Overthrow of President Ben Ali in Tunisia

Jasmine and Gun Smoke

The uprising began as a revolt by a neglected generation of young Tunisians with no prospects in life. Within less than a month, it developed into a movement of such force that it swept away the country's autocratic president. Beat Stauffer sends us this analysis of events

A demonstrator in Tunis gives the victory sign (photo: picture alliance/dpa)
Victory over the hated despots: in an extraordinarily short space of time, the people's uprising in Tunisia has succeeded in overthrowing an arrogant, autocratic and corrupt regime

​​It may at first seem cynical to connect the lush scent of jasmine blossom to recent events in Tunisia, where dozens of young people have been killed. But there are several reasons for doing so.

Firstly, it was in the so-called "Jasmine Revolution" that President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the ruler of Tunisia, who was driven out of the country on Friday, came to power. The bloodless coup was declared legal on the basis of a law stating that if the president should be proven senile, the interior minister should automatically assume his office. This is precisely what happened on 7 November 1987.

From that day forward, Ben Ali, a former secret service officer, ruled the small Maghreb country as an absolutist leader. His status was pseudo-democratically legitimised by a series of elections, the results of which were strongly reminiscent of the age of Stalinism, both for people in Tunisia and observers further afield.

As the country's autocratic leader, he is responsible for the mismanagement that led to the tragedies of the last few days and weeks, a responsibility he has now evaded through his precipitous flight.

A cheerful, peaceful people revolts

Secondly, the jasmine blossom is also symbolic of a specifically Tunisian national characteristic and way of life, one without which Ben Ali's 23-year rule would be very difficult to explain. It is not just a cliché to describe Tunisians as a generally cheerful people who like to enjoy the pleasant things in life.

Often caricatured by their Algerian neighbours as soft, cowardly, and disinclined to fight, Tunisians prefer to focus on other things that could, depending on your point of view, be regarded as bourgeois or hedonistic. They are often labelled khobsistes, people for whom their daily bread (khobs means "bread"), a secure existence and a degree of comfort are more important than abstract ideals and principles.

Demonstrators in front of the Ministry of the Interior in Tunis (photo: picture alliance/dpa)
"We are the people!" Angry Tunisians demonstrate in front of the Interior Ministry in Tunis, demanding democracy, freedom of expression and the resignation of the president

​​This was exactly what Ben Ali relied on, from the very first days of his rule. He offered his people the prospect of security against Islamist agitation and promised them a certain degree of prosperity – which proved to be very relative – while curbing civil liberties a little more each year.

Serious infringements of human rights have been a daily occurrence over the past 23 years. Political parties and civil society organisations were either banned or kept severely in check, and by the end of his rule, media freedom was virtually non-existent. The regime did not hesitate to use brute force against both its opponents and ordinary citizens who dared to criticise it.

In recent years, respected lawyers, human rights activists and professors were repeatedly imprisoned, beaten up, or persecuted in other ways. The security services also targeted foreign journalists; those making potentially troublesome enquiries have been known to have been silenced, at least temporarily, by means of a chemical addition to their coffee.

Now, however, the sweet scent of jasmine, so ubiquitous in Tunisia, is mingled with the bitter smell of gun smoke. Around a month ago, in an inland provincial town, a young university graduate who had been forced to eke out a living selling fruit and vegetables set himself on fire after being repeatedly harassed by the authorities.

This desperate act was the catalyst for a wave of protests – initially peaceful, later increasingly violent – and attacks on symbols of state power that spread like wildfire across the whole of the country.

The security forces' harsh response to these riots was completely disproportionate, and their inconceivable brutality ultimately played a decisive role in the overthrow of the regime.

Images of the dead and seriously injured in provincial towns in the hinterland were swiftly disseminated via the Internet and new social networks, triggering an immense wave of outrage, which the regime countered with truncheons, machine guns, and empty phrases.

Demonstrators and soldiers on the streets of Tunis (photo: dpa)
The situation remains tense; police officers and soldiers patrol the streets, and night-time curfews are in place

​​This extraordinary drama has shattered Tunisia's image as a small but, economically speaking, relatively successful Maghreb country. After all, if it is true that the Tunisians are indeed khobsistes who generally have no appetite for revolutions and uprisings, then these stormy protests must be seen as an alarm signal.

On the one hand, they highlight the fact that the Tunisian hinterland has been neglected for decades and has seen little or nothing of the progress that is certainly apparent in the bigger cities.

Above all, however, the protests are an expression of deep frustration, extreme social malaise and unfathomable despair. These people feel that they have been given a raw deal, that they have been systematically despised and overlooked.

Out of sight, out of mind

Social psychologists will probably soon begin analysing the complex combination of motives that spurred the young demonstrators in Kasserine, Makhtar and Sidi Bouzid into action. According to one source who is well acquainted with the situation, but wishes to remain anonymous for fear of governmental reprisals, the young people in these poverty-stricken inland towns just couldn't believe the gulf between their own experience and governmental propaganda.

Their precarious standard of living and the serious difficulties they faced in their everyday lives were never even mentioned in public discourse, or, indeed, in any of the media. Instead, they were bombarded on a daily basis with reports about the extraordinary achievements of President Ben Ali and the honours and accolades bestowed upon him. According to this source, some people simply couldn't take it any more.

Everything suggests that ex-President Ben Ali had long been completely out of touch with the daily reality of his compatriots. In an address on state television on 10 January, he branded the young demonstrators "terrorists". In doing so, he made it clear that he had entirely failed to grasp the political message of the revolt.

Young demonstrators throwing stones at security forces in Regueb (photo: AP)
Fury and despair: the people's anger stems primarily from social malaise and disgust with the Ben Ali clan, whose members have shamelessly amassed a fortune over the past two decades at the expense of the civilian population

​​At the same time, the autocratic leader showed that he was incapable of genuine dialogue with his people and unwilling even to attempt it; and that in certain respects he was completely blind to the true nature of their problems. His proposed solution – the creation of 300,000 new jobs for university graduates who had been unemployed for more than two years – showed a staggering lack of vision and of long-term strategies for tackling the country's structural problems.

Until recently it appeared that, despite everything, the autocratic president still enjoyed a certain degree of authority – if only as guarantor of the country's domestic security. His extended clan, however, has for many years had a disastrous reputation, among them his wife, Leila Trabelsi, her brothers and their sons, one of Ben Ali's brothers and the president's son-in-law.

Over the past two decades, members of the family clan, the majority of whom are uneducated, have had no inhibitions whatsoever in amassing a huge fortune by illegal and semi-legal means and no scruples about shamelessly flaunting their accumulated wealth and power.

Rumours about the methods they deployed, most of them extremely crude, have long been common currency in every café in Tunisia. Leila Trabelsi, the "Queen of Carthage" – whose dizzying ascent from a small hairdressing salon to the corridors of power is described in detail in a book of that name – has become an object of particular hatred.

Now the members of "the family" have fled the country. If they had stayed, they risked being lynched by the furious crowds. Many of their villas and luxury cars have already been looted and set on fire.

Hope that change will come

Tunisia's former president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali (photo: AP)
A political failure and out of touch with reality: Ben Ali was incapable of genuine dialogue with his people and unwilling even to make the attempt; he has now fled the country for Saudi Arabia

​​Despite the extent of the riots (the last comparable uprisings took place in 1984), most experts did not believe until last Friday that the regime was in any serious danger. Sihem Bensedrine, author and internationally-recognised opponent of the government, disagreed. As early as the beginning of last week she declared that she did not believe Ben Ali would survive the uprising.

Bensedrine, who subjected the rulers of the Maghreb countries to unflinching scrutiny in her book Europe and its Despots, has been proven right. The young people's rebellion turned into a national uprising that has swept away the hated autocrat's regime.

The concessions made by Ben Ali in the final 48 hours before his flight – he sacked first the interior minister, then the entire government, promising elections, the lifting of Internet censorship and a lowering of the price of basic foodstuffs – were not enough to save his throne.

For Tunisia, and for the whole of the Maghreb, these events represent a historic moment that will undoubtedly go down in history: a peace-loving people, persecuted and oppressed for years by a brutal, rapacious regime, drives out its oppressors without itself taking up arms. One is tempted to make a comparison with events in the former East Germany, although at the moment there is much that is still unclear.

Tunisia faces a difficult and uncertain future, with the danger of continued looting, bloody reprisals and outbreaks of indiscriminate violence. Nobody can tell at this point in time how that future will unfold; but the leaden weight that has hung over the land of the jasmine blossom for the past two decades has been blasted away for good.

Beat Stauffer

© Qantara.de 2011

Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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