight to Saudi Arabia on Twitter: “What an irony that a guy who banned veils should end up with the Wahhabis.” Some members of the royal family have sought asylum in France, while others have moved their cash and fleets of luxury cars to Dubai. Within a day of Ben Ali’s departure, many of the luxury villas, cars and businesses belonging to the royal family were ransacked and destroyed by the protesters. A branch of Zeituna bank, founded by Ben Ali’s son-in-law, was torched. Similarly, vehicles made by the companies for which he had the dealership were damaged and set afire. After Ben Ali’s departure, his long-time prime minister, Mohammed Ghannoushi, announced the formation of a government of national unity, the lifting of all censorship, the institution of commissions to investigate corruption, human rights abuses and political reform, the release of all political prisoners and the promise to hold free elections within six months. Since he has been closely allied with the corrupt regime of Ben Ali, the Tunisian people have a deep distrust of Ghannoushi and are pressing for his ouster.

Anatomy of Unrest and Confrontation

Deep-seated discontent, resentment and anger among the Tunisians have been simmering for nearly half a century. The immediate context of widespread unrest and protests across the country is provided by the high unemployment rate, especially among educated youth, massive corruption and nepotism involving the President’s family, brutal suppression of human rights and civil liberties, widespread inequalities of wealth and power, an intimidating security apparatus and a corrupt, stifling administration.

Economically, Tunisia has done rather well in the past two decades. The economy, fuelled by foreign direct investment in manufacturing and offshore services, petroleum products and tourism, has grown at an annual average of 5% over the past two decades. Tunisia has one of Africa’s highest per capita GDPs (PPP). However, the benefits of economic development have been cornered by the ruling elite and their families and a corrupt bureaucracy, while large numbers of people are faced with dwindling opportunities and bleak economic prospects. According to official figures, the unemployment rate in the country is 14 per cent, but the actual rate is much higher—up to 30% in some cities. Ezzedine Larbi, a former World Bank accountant who left Tunisia to live abroad, reckons that the unemployment rate in the country is closer to 20% for university graduates, and 27% overall for 20-29 age group.

The family of Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser and Ben Ali’s second wife, has been involved in massive corruption scandals and extortion rackets. The family had stakes in the country’s banks and airlines, television channels, industries and retail businesses. Leila Trabelsi has been notorious for her ostentatious lifestyle and profligacy. She often used the President’s 737 Boeing Business Jet to shop at the fashion capitals of Europe, such as Milan, Paris and Geneva. Recently, Tunisia rejected a French request for the extradition of two of Ben Ali’s nephews who are accused of having stolen two mega-yachts from a French marina. France’s Le Monde reported that relatives of Ben Ali fled the country with 1.5 tonnes of gold ingots valued at $65 million, though Tunisia’s central bank has denied the report.

The WikiLeaks diplomatic cables have described the ruling family as the nexus of corruption aided and abetted by a mafia-like network. A June 2008 cable from the US embassy in Tunis quotes a report by the Transparency International to the effect that President Ben Ali’s family was involved in clandestine dealings in cash, services, land and property. The cables also reported that due to fears of reprisals from the President’s highly influential and resourceful family, many Tunisian investors had to forgo new investments and were forced to keep domestic investment rates low, which added to the high unemployment rate in the country. A report by Global Financial Integrity, a watchdog group, in January 2011 said: “The amount of illegal money lost from Tunisia due to corruption, bribery, kickbacks, trade mispricing and criminal activity between 2000 and 2008 was, on average, over $1 billion a year”. That is a substantial sum for a country whose GNP is hardly around $80 billion at purchasing power parity (The Economist, January 20, 2011).

The Ben Ali regime has been one of the most tyrannical and authoritarian in the Arab world. International human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Freedom House, have documented and highlighted the widespread violation of human rights and civil liberties in the country. The Economist’s 2008 Democracy Index classified Tunisia as an authoritarian regime ranking 141 out of 167 countries. Amnesty International has reported that “the Tunisian government is misleading the world as it conveys a positive image of its human rights situation in the country while abuses by its security forces continue unabated and are committed with impunity”.

Tunisia’s Blighted Legacy

Tunisia, the northernmost country in Africa, has a population of 10.4 million. In ancient times, when it was a Roman province, it was known as Rome’s “bread basket”. In 1881 the French invaded Tunisia with an army of 36,000, following which the country became a French protectorate. French colonial rule resulted in a massive exploitation and plundering of Tunisia’s resources, the migration of tens of thousands of French and Italian settlers, the impoverishment of the peasantry and the systematic erosion of the country’s spiritual and cultural heritage. The number of French settlers grew from 34,000 in 1906 to 1144000 in 1945. By 1910 there were 105,000 Italians in Tunisia. The French colonial administration discriminated against Tunisian Muslims in many ways. A systematic and calculated attempt was made by the colonial rulers to wean them away from their traditional moorings and traditions. The colonial rulers privileged and promoted those Muslims who had taken to Western education and had imbibed French culture. One of the most insidious consequences of French colonial rule over Tunisia—in fact of European colonial rule in general—was the creation of a breed of natives who would look up to Western culture and education and look down upon their own cultural legacy, who developed a vested interest in the perpetuation of colonial rule, and who played a key role in the continuity of the colonial legacy after the passing of the colonial era.

The independence movement in Tunisia was led by Habib Bourguiba, who had studied law and political science at the Sorbonne in the 1920s. After independence Bourguiba became the country’s first president. During his regime (1956-1987), massive changes were brought about in the country’s economy, politics, education and culture. The Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), founded by Bourguiba, has ruled the country since independence. Bourguiba’s 30-year reign was characterized by an evident Western and secular orientation, an unrelenting quest for modernization and a marked disdain for political groups and parties that claimed to be inspired by the Islamic ideology. In the 1980s he imprisoned and threatened to execute leaders of the Islamic Tendency Movement.

Islam has been a central and inseparable part of the collective psyche and consciousness of Tunisian Muslims for centuries. During the anti-colonial struggle, Islam acted as a potent source of moral, cultural and symbolic strength and resilience. Bourguiba sought to dilute and undermine the hold of this vital component of the Tunisian identity and legacy. In 1956, shortly after independence, Bourguiba launched a massive project aimed at undermining the vitality of religious institutions and the authority of religious functionaries. Shariah courts were abolished and religious endowments were nationalized. The highly respected Zaytuna seminary was integrated into the University of Tunis. In addition, Bourguiba pushed through a controversial legislation called the Code du Statut Personel (Personal Status Code), which secularized the family code and replaced the Shariah-based laws in respect of marriage, divorce, inheritance and child care. Polygamy was outlawed and divorce was made subject to judicial review. The government refused to give permission for the celebration of festivals relating to the shrines of Sufi saints. A number of Sufi shrines were even demolished by the authorities. On February 5, 1960, three weeks before the commencement of the holy month of Ramadan, Bourguiba launched an audacious attack on the practice of fasting, arguing that Tunisians needed to devote their energies to the country’s progress and development rather than to the observance of outmoded religious practices. But Bourguiba’s move proved to be counter-effective and created widespread resentment and unrest among the people. Eventually he capitulated.

Ben Ali, who was then interior minister, seized power from Bourguiba in a palace coup in 1987. He promised democratization and held parliamentary elections in April 1989. However, soon after coming to power he stifled all political opposition and jailed his opponents on trumped-up charges. He made it clear that he was in favour of excluding religion from public life. The Ministry of Education reintroduced a decree from the Bourguiba period that banned the wearing of headscarves in schools and offices. Ben Ali’s tyrannical methods and his secularizing zeal were particularly reflected in the manner in which he dealt with the Islamic Tendency Movement, founded in 1981 by Rachid Ghannoushi and Abd al-Fattah Muru. Ghannoushi believed in multiparty democracy and constitutional law and combined his Islamic orientation with the democratic argument to criticize the Tunisian government. He called for the reconstitution of the economic order on the basis of justice and equity, the end of single-party politics, the acceptance of political pluralism, and a return to traditional religious and moral values. In 1988 Ben Ali’s government issued a decree to the effect that no political party seeking recognition should have the word Islam as part of its name. In order to comply with this demand, the Islamic Tendency Movement was renamed Hizb al-Nahdah (the Renaissance Party). In 1989 Ben Ali reneged on his earlier promise to recognize Hizb al-Nahdah as a political party and declared that he would not allow any party to combine religion and politics. The government imprisoned the leaders of the party and closed down its organ Al-Fajr. Ben Ali purged the police and army of Islamic sympathizers and ordered the arrest of hundreds of people on spurious charges of extremism and terrorism. Ghannoushi, who was sentenced to life imprisonment, went into exile in London. Ghannoushi arrived in Tunis on January 30 after two decades of exile.

Although the constitution of Tunisia declares the country to be an Islamic state, for all practical purposes Islam has been made subservient to the secular state and its role has progressively been circumscribed and undermined. Institutions that have traditionally imparted and disseminated Islamic teachings—madrasas and Friday sermons in mosques—have been under the control of the government.

Western Response to the Uprising

Western countries have long feted the Tunisian model and heaped praises on its secularism, liberal economic policies and stability, while glossing over the nepotism and corruption of the ruling dispensation, suppression of human rights and civil liberties and lack of democratic, transparent governance. The US, France and Germany have always backed the Ben Ali regime and praised the dictator for being a “friend of Europe” and for his suppression of “extremist Muslims.” In the past, Nicolas Sarkozy had hailed Ben Ali as a great democrat. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a member of the French Socialist Party and currently head of the International Monetary Fund, once stated that Tunisia was “a model for many emerging countries.” The association of French investors in Africa, CIAN, praised the country for its “solid economy, coupled with political stability.” When large-scale protests and demonstrations were being held across Tunisia, Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, was asked about the protests. “We can’t take sides, “she said.

The Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten released a series of US diplomatic cables from 2006 on massive and pervasive corruption and nepotism in Tunisia and its adverse effects on the economy. The cables reveal that nearly 50 per cent of the country’s political and economic elite was connected with Ben Ali’s corrupt regime. The cables show that the US was fully aware of the appalling levels of corruption in Tunisia, but chose to overlook it and continued its support for Ben Ali because of his role in suppressing Islamic movements and dissident leaders.

In the middle of the protests, before Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, Michele Alliot-Marie, the French foreign minister, told the National Assembly, the lower house of the French Parliament, that France could “offer the know-how of (its) security forces to help control this type of situation” (in other words, to rescue the government of Ben Ali).

The statement was so disastrous that President Nicolas Sarkozy, Prime Minister Francois Fillon and some of her cabinet colleagues distanced themselves from it and publicly criticized it. On January 8, an Elysee spokesman said that what was happening in Tunisia was the country’s internal matter. Rachid Ghannoushi, leader of Hizb al-Nahdah, has aptly remarked that “while the West criticizes Islamic governments for not being democratic, it also supports governments that are not democratic and that are keeping Islamic movements away from developing their ideas.”

Nobody knows for sure what will be the outcome of the uprising: a military coup, a multiparty democracy, or a prolonged period of political chaos and uncertainty. Many of the prominent Tunisian dissidents living in exile in Western countries are likely to return to Tunis in the coming weeks. Rachid Ghannoushi has already returned to Tunis. It is a rapidly unfolding, uncertain scenario, which has the potential to usher in a democratic revolution and, at the same time, is filled with foreboding.

Repercussions in the Arab World

The popular uprising in Tunisia—nicknamed the Jasmine Revolution--has sent shock waves across the Arab world and autocratic rulers of Arab countries seem to be evidently jittery. There is a strong undercurrent of resentment, frustration and anger across the Arab world. Emad Gad, a political scientist at the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, says: “You have leaders who have been in power for a very long time, one party controlling everything, marginalization of the opposition, no transfer of power, plans for succession, small groups running the business, vast corruption. All of this makes the overall environment ripe for an explosion at any second.” (The New York Times, January 18, 2011). In Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and Algeria, protests have been held over inflation, high rates of unemployment, corruption and absence of political freedom.

Thousands of Egyptian protesters began gathering in Cairo and other Egyptian cities from January 24, voicing their resentment and anger against rising prices, high unemployment rates and the huge gap between the rich and the poor, and demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. The protesters chanted “We are next, we are next. Ben Ali, tell Mubarak he is next.” The police responded by bursting tear gas shells and water cannons. Night curfew was clamped on Cairo, Alexandria and other major cities and all internet services were shut off on government orders. Cellphone networks were also severely disrupted. . There were clashes between the police and protesters in several cities. Several prisons across the country have been attacked and the inmates freed. .Cairo’s main roads have been blocked by military tanks and armoured vehicles. The government ordered fighter jets to fly low over Cairo to intimidate the protesters, but they remained defiant. Much depends on the response of the Egyptian army, which has so far refrained from a crackdown on protesters.

The protests and demonstrations are backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition group, and Mohamed ElBaradei, the former chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency. ElBaradei joined thousands of protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand the resignation of Mubarak. The violent protests have taken a toll of more than 100 lives. The National Coalition for Change, an umbrella organization of opposition groups, has called for a million-strong protest march on February 1 to force President Mubarak to resign.

Inspired by the events in Tunisia, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Yemen’s capital Sana’a on January 26, demanding an end to the corrupt regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled the country for 32 years. The protesters chanted “Yemen is not another Somalia, but another Tunisia”. Unnerved by the rising wave of protests and demonstrations in large parts of the country, the government of Saleh released all political prisoners and journalists from prison. Protesters took to the streets in Jordan on January 29 and shouted slogans against rising prices and high unemployment rates and demanded the resignation of the prime minister Rifai.

Modern information and communication technologies, including satellite television, mobile phones, the Internet and social networking and video-sharing sites, have created a public space for free discussion and exchange of views and are playing a key role in disseminating information, images and messages, in mobilizing people for protests and demonstrations and in coordinating dissident activities. Educated Arabs from across the region have used cyberspace to express their jubilation over the Tunisian uprising. Aljazeera television has played a key role in disseminating information about the widespread protests across large parts of the Arab world and has helped strengthen the perception that the protests are linked by a common thread. Egypt has ordered the offices of Al Jazeera to close down, which attests to the highly important role played by the channel in the turn of events.

Unemployment is a major source of economic insecurity in the Arab world. Data from the Arab Labour Organisation (ALO) show that in 2005 the overall average unemployment rate for the Arab countries was about 14.4 per cent of the labour force, compared to 6.3 per cent for the world at large. Many economists believe that the unemployment rate in the Arab world is much higher. Overall, the unemployment rate among the young in the Arab countries is nearly double than in the world at large. A joint study by the Arab League and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) indicates that in most Arab countries young people comprise at least 50% of the unemployed—the highest rate in the world. According to the report, rates of poverty remain high, reaching up to 40% on average, which suggests that nearly 140 million Arabs continue to live under the upper poverty line. The report also notes that in the past 20 years there has been no appreciable decline in poverty rates in the Arab world. In Egypt, nearly 50% of the population lives below $2 a day. The Arab Human Development Report 2009 reckons that a major challenge in the coming years will be creating about 51 million new jobs, mostly to absorb young people by 2020.

It is now widely recognized that authoritarian rule, corruption, suppression of human rights and civil liberties and institutionalized gender discrimination are corroding the social, political and moral fibre of Arab societies. According to the ranking of Freedom House (an American-based monitor of civil and political rights), almost two-thirds of the 192 countries around the world are now electoral democracies. But among the 47 countries with a Muslim majority, only one-fourth are electoral democracies and none of the core Arabic-speaking countries falls into this category. Out of seven world regions, the Arab countries have the lowest freedom score. The Arab Human Development Report 2004 pointed out that “the Arab world finds itself at a historical crossroads.

Caught between oppression at home and violation from abroad, Arabs are increasingly excluded from determining their own future”. It argued that, in order to be sustained, freedom requires a system of good governance based upon popular representation and public accountability, the rule of law and an independent judiciary. The report noted that the preconditions for the flowering of freedom are conspicuously absent in the Arab countries, which engenders deep and widespread frustration and despair among the people. The report suggested that the Arab people faced the challenge to “create a viable mode of transition from a situation where liberty is curtailed and oppression the rule, to one of freedom and good governance that minimizes social upheaval and human costs, to the fullest extent possible”.

By and large, the transfer of political power through the ballot box is a rare phenomenon in the Arab world. In many Arab countries which have some semblance of democracy, elections are often manipulated. Media control and censorship are widespread in Arab countries. At the same time, there is a great yearning in the Arab region, as testified by the Tunisian uprising, for democratic freedom and participation.

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