When his computer science degree failed to corral meaningful employment, 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi resorted to selling vegetables on the street in Sidi Bouzid to support his family of eight.
After police confiscated his vendor cart for lack of a proper permit, and after some accounts of him being roughed-up and harassed, and his subsequent formal complaint lodged with municipal authorities went unredressed, Bouazizi entered a premortem apology to his mother on his Facebook page and on Dec. 17, 2010, baptized himself in gasoline and set himself on fire in front of a local Sidi Bouzid government building.
In the days following Bouazizi’s suicidal protest, masses of Tunisian men, women, and youth stormed the streets of Tunisia in what would prove to be one of the Arab world’s fastest-developing popular revolts in history, leading to the collapse of that country’s aristocracy.
Who knew that a young street vendor’s act would spark a popular revolt, baptized the “Jasmine Revolution,” conflagrate Tunisia’s ruling class, and lead to the truancy of that country’s president, Zine El Abidine Bin Ali, and his family?
As I warned in my new book "The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East," the forces of reform in Arab Muslim-majority countries are poised for uprising.
Winds of civil reform are blowing among ethnic minorities in countries such as Sudan, Egypt and Algeria, as well as among ethnic majorities in countries like Iran and Tunisia. The final chapter of my book envisions a pluralistic Middle East with totalitarian oppression in retreat.
While we are now seeing evidence of fissures forming in several of the region’s repressive regimes, critical mass for a democratic revolution is yet to be realized and care should be exercised in forecasting timelines.
Tunisia's revolt is but a bold example of the long journey ahead. It is at this embryonic stage in the clash between militaristic Islamist ideology and the liberal hopes of civil societies and their youth, between nascent democratic revolution and recalcitrant ultra-nationalism, that the omnipresence of henchmen of the headless regime is felt.
Since obtaining independence from France in 1956, citizens of Tunisia have endured the formation of multiple authoritarian regimes, soft coup d’états and rapid accessions to power from within Tunisian institutions like the military. Such was the case with General Bin Ali who was initially promoted to power by the Republic of Tunisia’s founder and first president-for-life, “national hero” of independence, Habib Bourguiba. After Bin Ali and the ruling Party al Dastur (Constitution Party), with some backing of the military, removed Bourguiba in a coup on Nov. 7, 1987 and announced his impeachment on medical grounds, they marginalized all opposing movements and political parties in Tunisia, a common practice of authoritarian regimes in the region, and reigned unchallenged Ali’s ouster earlier this month.
Under Bin Ali, Tunisia’s foreign policy was aligned with the mainstream bloc in the Arab League and its military stayed close to the West, including France and the United States.
In past decades, Islamists’ have attempted to overthrow the government, as some allege, with support from Libya. In short, Tunisia’s story, while not identical, is comparable to the political history of other moderate Arab countries in the region which are ruled by authoritarian and, as many affirm, corrupt elites.
Tunisia’s economy has been primarily agrarian and significantly reliant on tourism. As a result, Tunisian citizens have felt the heat of the global economic meltdown and as such, have risen to demand decent daily life.
While in past decades Marxist and Islamist forces have tried in vain to seize power via failed uprisings, the January revolt was triggered by apolitical events organized by citizens groups, fueled by a desire for justice and opposition to political suppression.
The rapid rise of this popular movement forced Bin Ali regime to flee the country. This was the first and easiest part of the uprising. What could have turned into the initial stage of a democratic revolution as unfolded in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, has now mutated into an attempt to absorb the Tunisian uprising. The inevitable rise of civil societies that I have argued in my book, are expected to hit most countries in the region, making them the target of gigantic and fierce forces.
First, Bin Ali and his “court” may have fled the country or gone into hiding, but the powerful networks and services that were supplied by his regime for a quarter century are still at large. They could plunge the country into a counter-revolution for many years.
Second, the Tunisian army is intact and appears to be the only national institution that can maintain some basic security in the country. It is anticipated that the general population will place its faith in the military as an authority capable of protecting lives and property.
Third, the Tunisian constitution, currency and its political establishment, to say nothing of the country’s bureaucracy, won’t be undone quickly. What has emerged as an “interim presidency” and the Cabinet it is forming, until new elections decide the fate of Tunisia, may turn out to be the bridge between Bin Ali’s regime and the new Tunisia.
The remnants of the old state appear to be targeted for obliteration by powerful incoming actors: the Marxist left-wing, the Pan-Arab ultra nationalists and the Islamists. All of these re-emerging ideological movements, along with their regional ramifications, are forcefully competing with civil society proponents that were the engine of the revolt and Tunisia’s real hope for a democratic revolution and future.
Various coalitions can emerge and multiple outside interests will be vying for a stake. In this magma that formed in the wake of the revolt, the United States and international community must have an emergency list of priorities in place.
I strongly suggest the free world pursue an immediate partnership with the forces promoting civil society in Tunisia. To do so, there needs be international monitoring and support of the bureaucracy and the Tunisian army ensuring that the latter guarantees the security and well being of the civil society until it elects its own new representatives in few months.
Absent such architecture, the totalitarian wolves, claiming victimhood under Bin Ali, will become the “new regime” after a fierce struggle among them.
We must identify the children of the Tunisian revolution and help them traverse one of the most perilous journeys in their nation’s modern history, into the safety of full democracy.
Dr. Walid Phares is the author of "The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East." He teaches global strategies at the National Defense University and advises members of the U.S. Congress on the Middle East. www.walidphares.com
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