Last December 17th disturbances erupted in Tunisia after Mohamed Bouazizi, a young unemployed high school graduate who was condemned to sell fruits and vegetables on a street stall for a living, immolated himself in protest after authorities had beaten him and impeded him from exercising his unlicensed activity. His act crystallized and incarnated the Tunisians’ feelings of humiliation and lack of justice to which they had been subjected by one of the most brutal Arab authoritarian regimes that strived on infamous corruption and nepotism. A spontaneous nationwide uprising ensued, resulting in the downfall of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali who was serving his fifth consecutive five-year term and poised to maintain himself or his family in power eternally.His authoritarian regime was disguised in institutional facade of democracy and mainly concerned by its own survival rather than enhancing the emergence of a vibrant society engaged in the defense and permanent creation of new liberties that allows societies to renew themselves. During his first decade in power Tunisia enjoyed a notable economic development backed by progressive social policies that saw the reinforcement of its middle-class. While entertaining fear internally, and scaring the West with a “horrific Islamic” alternative if it failed to back it up, the regime was able to stifle civil society in exchange of a relative economic well-being. However, with the onset of the second millennium the adverse effects of globalization had started to make themselves felt. The pauperization of the fragile middle class ensued. Indeed, slowing exports were barely offset by output of other sectors; higher growth levels have been difficult to attain to create sufficient employment opportunities for an already large number of unemployed as well as the growing number of university graduates. The challenges ahead include: privatizing industry, liberalizing the investment code to increase foreign investment, improving government efficiency, reducing the trade deficit, and reducing the socioeconomic disparities in the impoverished south and west. A better balance between growth and development remains to be achieved. Still, the main reasons that led to the present unbearable accumulation of dissatisfaction and the de-structuring of civil society can only be imputed to the corruption and nepotism practiced by Bin Ali’s uncultured family under the umbrella of a well-lubricated repressive system. In fact, a mafia-like regime paying scant respect to the Tunisian’s human rights and dignity was instituted, ultimately contributing to discouraging entrepreneurship and freezing local private investment. The result is attested to, among other things, by unemployment figures, the uneven-distribution of wealth, the rise of insecurity and violence, the degradation of education, the pursuit of unethical and immoral practices, the lack of solidarity, political repression, humiliation and most of all the absence of a sentiment of justice. The latter was with time amplified by the traditional “word of mouth” system as well as the Internet despite all forms of censorship. Indeed, Facebook and Twitter proved critical to breaking the total black out of information sought by the regime, while the international media coverage was very slow in covering the unfolding events with the notable exception of Aljazeera TV network.
This article is now featured in Jadaliyya`s edited volume entitled Dawn of the Arab Uprisings: End of An Old Order? (Pluto Press, 2012). The volume documents the first six months of the Arab uprisings, explaining the backgrounds and trajectories of these popular movements. It also archives the range of responses that emanated from activists, scholars, and analysts as they sought to make sense of the rapidly unfolding events. Click here to access the full article by ordering your copy of Dawn of the Arab Uprisings from Amazon, or use the link below to purchase from the publisher.