On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian man of 26 years old, heads towards the municipality of Sidi Bouzid, a Tunisian provincial city. He walks calmly towards the entrance of the building with the intention of protesting. Bouazizi, who was unemployed despite holding a university degree as an IT engineer, was gaining his daily bread as a street vegetable-seller before the police confiscated his stall. Now he was determined to let his voice be heard and to protest this injustice along with the corruption it reflects and the lack of opportunities he is facing despite his application to study and manifest willingness to accept any possible job, including selling vegetables in the street. When the young man set fire to himself in front of City Hall, he marked a day after which Tunisia and possibly the whole Arab world will never be the same.
Immediately after the people of Sidi Bouzid heard about the act of the young man, thousands of people took to the streets in indignation, protesting peacefully against the corruption, injustice, and lack of job opportunities. They chanted slogans like “You gang of thieves, employment is a right” — the gang of thieves they refer to being the “Trabelsies” — as they are known to the whole Tunisian people — that is the family of Leila Ben Ali, wife of the Tunisian dictator Zinelabidine Ben Ali who has been in power since 1987, after a bloodless coup against his mentor, Lahbib Bourguiba.
Since then Tunisia has become one of the most harshly governed of the Arab countries run by an iron fist, where all opposition has been eliminated or tamed. The Trabelsies and their lacqueys grew to become a controlling elite monopolizing most of the country’s resources. The situation is so extreme that it is said that one hundred people control the whole of Tunisia today and dictate its policies in pursuit of their personal gain. Tunisia has become the byword of what is meant by speaking of a Kleptocracy.
In a country that despite everything has a high level of education, with wide internet use and a highly critical population, it was sooner or later going to lead to a confrontation between government and people. That the protest started from the southern parts of the country, generally the more marginalised and oppressed, is also no surprise.
The reprisal was swift and harsh: already on the first day there were reports of deaths and wounded. Other people soon followed Bouazizi’s example and either set themselves on fire or attempted suicide in other ways. The message is clear: the people are desperate, and they feel they have nothing to lose any more.
In another era we might not have even heard of this clash, but with cellular phone cameras and Facebook, the official and western media blackout was breached. Images of the protest, videos, firsthand testimonies, articles drafted by the protesters themselves have gone all over the place in cyberspace. The regime has always had a dodgy relationship with Facebook and the internet and tried now to control the flow of information. But through proxy-servers the story was still being told. Al Jazeera was the only news channel that made headlines of the protests, earning itself the wrath of the regime that has described its coverage as conspiratorial.
This particular conspiracy theory has not been limited to the media. The regime maintains that it embraces the whole protest movement, all thugs steered by a foreign agenda and aiming at destabilising the country and undermining its fabulous and unique success story. Amongst the protesters it is feared as a result that the regime will resort to bombings attributed to Al Qaida to validate these claims. Similar tactics were used in the 1990s when, as Jennifer Noyon chronicles in “Tunisia’s ‘Managed Democracy’,” “by carefully emphasizing the alleged terrorist character of An-Nahda, the regime was able to undermine the movement’s legitimacy in the eyes of the people and to jail and repress its members.”
Ben Ali, best friend of the European Union and especially France in his strong support for a type of militant secularism, has hardly an enemy to his name but his own people, so to speak about foreign aggressors is rather surreal. Despite the fact that his corrupt and oppressive style of governance is well known to the EU, Europe remains a fan of the dictator and structurally finances projects that are controlled by what, Wikileaks has revealed, the American administration regards as little other than a mafia. This is no surprise to most Arabs, because we are used to the west supporting our dictators. Democracy would involve some kind of implementation of a people’s agenda that is not sufficiently pro-Western for Europe or the USA to live with.
Emboldened by European support, and after the death of Bouazizi who succumbed to his burns on January 4, the regime went berserk, opening fire at demonstrators and killing fifty people in three nights. As videos circulated on Facebook showed shocking images of youth shot dead in the head or in the heart, this has galvanized larger crowds onto the streets. What started as a spontaneous uprising now looks more like a revolt, the geographical spread of the protests reaching Tunis, the capital, where today artists protesting against the severity of the repression were beaten and humiliated by the police. But, above all, major protests were reported in three populous and notorious neighbourhoods of Tunis, Al Tadamon, Al Tahrir, and Al Intilaka. Protest has even reached the North West for the first time and there is some talk of casualties in the city of Beja. It seems that the momentum is still building after twenty-five days.
Could this be a popular revolution to topple the regime? This scenario cannot be excluded. There are already signs of dissent among some army units following the sacking of army commander Ben Amar for allegedly refusing to shoot at the protestors. Neither can the possibility of a military putsch to substitute one dictator for another. One thing is sure: there is a political awareness being created now among the Tunisian people and especially among the youth — a sense of historic possibility that what was deemed impossible may actually be within reach.
The effect of this is even being felt on the streets of Algeria where thousands of youth, who were copying the demands of “the Tunisian Intifada” as people are calling it now, clashed with police. Across the Arab world, peoples are experiencing hope, and the regimes are afraid: all the Arab people and all the Arab regimes.
The most famous of Tunisian poets, Abolkacim Ashabi, once wrote a famous poem that we all learned in school across the Arab world. Its best-known verse reads: “If the people one day decide to live, fate must answer and the chains must break.” Bouazizi’s martyrdom may have triggered a popular revival, many now believe, which will ensure that it is only a matter of time before Ashabi‘s prophecy is fulfilled.
Dyab Abou Jahjah is founder and former president of the Arab European League. This article was first published in openDemocracy on 13 January 2011 under a Creative Commons license.