Tunisia's Nervous Neighbors Watch the Jasmine Revolution

The Arab world ponders the lessons of its first successful popular uprising

  • Salah Habibi / AP

    Protesters demand that members of his party be ejected from the new government

    No bomb exploded announcing the start of the Jasmine Revolution, and in the end, there was no iconic figure — no Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel — to declare its stunning victory. Instead, the fuse for the Arab world's first successful popular uprising was lit when a small-town Tunisian policewoman slapped a fruit seller. A trivial incident, but this is 2011. And so, what happened next went viral, unleashing the seething frustrations of a generation of Tunisians raised under a sclerotic dictatorship — and rocking all of North Africa.

    When the police officer slapped computer-science graduate Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, in the town of Sidi Bouzid, ordering him to pack up his street cart, the young man snapped. Unable to find any work as a computer technician, Bouazizi sold fruit to support his seven siblings, and the slap was one humiliation too many. He marched to the governor's office and demanded an appointment, threatening to set himself alight if the official did not meet him. Turned away, Bouazizi carried out his macabre threat on Dec. 17.

    With his death 18 days later, millions of angry young Tunisians had a martyr. Their frustration had been mounting in recent years as the unwritten compact their parents' generation had made with President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali — economic opportunity in exchange for political freedoms — had come undone. Youth unemployment, as well as inflation, had soared, and the regime had grown ever more corrupt. Bouazizi's suicide "was the drop of water which made the whole cup overflow," says Tunisia's wildly popular rapper El Général, whose enraged lyrics prompted the government to ban YouTube in a futile attempt to quell the protests. "Our parents are too busy trying to feed our families," he says. "But we youth had nothing to fear."

    The four-week revolt leaped from town to town until it engulfed Tunis. El Général's song "Rais Elbled" ("President of the Republic") became the protesters' anthem, with thousands in the streets belting out its angry lyrics: "Mr. President, your people are dying." The Jasmine Revolution, named for the national flower, needed no leaders to rally the protesters or organize the demonstrations. Instead, the revolt was refueled by a steady stream of anonymous text messages, Twitter and Facebook updates. Documents posted on WikiLeaks, in which U.S. diplomats cataloged the corruption at the highest levels of government, deepened the rage. Mobile-phone videos posted online documented the government's brutal response, including the police beatings and the shooting of some of the 100 or so protesters who died.

    By the time I landed in Tunis on Jan. 14, the protests had reached the doorstep of Ben Ali for the first time in his 23 years in power. I walked into the evacuated heart of the capital under choking clouds of tear gas. Avenue Habib Bourguiba, modeled on Paris' Champs-Elysées, was cordoned off by tanks and armored trucks. The detritus of the revolt crunched under my feet. There were bottle shards and bits of clay from smashed flowerpots, used by protesters as ordnance, and hundreds of shoes, abandoned as folks fled the police assault on the latest demonstration. Despite the show of strength, however, Ben Ali was already mortally weakened. Just the evening before, he had appeared on state television and offered to give up power in 2014, when the next presidential election is due.

    But his 10.5 million subjects already sensed that liberation was at hand. "The next morning we had our usual staff meeting, and everyone said, 'We need to speak out, no matter what,'" recalls Noureddine Boutan, director of Tunisia's biggest music station, Mosaïque FM, which had never previously dared to criticize the President. "We went on air and said, 'The dictatorship is over.'" And so it was. Within hours, Ben Ali had fled the country, leaving behind a nation in turmoil.

    The Nervous Neighbors
    Whatever happens next, Tunisia is already the stuff of history. Revolution is rare in the Arab world, which has for the most part remained untouched by democratic movements and economic change. Its authoritarian leaders, many of whom have been around at least as long as Ben Ali, have employed military force or oppressive policing to keep change at bay. A succession of damning regionwide reports by the U.N. Development Programme, compiled by Arab scholars and intellectuals, show a region seemingly mired in darkness: population levels are soaring just as education standards and economic opportunities are diminishing. But while frustration has continued to grow in Arab streets, there has been no equivalent of the "people power" revolutions that have overthrown dictators in places from the Philippines and Indonesia through Eastern Europe and Latin America — or for that matter, the proliferation of multiparty elections that have occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. On Jan. 13, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an unusually frank speech in Doha, Qatar, warned that the foundations of the Arab world were "sinking into the sand."

    Then Ben Ali sank.

    The Jasmine Revolution unfolded on live television before an Arab audience — THANK YOU AL-JAZEERA, read one banner at one demonstration — that could hardly have failed to grasp its significance. Bouazizi's martyrdom inspired several copycat immolations in Algeria and at least one each in Mauritania and Egypt. In Algeria, where protests by jobless youths predated those in Tunisia, there were attempts to replicate the Jasmine Revolution's use of social networks and YouTube. Arab commentators wondered which tyrant might follow Ben Ali into exile in Saudi Arabia: Libya's Muammar Gaddafi? Egypt's Hosni Mubarak?

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