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The New Arab Staff

Tunisia: The road to revolution

Protests have continued in Tunisia since the Arab Spring. [Getty]

Date of publication: 17 December, 2020

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In-depth: The uprisings that swept North Africa and the Middle East began in Tunisia, bringing freedom and democracy to a country so long dominated by dictators.
Editor's note: This article is part of our special series on the Arab Spring 10th anniversary. The rest of the series can be accessed on this regularly updated portal.

On 17 December, a young, struggling market trader in the Tunisian interior town of Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire to protest the callous confiscation of his vegetable cart by city officials. 

Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation triggered protests and confrontations in the town between locals and police, giving way to a greater wave of uprisings across the country.

The tragic but monumental act of desperation by Bouazizi was the start of the so-called Arab Spring, which saw dictators across the Arab world toppled and demands for bread, justice and equality still resonating today. 

Before the revolution

Tunisia won independence from France in 1956 and the following year became a republic. Its road to independence was comparatively peaceful compared to neighbouring Algeria, where a large European settler population ensured that the country's departure from French rule was both bloody and acrimonious.

Tunisia was to be led by one of the key figures in the country's independence movement, Habib Bourguiba. After coming to power, he was to destroy any hopes for a democratic future for Tunisia, saying that the country was not ready for political pluralism.

The tragic but monumental act of desperation by Bouazizi was the start of the so-called Arab Spring, which saw dictators across the Arab world toppled

He established a one-party, authoritarian state that was to endure until his predecessor Zine Abidine Ben Ali's departure from power in 2011.

In the decades that followed independence, Tunisia celebrated social reforms, such as some gender equality laws, and established an independent foreign policy but these would be overshadowed by Bourguiba's autocratic rule and cult of personality.

Ben Ali

Despite the strict and authoritarian system that Bourguiba established to suppress revolts from below, it was not enough to ensure the president was immune from threats from political rivals within the regime.

In November 1987, Prime Minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali saw an opportunity for power following the increasingly erratic behaviour and illness of Bourguiba. He led a coup against the president saying he was not fit to remain in power.

Ben Ali, a former military man, was to continue the iron rule Bourguiba had established, jailing and torturing political opponents. Rigged elections would see Ben Ali win with huge majorities and his one-party, one-man rule would continue until the 2011 revolution.

Human rights before the revolution

Ben Ali presided over a tightly controlled and authoritarian police state. Endemic torture and widespread brutality would be the hallmarks of his regime.

Tunisian media was one of the most tightly controlled in the world, with Reporters Without Borders ranking the country 164th for press freedom in 2010, just before his demise.

The regime jailed activists and political opponents, while those who were free were subjected to harassment and smear campaigns. Human rights groups and NGOs were similarly restricted in their activities and routinely admonished by authorities.

Plain clothed police were also known to beat, intimidate, imprison and monitor perceived opponents of the regime, leading to a chilling environment in the country.

Ben Ali presided over a tightly controlled and authoritarian police state. Endemic torture and widespread brutality would be the hallmarks of his regime

Amnesty International in 2010 reported that torture and ill-treatment in Tunisian detention centres were common, sometimes resulting in serious and permanent injury. In the past, Tunisians have been forcibly disappeared by police.

The 2003 counter-terrorism law meant that security cases could be tried in secret and suspects held incommunicado without charge. Trials were deemed to be unfair by Amnesty International with confessions often obtained under torture.

The political system ensured that Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally dominated power with opposition parties completely marginalised while international observers were barred from monitoring elections.

Ennahda, a moderate Islamist political movement, was banned in the country and its supporters targeted by regime security, but after the revolution it was to be one of Tunisia's key parties.

Click to enlarge

Economy before the revolution

Tunisia had seen sustained economic growth during the years leading up to the Arab Spring and boasted a comparatively large middle class.

However, the country also suffered from high unemployment, particularly among Tunisia's fast-growing youth population, while rising living costs made things difficult for Tunisians of all walks of life. Economic benefits were also viewed as benefiting supporters of President Ben Ali.

Besides the rampant nepotism and corruption that marked the upper echelons of the economic and political hierarchy, such favouritism towards regime supporters was also seen even in lower paid work.

Gafsa Phosphate Company, in the resource-rich but deprived south of Tunisia, had seen jobs going to supporters of Ben Ali, according to France 24 at the time.

Protests were held at the mining town against the favouritism in the recruitment process but were viciously put down by security forces. What had sustained the regime's hold on power for decades was soon to lead to its undoing.

Besides the rampant nepotism and corruption that marked the upper echelons of the economic and political hierarchy, favouritism towards regime supporters was also seen even in lower paid work

Sidi Bouzid

The agricultural town of Sidi Bouzid was to be known as the birthplace, or ground zero, of the Arab Spring due to the critical role it played in starting the Tunisian Revolution.

The uprising was sparked by the self-immolation of market trader Mohamed Bouazizi outside local municipality headquarters on 17 December 2010 after the humiliating confiscation of his vegetable cart and weights by a city official.

Bouazizi was the sole provider in his family and the loss of his cart was a devastating financial blow for the trader. He died two weeks later in a Tunis hospital.

Peaceful demonstrations were held in the town over the treatment of Bouazizi but were predictably met with violence by local police.

This sparked even more intense protests in the town against police brutality, poverty, and unemployment and marked the first major uprising in the Arab Spring. 

Nationwide revolt

The government offered a $10 million employment package for Sidi Bouzid in a bid to quell the anger, but the unrest continued and soon spread to other parts of the country.

By the end of December, large demonstrations led by activists, workers, students, and others broke out in towns and cities across Tunisia, including the seat of power, Tunis.

Police continued to use brutal and lethal force against protesters, with growing anger against economic conditions and police oppression leading to calls for the fall of the regime.

In mid-January, Ben Ali had pledged widespread reforms and promised not to stand for re-election in 2014 but continued his harsh crackdown by announcing a state of emergency.

But it was too late. With the situation fast-turning against the regime, Ben Ali boarded a plane for Saudi Arabia where he was to live in exile until his death in 2019, a wanted man in Tunisia.

With the military now effectively running the country, and amid an atmosphere of uncertainty, key figures in the Ben Ali regime were detained and a new government was announced.

Protests continued demanding the dissolution of the interim government, which was filled with members of the Ben Ali regime.

After sustained pressure from protesters and cabinet reshuffles, the secret police was disbanded, political parties – including Ennahda – were legalised, and free elections announced.

Around 300 people were killed in the uprising, which was to be known as the Jasmine Revolution, and its impact was to be felt beyond Tunisia's borders.

Tunisia remains a flagship for human rights, press freedom and political plurality in the Arab world, despite its myriad problems

Arab Spring

Tunisia became known as the cradle of the Arab Spring, as it triggered a chain reaction across the Arab world, motivated by similar grievances as in the North African state. Protests in Egypt, Libya and Yemen led to the overthrow of dictators but with mixed long-term results due to war and counter-revolution.

Tunisia held its first free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014, amid a backdrop of political tensions, economic downturn and a fragile security system.

Despite this, Tunisia has been hailed as the main success story of the Arab Spring and as of 2016 was to be the only Arab state classified as "free" by the Freedom House monitor.

Tunisia remains a flagship for human rights, press freedom and political plurality in the Arab world, despite its myriad problems.

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