Memories of Sidi Bouzid

Memories of Sidi Bouzid
5 min read
17 December, 2014
Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation four years ago was a profound personal statement of despair. It also acted as a catalyst for the accumulated frustrations in the region. But transitions involving liberalisation take time. We are only a short way in.
Profound despair caused Mohamed Bouaziz to change the world. How is not yet clear (Anadolu)
Four years ago, on 17 December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the small, impoverished town of Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia after an argument with a police officer over his market trading. His act of self-immolation was a profound personal statement of despair but it acted as a catalyst for the accumulated frustrations in, first, his own country and then the Middle East and North African region as a whole.

First Tunisia, then Egypt and Libya, and finally Yemen overthrew their autocratic and repressive regimes. Syria collapsed into bloody civil war. Other states, too, were affected. In Morocco, a new, more liberal constitution came into effect and Jordan adjusted to the new climate of
     We are only partway through a complex transition and cannot yet know how it will end.
popular protest. In the Gulf, governments bought social peace through increased financial benefits to their populations. Even in Algeria, public opinion forced government concessions, although not the wholesale political reform that the country needs.

It was a remarkable moment, provoked in part by the global financial crisis that had begun three years before, but primarily by massive popular frustration with autocratic and sclerotic governance tacitly supported by western patrons in their endless search for regional ‘stability’ in the face of extremist violence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ironically enough, it had been prefigured many years before in one of the countries that was to be least affected by it; Algeria, with its ‘Berber Spring’ in 1980 and the short-lived democratic revolution of 1988, snuffed out by a military coup three years later, which ushered in the Algerian civil war. It seemed, in short, to be the moment when the Arab world seized hold of its own destiny, to give the lie to the widespread belief that the Arab Muslim world, for innate reasons of belief and ideology, could never achieve legitimate representative governance and social justice.


The picture today in North Africa seems very different. Only in Tunisia has there been unambiguous and revolutionary change. It has been marked by the adoption of a new, liberal constitution last January – the result of discussion and compromise amongst all moderate political currents in the country, both secular and Islamist – and has been confirmed by new legislative elections last October and presidential elections in November, with a second, run-off round due at the end of the year.

It has not been an easy transition, however. The last three years have been marked by furious disputes between secularists and Islamists over social and security issues, not least over preserving Tunisia’s liberal family and gender laws and confronting the growth of violent extremism. Tunisia’s Islamist movement, Ennahdha, has paid the price of its own, occasional lapses into religious conservatism by seeing its dominant electoral position in the October 2011 elections undermined last October, forcing it into second position after the secularist Nidaa Tounes. And Nidaa Tounes itself causes widespread popular anxiety, despite the fact that its octogenarian leader, Beji Caid Essebsi, came top of the presidential poll last month. Its membership is dominated by leading cadres of the regime that the revolution overthrew. Security, however, remains the most immediate concern as the chaos in surrounding states and in the Sahel threatens to spill over Tunisia’s borders.

Indeed, security continues to be the dominant regional concern. Libya has collapsed into political chaos with two governments claiming nationwide authority whilst hundreds of militias exercise arbitrary power and confront each other, pitting jihadists against Islamists and Islamists against armed secular and tribal groups. In the Libyan hinterland, political chaos shades into jihadist extremism in Mali and Niger and into the criminal networks across the Sahara, engaged in people trafficking and arms and drug smuggling. The country teeters on the precipice of renewed civil war whilst outside powers have begun to intervene, articulating the hostility of the Gulf and Egypt towards the Muslim Brotherhood against Sudanese, Turkish and Qatari support for moderate Islamist groups inside the Libyan arena.

Egypt, in turn, has seen the hopes of the Tahrir Revolution collapse through the incompetence of the Muslim Brotherhood in power. The movement never understood that electoral vindication alone did not obviate the need for continual political compromise in place of majoritarian democratic dictatorship. More than that, its incompetence opened the way for the military to revive the discredited autocracy of the Mubarak era and to split Egyptian public opinion into mutually antagonistic blocs. Only Morocco has paralleled Tunisia in achieving a peaceful transition to coalition government but, even there, there are now anxieties that the state is growing less tolerant of diversity.


The reasons for these apparent failures are not too difficult to discern. One obvious cause is that regime transitions involving liberalisation are a learning process that takes time; those involved have to learn the skills of compromise and tolerance of diverging opinions. Another is that without an independent and competent judiciary, there is no rule-of-law, the essential guardian of political freedoms and more important, perhaps, than electoral choice. And a third factor is that autocratic regimes lack, by definition, the political institutions that protect the individual from the excesses of the state.

Morocco had long before begun the process of institutionalising pluralism, albeit under monarchical control. Tunisia benefitted from political parties that, despite their excesses, had appreciated the value of compromise; Egypt did not and in Libya there were no political institutions at all. Indeed, in Egypt, the deep state never left. In Tunisia it was forced out, whilst in Libya there was no meaningful state at all. But the greatest lack has been time; we are only partway through a complex transition and cannot yet know how it will end.