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Origin of the Uprising

How tiny Tunisia sparked the fire that is engulfing the Arab world

by Executive Editors

The events of the last two months have touched the lives of every Tunisian, regardless of class or position. Executive spoke with several of them to hear, first hand, the story of how this tiny nation sparked the fire now raging across the Arab world.

By New Year’s Day 2011, Rafik Rezine had heard plenty about the violence in Sidi Bouzid. Everyone in Tunis had. 

At first the reports had come by circuitous means: through Facebook messages, phone calls and hushed conversations. Those lucky enough to have access to illegal Internet servers shared outside news reports with those who didn’t. The story was compelling, even if its details were unclear: a poor student turned street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, had set himself on fire after being humiliated by the police, and the quiet desert city of Sidi Bouzid had erupted against the government in response. 

Like most Tunisians, Rezine expected the protests to dissipate in a few days. Previously, unrest had risen only to fall, quashed by the police and by the president’s much-feared “Black Tigers,” special security forces named for the shade of their riot gear and the brutality with which they suppress dissidents.

Yet despite reports that police had used tear gas, batons and even live ammunition to disperse the crowds, the protests did not die out. On the contrary, when a private Tunisian television station, Nessma TV, finally aired footage of the protests it was clear that they had escalated and spread to the nearby cities of Kairouan, Sfax and Ben Guerdane. By this time the unrest had been boiling for 12 days and showed no signs of cooling.

Mixed feelings on the eve of a revolution

Though the country had experienced strong economic growth over the past several decades — at an average annual rate of 4.7 percent, according to figures from the World Bank, the highest in the Arab world outside of the Gulf — that growth has not been felt uniformly across all regions or demographics of this small country.

After Tunisia declared independence from France in 1956, industrial development occurred primarily in and around the coastal areas of Tunis, Sousse and Sfax, while the economies of smaller coastal cities were buoyed by money flowing from the millions of European, Libyan and Algerian tourists who visit each summer. By contrast, citizens residing within the interior of the country subsisted largely as they have for generations, tending goats, sheep and olive groves.

These interior regions exhibit a significantly lower standard of living than is enjoyed on the coast. On average, income is lower in rural regions and joblessness is higher. Although education is mandatory for all children, only 67 percent of rural children are enrolled in school, as opposed to 82.2 percent in urban areas, according to a World Bank estimate.

Because of these disparities, citizens of the interior — young people in particular — have streamed into the coastal cities. In a striking illustration of the country’s rapid demographic transformation, the population of Tunis has more than doubled since 1990. And when the economic downturn reached Tunisia in 2009, it was the interior of the country that suffered the most from dropping export values and rising food prices.

Rezine, an engineer working for a private company in Tunis, struggled to reconcile his own feelings as he watched the events unfold. On the one hand, he felt strong sympathy for the citizens of Tunisia’s marginalized core at the heart of the protests and could see why they were angry. At the same time, he felt a certain apprehension at the prospect that the riots could spread. Though he had no love for Tunisia’s autocratic government or its president of 23 years, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, he had done well for himself in the stable climate of the country’s capital — he had a good job, a family and prospects for advancement.

Authoritarian though it may be, the government protected the measure of security he had attained. Civil unrest meant civil instability. And so Rezine watched and waited. Then came the spark that set him alight.

On January 8, six protesters were killed in clashes with police in the provincial town of Tala, near the Algerian border. They were not the first protesters to die since Bouazizi’s act of desperation, but the scale of the killing infuriated Rezine and much of the citizenry of Tunis.

“For me, that was unacceptable,” he said in a recent interview, speaking by phone from Tunis. “We accept that, if there are protests, the police will act to disperse them; if there are riots, the police will use force. But people getting killed… it was another matter. It was our duty to go out on the street and say ‘stop!’”

“Once we were out, there was no stopping us. It was like a dream: Marching down the avenue, singing ‘Freedom! Work! Ben Ali Out!’”

Civil unrest comes to the capital

At 9 o’clock on the morning of January 14, Rezine joined around 100 other Tunis residents for a peaceful demonstration of civil dissent. It was largely spontaneous, spurred by the deaths of the previous days, though it was organized and communicated through Facebook.

They gathered in the downtown Passage neighborhood, near the Ministry of Interior and began to file towards Avenue Habib Bourgiba, a tree-lined thoroughfare in the center of the city named for Ben Ali’s predecessor. 

As the crowd grew close, Rezine could see that the avenue was empty and surrounded by a cordon of police. By now, however, the protesters’ numbers had swelled. What had begun as a hundred had grown to thousands. They encountered a police barrier at the entrance of Avenue Bourgiba and broke through it.  “That was the police’s mistake,” Rezine recalled. “If they had used more force to break us up before we got to Bourgiba, they could have held us back. But once we were out, there was no stopping us. It was like a dream: Marching down the avenue, singing ‘Freedom! Work! Ben Ali Out!’ We marched to the Ministry building and stayed there for hours.”

As the protests continued, the police realized the situation was growing beyond their control and advanced on the protesters with batons and canisters of tear gas.

Meriem Agrebi, a lawyer, was among the crowd when the police attacked. It was not the first time she had encountered the police in recent weeks.  Tunis’s lawyers had been among the first to pressure the government in the capital. On December 28, roughly 300 lawyers had gathered outside the President’s palace in Tunis in solidarity with the protests elsewhere, with lawyers marching in other cities as well. They were dispersed by police wielding batons, but reconvened to demonstrate again three days later. On January 6, an estimated 95 percent of the country’s 8,000 lawyers went on strike in opposition to police brutality.

Now Agrebi found herself running for cover. As gas canisters bounced in the street around her, she ducked onto a side street where, by prior arrangement, a friend was waiting in a car. They sped away. Doctors cited by BBC News would later report that 13 people were killed during the day’s clashes.  Those clashes would not be the last.

The next day, in the face of new demonstrations and riots, President Ben Ali imposed a state of emergency and promised new legislative elections within six months. That night, he fled by plane — first to Paris, where French President Nicholas Sarkozy reportedly refused him entry, and finally to Saudi Arabia, where he was granted asylum.

The first steps toward democracy

Ben Ali’s abrupt abdication was a massive victory for the protest movement, which quickly moved to capitalize on its gains, appointing members of its own leadership to key government posts. When Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi announced on January 17 that the new parliament would contain former members of Ben Ali’s now-disbanded Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party, it was met with sharp criticism from the protests’ emergent leadership, which was spearheaded by the Tunisian labor union. Not satisfied by Ghannouchi’s promise of sweeping reforms, the unions staged fresh demonstrations around the country calling for all members of the previous government to step down.

That demand struck some Tunisians as far-fetched. Feres Yaiche, 22, an engineering student from the inland city of Kairouan, was among the first of his friends to join the protests. Still, he said in a recent interview, he thinks the movement may now be reaching too far.

“I don’t think a new start is necessarily the best solution,” he said. “I think that we can’t refuse everyone from [the previous] government because we need some balance to protect Tunisia socially and financially. We need experienced people in government to work on the situation going forward — otherwise there will be no forward, only chaos.”

“Everyone feels the corruption.. but you get used to it. You fall asleep… Bouazizi woke us up”

From the outside, looking in

And what exactly are the interests that will need to be ‘balanced’ in the new government? Tunisia is largely homogeneous in its religious composition, with 99 percent of its population Sunni Arabs; economic and geographic disparities, however, run strong.

Amr Hamzawy, a Senior Researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center and an expert on social protest movements in North Africa, said in a recent interview that if divisions emerge in the new government, they would likely run along rural-urban fault lines.

“It’s important to understand that this wasn’t simply a conflict of Tunisia against the government,” he said. “It started out as a case of remote regions speaking out against the capital city. Even a new government won’t solve the underlying problems of inequality that exist between urban and rural areas of the country. If there is to be stability, there is going to have to be a significant reallocation of resources to the center of the country.”

While there clearly remains an economic split between rural and urban Tunisia, Hamzawy said that the protests had revealed a split among the ranks of the educated and elite as well. “Previously, most experts took it for granted that organizations like the national labor unions and the Bar Association were allied with the government, and by default, corrupt,” he said. “What we’ve seen, by the leading roles these groups took in the protests, is that even among their ranks there were divisions — a kind of two-class society where the administrators at the top received large cuts and distributed favors, but where the vast majority of participants suffered from the same corruption that plagued the rest of the country.”

Statistics from the World Bank’s Human Development Report support the theory. According to the report, Tunisia’s inequality gap is greater than those of India, Indonesia and Jordan, with 10 percent of the population in control of more than a quarter of the country’s wealth. That upper class has also held a monopoly on political power — an imbalance that, according to Hamzawy, may be evening itself out.

“Political forces like the labor unions and the lawyers’ associations didn’t exist in the form they [do] today, unified and powerful, but suddenly they’re playing a crucial role in sustaining street pressure on the government,” he said. They will likely continue to play a significant role in shaping the country’s future and could add a much-needed voice to the national discourse, he added.

From the outside, looking in

An ocean away, Leyla Chaibe, 19, watched her childhood home transform from authoritarian state to emergent democracy in what seemed like an instant. “When I go back to my country, I won’t even recognize it,” she said in a recent phone interview.

Chaibe, who was born to a lower middle-class family in the city of Monastir, now attends Wellesley College in Massachusetts on a full scholarship. She said that although the revolution had been abrupt it was not unforeseeable. “I remember when tensions started to build over government censorship a year ago,” she said. Her friends in Tunisia would refer to the Internet censors as ‘Amar 404,’ – a tongue-in-cheek reference to the default error message displayed by Internet Explorer when an Internet page cannot be found.

Although the economy slowed in 2009,  government officials continued to hound business owners for bribes. When Chaibe’s mother tried to start a day-care center in their community, a representative from the local ministry told her point blank that she would have to pay him a bribe if she wanted to see her business licensed.

“Everyone feels the corruption, and it wears on you, but you get used to it. You fall asleep,” she said. “Bouazizi woke us up.”

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Executive Editors

Executive Editors are the collective voice of the magazine. Stories written by Executive Editors are the culmination of discussions, brainstorming, research and information-gathering by our editorial team. Over decades, our editorial team has applied a blend of seasoned expertise and a discerning eye to bring you insightful and engaging and substantive reads that eschew sensationalism.
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