Tunisia's jasmine revolution: surprises and non-surprises
Today I'm pleased to present a guest post from Matt Buehler. Buehler is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Texas at Austin. Currently conducting field research in North Africa in 2010-2011 funded through a David L. Boren Graduate Fellowship, his dissertation examines coalition building between Islamist and secular political parties. Here, Matt explains several key aspects of Tunisia's recent Jasmine Revolution:
Countless newspaper articles and television programs have sought to explain Tunisia’s ongoing “Jasmine Revolution.” Nearly all accounts, whether emerging from French, English, or Arab news sources, described the events as unfolding rapidly and surprisingly. In this guest post for Texas in Africa, I hope to highlight a few surprising (and non-surprising) aspects of the popular uprising that these sources seem to have passed over.
The Jasmine Revolution occurred in a surprising place. Tunisia, according to standard socio-economic indicators, seems ostensibly far less revolution-prone than its regional neighbors. Tunisians are, in general, more educated and enjoy higher living conditions than other Arab North Africans. Tunisia has a nearly 80% literacy rate compared to 75% in Algeria, 65% in Egypt, and 55% in Morocco. According to the UN’s human development index, which ranks counties based on a basket of indicators such as material inequality, life expectancy, and years of education, Tunisia lies at ranking 81 compared to Algeria’s 84, Egypt’s 101, and Morocco’s 114. The fact, then, that a 26-year-old university graduate took the decision to self-immolate in protest of his generation’s dire economic prospects in Tunisia - rather than Algeria, Egypt, or Morocco – seems rather unexpected.
Tunisia, moreover, is a surprising place for a popular uprising given that it hasn’t experienced previous instances of violent revolution or colonial struggle, as its neighbors Egypt and Algeria. Ben Ali’s predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, successfully brought Tunisia to independence through gradual negotiations with the French, preserving the country’s good diplomatic relations with its colonizer that continue until today. With fewer examples of popular uprisings leading to regime change than elsewhere in North Africa, Tunisia seems like an unlikely country for one to produce this outcome.
In examining the political actors that have spearheaded the Jasmine Revolution, one can see a surprising alliance that crosses both ideological and institutional lines. While unemployed young men provided the muscle in protests that began in Sidi Bouzaid, spread to Tunis, and eventually forced Ben Ali’s exile, labor unions and professional military officers have emerged as important players in the uprising. The military, in effect, has chosen to side with the people against Ben Ali and his closest allies, the presidential guard. In recent days, even the national police force – which initially repressed the protests – has begun cooperating with civil society activists through its national syndicate. It remains undetermined, however, whether Islamist and communist political parties currently banned under the Tunisian constitution will be permitted to join the alliance and compete in future elections. In Morocco, such a strategy has contributed to greater political stability and could offer benefits for Tunisia.
Although Tunisia may be an unexpected place for a popular uprising, it came at a relatively unsurprising time in its political history. While Habib Bourguiba saw little use for political pluralism, few dispute that he genuinely sought to implement western-style reforms that made Tunisia one of the most secular, educated, and prosperous countries in the Arab world. Ben Ali, in contrast, had few accomplishments to speak of other than fixing elections, amassing private wealth through public funds, and changing the constitution to allow him to continue as president after the age of 75. After ruling for 23 years, and five successive presidential terms, Ben Ali had provoked the ire of ordinary and elite Tunisians alike. They were fed up and wanted change. We wait now to see, however, whether the Jasmine Revolution blossoms into a participatory democratic system or gets nipped in its bud.
For background on the revolution, see this very useful timeline from al Jazeera.