Update on Salafi attacks in upscale Tunis suburb of La Marsa

[Update: The ruling party has released a statement on these events, condemning and calling for the prosecution of both the artists and the vandals, my English translation of the statement can be found here.]

It was only moments after I posted this article that the Tweets started rolling in. Something big was happening in La Marsa related to the art exhibit that had been attacked yesterday. I left the house at around 11:30 p.m. to see what was going on in. By the time I arrived at Tunisie Telecom, in the heart of La Marsa, just steps away from the French Ambassador’s residence, the evidence was already there – broken bottles, tear gas canisters and rock piles. And then all of a sudden I found myself surrounded by military and police vehicles telling me to get the heck away as they moved in to arrest a handful of young rioters.

The rioting continued for the next several hours (it’s still going on as I write). Curious and concerned onlookers would give each other reports from friends and family, mostly about the expected arrival of reinforcements from nearby cities, especially La Goulette and le Kram, to coastal towns known for Salafi activity.

Much like during the revolution, the riots ebbed and flowed, with protesters surging against the police only to be driven away by speeding paddy wagons and lobs of tear gas. It was unclear how many of the rioters were truly “salafists” – the catch all word for religious extremists in Tunisia. In fact, from what I say, there were a fair number of run of the mill young hoodlums having a lot of fun throwing rocks at the police, with thoughts of the apostates far from their minds. Nevertheless, the religious overtones were there, with each surge came chants of God is great.

Tonight’s protests were based as much on the images displayed in the art exhibit as they were on contempt for the country’s elite, who live largely in La Marsa. The elite are perceived as out of touch and disrespectful of religion. And the reality is that when it comes to puritanical forms of Islam, the protesters are largely correct. The story will play big in tomorrow’s papers and risks spreading rapidly through a society that is more polarized than ever before.

The pity of tonight’s protests, on top of spreading intolerance and polarization, is that it is exactly what the country does not need at this point. Tourism is only just recovering and foreign investors have held on tenuously to their ventures in the country, waiting for a return to stability. Rioting in the hometown of most of Tunisia’s business community as well as a symbol of its summer beach culture will do no favors to either industry.

Ennahdha’s real vulnerability – they’re amateurs

Tunisia’s continuing strikes and sit ins have put the ruling Ennahdha party in an uncomfortable and tenuous position. While the social troubles in Tunisia pale in comparison to those in its fellow reolutionary countries, try telling that to a mother who has to walk her children through a growing mountain of trash on the way to school because of an ongoing dispute between sanitation workers and the local government.

Ennahdha’s reaction has been halting and convoluted – and shown just how much they are new to the process of governing. In a word, they’re amateurs.

The government of Ennahdha has been pressed to put an end to these work stoppages. They know well that governments can rise and fall based on popular revolt and they need to show their ability to run government effectively. The problem is that the very nature of Tunisia’s revolution has made them vulnerable to any action which can be construed to go against the popular wishes of the people.

Thus, when Ennahdha calls for an end to work stoppages, they get slammed from the left – after all, wasn’t one of Ben Ali’s biggest crimes the suppression of wages and the cooption of unions? They also get slammed from the right, which doesn’t object a priori to a law and order party – but remains distrustful of the still un-reformed police.

On top of it, Ennahdha’s right wing has made life difficult for centrists. Last week constituent assembly member Sadok Chorou called for a hard crackdown on protesters, invoking medieval punishments such as crucifixion.  Prior to his recent comments, Chorou was already known as a hardliner who had spent 18 years in jail under Ben Ali, after leading Ennahdha in the early 199os.

While his comments sparked outrage and protest among Tunisia’s left wing, it was Ennahdha’s official reaction that was more telling. According to Magharabia.com:

Lotfi Zitoun, conseiller auprès du Premier ministre Hamadi Jebali, a expliqué quant à lui que les paroles de Chourou ne devaient pas être prises “au sens littéral”.

“Il estime que ces sit-ins font du tort à l’économie”, a-t-il déclaré. “Cet homme a passé plus de vingt ans en prison et a été interdit de parole pendant seize ans en détention solitaire, il a le droit de dire ce qu’il souhaite, bénéficie de l’immunité en tant que membre de l’assemblée constituante, et ne peut être jugé sur ses intentions.”

My translation:

Lotfi Zitoun, adviser to Prime Minister Jebali, explained that Chorou’s comments should not be taken “literally.”

“He thinks that these protesters have hurt the economy,” he stated. “This man spent more than 20 years in prison [sic] and  was forbidden from speaking during 16 years of solitary confinement, he has the right to say what he wants, and with immunity from prosecution as a member of parliament, he cannot be judged based on his intentions.”

According to Businessnews, when asked about Chorou’s comments, Samir Dilou, Ennahdha’s spokesman, stated:

il ne faut pas trop s’y attarder, c’est une affaire morte. M. Ellouze s’est d’ailleurs exprimé au nom de tous les Nahdhaouis à la Constituante pour expliquer que le but de la citation coranique n’est autre que de dénoncer les sit-in et leurs méfaits

My translation:

We shouldn’t dwell on this, it’s over. Mr. Ellouze [Ennahdha representative from Sfax] has already stated in the name of all Ennahdha supporters in the parliament that the goal of citing this Quranic verse is for no other reason that to denounce protesters and their misdeeds.

This is but one example of Ennahdha leaders downplaying comments by more extreme elements in their movement. In the case of the Tunisian television head who is being tried in criminal court for airing the cartoon Persepolis, Ennahdha’s official reaction has been that there should not have been violence against the station or its staff, but that the broadcast was inflammatory. In the case of the ongoing sit-in by niqab wearing students at Manouba university, Ennahdha has refused to take a stand one way or another.

It’s these kinds of statements that make Tunisian secularists label Ennahdha the party of multiple discourses, saying one thing to their hardline constituents while saying another to the general public. This very well may be true. Though it should be noted, political parties often have multiple discourses. In the United States, a democrat running for office in Idaho will have a very different message than a democrat running for office in New York City.

But perhaps there is an alternate explanation altogether: Ennahdha are simply amateurs, too used to being opposition members and never really having to lead or confront hostile audiences.

In many ways, Ennahdha’s situation is like that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. As Khalil al-Anani wrote recently in Foreign Policy [hat tip Issander el Amrani at the Arabist]:

Paradoxically, despite the outright majority attained by its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the MB is still thinking and acting as an opposition movement rather than a responsible power-holder. It seems reluctant to take full power over the country or as Nathan Brown aptly puts it, “the MB confronts its success.” Hence the MB’s leaders are grappling with making the shift from long-standing repressed mentalities to those of statesmen…

Time after time, Ennahdha has hedged words and responded re-actively to the problems they have faced. While their platform was extensive, they seem vulnerable to attacks by a small minority of secularists. This in spite of the fact that they still enjoy popular support and that most Tunisians genuinely want the government to succeed.

But Tunisia’s Islamist leaders are afflicted by two distinct problems:

1) the breadth of views among their constituents (they were supported by moderate, urban middle class voters, overseas constituencies, the rural poor, as well as hardline religious zealots). Pary leader Rached Ghannouchi shows the moderate, polished, educated version of Ennahdha, while Chorou represents the wing of Ennahdha that languished for years in Ben Ali’s torture chambers prisons.

2) The contradictory message of Tunisian voters. Tunisians overwhelmingly want a return to the calm and order of Ben Ali. At the same time, Tunisians mistrust their police force and want the right to protest against their employers – many of whom supported Ben Ali’s kleptocracy.

Ennahdha’s amateurism would likely have afflicted any other party – it’s always easier to criticize than to lead. But right now, since the elections, Tunisians expect Ennahdha to lead, not to mince words. Time will tell if Ennahdha gets its voice back.

Photo Gallery – Tunisia Year 1 – Bourguiba Avenue Januar 14, 2012

Some photos from yesterday’s happenings on Avenue Bourguiba in downtown Tunis in commemoration of the one year anniversary since Ben Ali’s departure. Reports say that up to 20,000 people took to downtown Tunis, many to celebrate, many to demonstrate that the revolution is not yet over. Ennahdha supporters were well numbered, as were Salafi groups, waiving their typical black and white flags, as well as communists and union members. I heard protesters chanting for all sorts of causes – for the return of the caliphate, for human rights, and for Bashar Assad’s degagement. 

Tunisia year 1: Five ways Tunisia has changed for the better

One year ago tomorrow Tunisia will celebrate the first anniversary of the flight of Ben Ali and his reviled wife to Saudi Arabia. And yet, to talk to Tunisians, nothing has changed. This chorus of negativity has been a common theme since the revolution, leading to protests that later fell the first interim government, and now are a thorn in the side of Tunisian industries and the newly elected government itself.

Since the new year, a wave of self-immolations across Tunisia has shocked Tunisians. The BBC reports that in the 6 months since Mohammed Bouazizi’s death, 107 Tunisians attempted to light themselves on fire. Meanwhile, following a wave of protests in the phosphate mining industry, Tunisian petrol workers began striking this week. On the same day, protests erupted in front of the Ministry of the Interior over the perceived lack of concrete changes to the security apparatus.

Euronews reports today that “resignation replaces revolution in Tunisia.” They quote a young man saying what I have heard over and over:

A year after the revolution nothing’s changed. At least before things were safe on the streets, you could go out when you liked. Unemployment’s gone up to at least 800,000 today. Nothing’s changed in Tunisia.

While distress is natural for a people that have undergone the biggest cultural change since their independence from France in 1956, can one really say that nothing has changed? Change in Tunisia, imperceptible to many, far too slow to others, has indeed come to Tunisia. Here are five concrete ways Tunisia has changed, for the better.

1) Freedom to Criticize: This came almost instantaneously after Ben Ali’s departure – and is perhaps the freedom most exercised by Tunisians – criticizing their government. I noted that only one day after Ben Ali’s departure, the cafes were louder. What before had to be said behind closed doors and in the company of only the most trusted confidants, Tunisians loudly and proudly shouted on the streets. Magazines proliferated. Everyone under 30 seemed to be practicing citizen journalism.

While the Stasi-like police state has been dismantled, Tunisians’ ability to protest has not come without problems. The well reported stories in the west about the attack on a Tunisian cinema (for airing a film about an atheist in Tunisia) overshadowed more sinister stories, such as the stories of Nabil Hajlaoui and Samir Feriani. Both men were held in Tunisian jails for openly criticizing the military and the interior ministry, respectively. Other cases, such as restrictions on internet freedoms or the continued government control of key media outlets are also cause for concern.

While concerns remain, Tunisians do not appear on the verge of easily giving up their long-repressed rights to criticize their government. And there are signs that the government itself is taking this into account. Following journalist protests, the government has promised to review its nominees for key press positions.

2) Protests: Protests have been complicated in post-Ben Ali Tunisia. Seen as a hard won right by those who risked their lives against the regime, they have also frustrated Tunisians who think that protests have held back the country from getting its economy back on track. Stories such as that of the Japanese company Yazaki, which has threatened to pull out of the country because of ongoing worker sit-ins, are frequently reported.

Strikes in Tunisia are further complicated, like so many things, because of the corrupt policies of the previous regime. Worker unions had been co-opted by the previous regime; they were unable to protect the interests of Tunisian workers. This allowed the government to suppress wages and attract foreign investment. The foreign investors who profited from this arrangement have undoubtedly been nervous about the waves of protests since the uprising.

Despite government calls for moratoriums on sit-ins (both under the interim regime and the current, elected government), Tunisians continue to exercise their right to free assembly and organization. Worker protests are bolstered by the ongoing support of civil society activists who have called on the government to protect their rights and prosecute corruption under the previous regime. Immediately following the investiture of the constituent assembly, various groups from around Tunisia staged daily protests to urge legislators to uphold their campaign promises.

3) Police: Feared under Ben Ali, and for good reason. Police in Tunisia were well-known not only for their undercover surveillance, but also their brutality. You don’t have to go far to meet Tunisians who were themselves, or had close family members, tortured in one of the interior ministry torture chambers under Bourguiba Avenue.

Police reform remains an absolutely vital issue in Tunisia, witnessed by this week’s protest at the Interior Ministry. However, most Tunisians would admit that the threat of arbitrary arrest has significantly decreased, to the benefit of religious fundamentalists and civil libertarians alike.

4) Corruption: One of the key criticisms of the post-Ben Ali era has been that the vast majority of officials have stayed exactly where they were before the uprising. There have been no major changes to key ministries and many of those close to Ben Ali remain at the helm of Tunisia’s largest businesses. One element that has changed, however, has been the decrease, if not elimination of coercive corruption. As I noted last month:

Entrepreneurs were increasingly punished under Ben Ali. If you ran a successful business, the family would demand ownership. If you were a taxi cab driver, your permit would be renewed only if you bought a car from a Trabelsi dealership. If you were a civil servant, you were obligated to take out loans from one of the Trabelsi owned banks. While the government touted economic growth figures, the average Tunisian increasingly felt marginalized.

While corruption will continue to be a part of Tunisian life, and is a continued risk no matter which party is in power, the kind of coercive economic corruption practiced under Ben Ali has all but disappeared.

5) Mentality: Perhaps most importantly as Tunisia begins to build and rebuild its institutions that will guarantee its liberties, Tunisians more than ever before have a mentality that is premised on basic freedoms – and they know that their voices count. The wall of fear built by Ben Ali has been destroyed. Rather than being the subjects of history, Tunisians today know that they have the power to affect change.

I cannot pretend that all is well in Tunisia. Millions still suffer from poverty and lack of opportunities. The political risks remain enormous, and according to history – the odds are against Tunisia’s success.

At the same time, I look at Tunisia today and see that I have more freedom today than I did one year ago.  I look at Tunisia today and see that I have more rights today than I did one year ago. That’s progress.

Don’t lower the bar for Tunisia

I generally try to write more about political events in Tunisia and how they can be interpreted from various angles, staying away from political commentary. But lately, I can’t help but feeling a little bit disappointed at a lot of the commentary on Tunisia’s successful democratic transition. Since October’s elections, Tunisia has fallen once again by the wayside, used primarily as a reference point of relative success compared to the failures of the “Arab Spring.” Article after article talks about the carnage in Syria, the dashed hopes in Egypt, and the worry over Libya, before casually referring to the “don’t worry about a thing” success story that is Tunisia. I would argue that this attitude is one of the greatest threats to Tunisia’s democracy and to Tunisia’s democratic activists.

Tunisia's success should not be taken for granted

The irony of talking too early about the Tunisian success story is how closely it mimics western treatment of Tunisia under the Bourguiba/Ben Ali dictatorships

Driving the storyline of Tunisia’s success, both by Arab and western commentators, are the successful elections and transition process, the moderate strain of Islam in Tunisia (highlighted by the moderate Islamist party, Ennahdha), and many demographic factors, such as Tunisia’s homogeneity and lack of a resource curse. Truth be told, I wrote about this in the hyopethitical as far back as June in a piece at Nawaat.com, 5 reasons why Tunisia will succeed and the rest of the Arab Spring will fail).

These approaches are valid and natural. Tunisia is blessed by many common factors endemic to democratic countries and Ennahdha has spoken like true democrats. But, this approach also risks lowering the bar for Tunisia compared to well functioning democracies. It will be tragic if Tunisia becomes a success, merely by ending up better than its Arab neighbors, and not based on its basic freedoms and institutions.

The irony of talking too early about the Tunisian success story is how closely it mimics western treatment of Tunisia under the Bourguiba/Ben Ali dictatorships, where the common refrain was: “of course they’re authoritarian, but look at the economy and the state of women.” Under Tunisia’s new rulers it may not be praise for women’s rights, but rather integration of Islamists into the democratic process, or greater press freedoms, while disregarding democratic backsliding on many other levels.

Overall, this strikes me as just as paternalistic as under the previous regime. If the new government does not enshrine political and civil rights into its new constitution, clean up the courts and the justice ministry, and reform the process of patronage between government and industry one cannot credit it for simply not being like Egypt. Tunisia’s smooth transition does not necessarily portend civil rights, merely a lack of civil war.

Tunisian civil society has blossomed in the past year. From the day after the elections, they have lobbied the government to ensure that their interests are protected in the new constitution. However, in Tunisia itself protests are often perceived as counter-productive – especially for a country that so desperately needs to get its economy back on track.  Activists so far have concentrated their efforts on lobbying for the most basic of civil rights: open government, freedom of speech (including internet freedoms), and the rights of women.

These activists need outside support to draw attention to their causes. Instead, what they are hearing is how well everything is going here in Tunisia. The government, after all, has promised to give Tunisians their rights and right the economy.

But students of history know better.

This is not a story of whether an Islamist government can be trusted. This is simply the effort to enshrine into law the rights that all Tunisians (and humans) deserve – whether or not they are in the streets or not. Without concerted pressure on the government, it risks backsliding on its democratic pledges – that’s nothing against Islamists or Ennahdha – that’s just the reality of political power.  We’ve already seen one example this past week of the government enshrining a discriminatory principle into the “petite constitution” that only Muslims can be president (a moot point in a country that is 98 percent Muslim, but troubling nonetheless).

Yes, it is normal to be hopeful for Tunisia. Yes, Tunisia has passed many tests in the past year. But the true battle for political and civil rights has not yet been fought. Officially, Tunisians have no more civil rights today than they did under Ben Ali. The constitution has yet to be written, justice has not yet been done against the former regime.

Tunisia’s success will not be known today, tomorrow, or a year from now. Until it is a success, one must continue to support the struggle in Tunisia.

Ben Ali’s Propaganda from Bouazizi to January 14

In addition to writing about the impact of Mohammed Bouazizi on the occasion of his tragic self immolation,  I thought it would be intersesting to explore the evolution of Tunisian propaganda as it became increasingly unable to deal with the growing protests. I have used the main Tunisian French daily, La Presse to show how the message changed from December 17 to January 14 – a month of protests that changed the course of Tunisian history.

La Presse is Tunisia’s oldest French language newspaper (founded in 1936). It is linked closely with the government. Under Ben Ali, as with all media in the country, they were closely monitored and censored by the government.

December 17, 2010

On this date, Mohammed Bouazizi self immolated in his hometown of Sidi Bouzid in southern Tunisia. La Presse, unaware as everyone else of what would transpire that day in Sidi Bouzid, leads with a story on Ben Ali’s visit with Hamad ibn Khalifa al Thani, and furthering Qatar-Tunisia relations. The irony is unmistakable as Qatar has emerged as a key supporter of Arab revolts in general, and specifically of Tunisia’s long-oppressed Islamist leaders, Ennahdha.

December 21, 2010

From the 17th until the 20th, neither Bouazizi nor the protests in the south were mentioned. The first headline in La Presse regarding protests in Sidi Bouzid occurred on December 21, a rather terse and ominous one liner on “Incidents that have happened in Sidi Bouzid: Precisions from an official source.”

December 24, 2010

In the following days, the press continued to float stories about the president’s plans for economic development, but it wasn’t until the December 24 that La Presse reported on actions being taken in Sidi Bouzid. This was clearly an effort to ensure that the events would stay, at least in the public’s eye, as a localized event. But by this point, the protests were already spreading. The headline reads that the regional counsel of Sidi Bouzid sends its strongest thanks to President Ben Ali. In an adjoining story, Ben Ali’s hated wife is praised for her tremendous work in support of Arab women.

December  25-27, 2010

From the 25 until the 27, La Presse made a targeted effort to direct attention to positive work in vulnerable regions. Beginning in Kasserine (close to Sidi Bouzid) on the 25th, to Le Kef and Jendouba near Algeria in the west. Protests had been spreading and this can be seen as another effort to cut them off before they reached the important coastal cities of Bizerte, Sousse, Sfax, and Gabes. The interior regions have long suffered form underdevelopment compared to the richer cities on the coast, which benefit from manufacturing and tourist income. By the 27th, Ben Ali was calling for decentralization of government – at the time, if it could have been taken seriously, this would have been considered a major reform.


December 28-29, 2010

ByDecember 28, the myth of Bouazizi had spread far enough that it could no longer be ignored by the press. A small headline toward the top of La Presse refers obliquely to “Reactions (of the government) following the isolated and painful incident in Sidi Bouzid.” The following day, Bouazizi’s name makes its first appearance on the front page, reporting that Bouazizi is at the burn unit of a Tunis area hospital, Ben Ali was keeping vigil at his bedside. An editorial reports on the humanity and ethics of Ben Ali, for both Bouazizi and the country (he also called for greater social protections that day)

December 30-31, 2010

By the 30th of December, Ben Ali was forced into announcing major jobs and investment programs as well as changes in the government. On the 30th he announced a partial cabinet reshuffle, the following day he announced the replacement of several regional governors (largely hated by local populations). Protests had spread to all major cities, including Tunis, leading to the issue of travel warnings by foreign embassies. The U.S. issued its warning on December 30, before the protests had been reported in the local papers.

January 3, 2011

The first few days of the new year the Tunisian press tried to capitalize on the new year festivities and well wishes of the president. By the 3rd, as protests continued, La Presse was in full propaganda mode. They lead with: “Le progrès est humain ou il ne l’est pas. Un principe universel adopté par la Tunisie, un pays qui avance à pas sûrs sur le chemin de l’excellence sous la sage conduite de son président.” Or in English: “Progress is human or it is not progress. A universal principle adopted by Tunisia, a country that is marches forward on its path of excellence under the wise leadership of its president.” Perhaps reinforcing Tunisia’s stability, neighboring headlines describe the conflict in Palestine and the unraveling security situation in Cote d’Ivoire.

January 6, 2011

By Thursday, January 6, regular protests were underway in all major cities in the country. The government announced a 900 million dinar (~$600 million) stimulus, with 1,000 jobs for Sidi Bouzid alone. The media kept the country in the dark on protests. But it was too late, foreign and social media provided information to Tunisians, and Washington had begun using the term “Arab Spring.”

January 7-8, 2011

Never a strong believer in pluralism, protests had driven Ben Ali to listen to opposition parties and civil society representatives by January 7. La Presse continued its tried and true formula of touting Ben Ali as a champion of education and a promoter of jobs. In the south, the unemployed are offered 20,000 spots in a training program. On the 8th, opposition parties, as well as youth movements, show there support for Ben Ali.

At a moment when things were falling apart, these headlines perhaps show the greatest disconnect between the propaganda machine and current events. While Tunisians never held much faith in their newspapers – except for sports scores and as glass cleaner – these headlines clinched the utter madness of the regime, simply unable to respond to its people.

January 9, 2011

La Presse continues to ignore the situation on the 9th with an article on the banking sector. The corruption in the banking sector had been a major source of frustration for Tunisians under Ben Ali. The middle class were often obliged to pledge loyalty to the regime before being approved for loans. And loans outstanding were used against citizens as a form of control. This aspect of Ennahdha’s platform was an underreported story from October’s elections. Their desire to implement an Islamic finance system was seen as many as a foil against the abuses of the dictatorship.

January 10-11, 2011

By this point, the country was in full scale revolt. Foreigners had started to flee the country en masse. The entirety of the security apparatus was on the streets, with the exception of the military. Rioting and looting, and massive police violence were being reported in the foreign press, especially by AlJazeera. The Tunisia Scenario was being used to describe protests across the Arab world.

La Press called for being civil and good citizens on the 10th. On the 11th, Ben Ali announced the creation of 300,000 new jobs. La Presse also reported that Islamism would not happen in Tunisia.

January 12, 2011

By January 12 the army had been called in to quell the violence. This was seen as an extraordinary measure that would have an important impact on protecting protesters. Many Ben Ali apologists had been shocked that he had used live ammunition on protesters and by calling in the army, he was showing his humanity. La Presse reports little of substance beyond support for the regime – total satisfaction with his recent speech.

January 13, 2011

A day after the army had been called in, it finally appeared in La Presse as if the government had received the message. The people were now in revolt against the police, who they blamed for Bouazizi, relentless harassment, and the use of live ammunition on peaceful protesters. In addition to mobilizing the more pacific army, Ben Ali sacked the former interior minister, replacing him with another party member.  Ben Ali also called for freedom of expression – under peaceful means.

January 14, 2011

The day that ended with Ben Ali leaving the country did not begin on an optimistic note. In a speech the previous night, Ben Ali spoke for the first time in Tunisian dialect, with the famous lines, “I understood you, I understood you all.” These lines headlined the issue of La Presse. In a carefully orchestrated propaganda coup, the regime had organized interior ministry minions to drive through the streets after Ben Ali’s speech to show their elation with the president’s speech – another newspaper headline screamed “National Joy!” On a personal level, after having my apartment filled with teargas, running battles down my street, and several deaths in the neighborhood alone, it didn’t quite feel like a national joy. Another day of protests on the 14th would prove that Ben Ali offered too little too late.

As we reflect back on the beginning of the Arab Spring, it is useful to remember the propaganda and to see how far Tunisia has come. These headlines are also a reflection of how much the Arab world has moved on from conventional propaganda pushing media. From social networks to international news channels, the traditional propaganda machines simply cannot compete with news that acknowledges the intelligence of its readers. Perhaps most telling about these headlines, is that the person who most embodies the Tunisian uprising is mentioned but once on the front page of the paper. And yet, by the end of December, he had become a household name. Sometimes the most powerful message is the one that is left unsaid.

Reflections on Bouazizi and Tunisia’s social contract

Tomorrow Tunisia will commemorate Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian fruit seller whose self immolation one year ago tomorrow sparked revolutions across the region. While myths abound (see here, and here) about Bouazizi, the origins of civil disobedience in Tunisia’s restive south, and his true motivations – he remains a powerful symbol of the price Tunisians paid during the 23 years of Ben Ali’s dictatorship. Bouazizi embodies the breakdown under Ben Ali in the relationship between the governed and the government and his story remains at the heart of Tunisia’s new experiment in democracy.

A memorial to Bouazizi - "Tunisian in mourning" - Interoccupy.org

I first heard of Bouazizi on New Year’s Day 2011, nearly two weeks after his immolation. I had recently arrived in Tunisia and had heard about the protests that took place in the south of the country – but had not thought too much of it. Under this deeply authoritarian regime it was a bit surprising to hear about protests, but it was not unheard of, especially in the region around Sidi Bouzid, Gafsa, and Kesserine – which have long been subject to strikes, social movements and revolts, and tribal rivalries.

Not only was Bouazizi’s story shocking, my Tunisian hosts, who told me the story, had a telling reaction. My friends typified the Tunisian middle class in many ways, they concerned themselves with their work and their families, never delving into the domain of politics. They hated the Trabelsi’s and their kleptocratic ways, but they appreciated the security of Ben Ali’s regime. With two daughters, they appreciated that they were able to get a good education – one was working in France, the other in a local store. When they heard about Bouazizi they were horrified and completely sympathetic. They were also worried about the protests going on, which had by that point spread to Sousse, Ben Ali’s hometown and Tunisia’s third city.

As I became more engaged in the news, it became clear that the events surrounding Bouazizi represented everything that Tunisian’s hated about the regime. Ben Ali’s visit to Bouazizi in the hospital before his death appeared only as a photo op, lacking humanity or understanding. The government’s pledge to create jobs seemed outlandish. Its declarations for regional growth were seen as little more than propaganda from the politburo. And the idea of decentralization was clearly unrealistic given Ben Ali’s highly centralized, authoritarian control structure.

The uprising in Tunisia, as in many revolutions of the Arab Spring, was broad based. Support came not only from Bouazizi’s region, but from students, young people, the unemployed, and professionals from all walks of life. For both protesters and onlookers alike, Bouazizi reflected every failure of Tunisian society. Since independence, the first president of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, had emphasized education as the fundamental way Tunisia could modernize and prosper. Investment in education was seen by many as the governments most important social program and the ticket for Tunisians to a more prosperous life. With Ben Ali, economic liberalization and opportunity became the motto du jour.

While Ben Ali nominally had the same philosophy as  Bourguiba, his commitment to improving educational standards was suspect. In a country that used to see its doctors and nurses, engineers and businessmen in demand at home and in Europe, increasingly, Tunisian diplomas were not being recognized by European governments. Coupled with tighter immigration standards from the European Union, the release valve Tunisia had relied on to help check its demographic pressures was no longer available. Even educated Tunisians looking to emigrate could expect low wages and an unwelcome population on the other side of the Mediterranean. Many Tunisian universities were becoming diploma mills for degrees that were no longer in demand, while secondary education was not meeting a growing demand for skilled laborers, such as plumbers and welders.

But it didn’t end with education. Entrepreneurs were increasingly punished under Ben Ali. If you ran a successful business, the family would demand ownership. If you were a taxi cab driver, your permit would be renewed only if you bought a car from a Trabelsi dealership. If you were a civil servant, you were obligated to take out loans from one of the Trabelsi owned banks. While the government touted economic growth figures, the average Tunisian increasingly felt marginalized.

The two things the regime touted, education and economic opportunity were no longer the keys to success under Ben Ali. The social contract was breaking.

Tunisians saw in Bouazizi a young man who had played by the rules of the game. He graduated from high school (some say university – though this part is unclear), a sign of his commitment to society and desire for employment. And yet despite his education, he was a fruit seller – a clandestine one at that. But even in this modest job – the police confiscated his stand and humiliated him.

In this young society, less than 60 years from independence, even well-off Tunisians are rarely far removed from le bled – the country side. Bouazizi touched the hearts of a country that was seeing its sons and daughters play by the rules, submitting to Ben Ali’s strict authoritarianism, and still not being able to achieve economic independence.

Ben Ali Visits Bouazizi in the Hospital - Al-Jazeera

As protests grew throughout the month of December, the government cracked down and spewed propaganda. But it was all just a little too much. The paternalism of Ben Ali rang hollow. If he was so committed to the country, why would young men be humiliated and forced to such extreme measures as Bouazizi was?

State controlled television portrayed the protesters as vandals and Ben Ali as the nation’s guarantor of stability. This contrasted with images and accounts of the police using live-ammunition against peaceful protesters. But while extensive censorship allowed the government to propagate this narrative, the story of Bouazizi kept spreading – and the government had no good responses. Bouazizi’s selflessness in the face of injustice was the recurring image  Tunisians came back to.

Of course it wasn’t Bouazizi that caused the uprising. The Tunisian uprising was the result of years of struggle by all facets of Tunisian society. No where is this embodied more than in the two leaders of the new Tunisian government. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali languished for 16 years in a Tunisian jail cell for his involvment in the Islamist party Ennahdha, while President Moncef Marzouki was exiled for most of his life for support for human rights and basic liberties. Behind these figures are thousands of activists who risked their lives over the years.

However, Bouazizi was able to accomplish what no activist had been able to – he captured the hearts of Tunisians. Bouazizi brought home to every Tunisian the reality of what the Ben Ali government had become, brutal kleptocrats. Bouazizi represented the betrayal of Tunisia’s social contract by the Ben Ali regime. By exposing the regime for what it was, Bouazizi unleashed the energy of all the forces of Tunisian society, both the activists and non-activists alike. He was a real Tunisian, with real problems, and he could not take it any longer. Neither could the Tunisian people.

On the occasion of this tragic event, there is a sweetness to know that Bouazizi’s tragic act was not in vain and will be remembered.