- The Making of the Tunisian Revolution: Contexts, Architects, Prospects ed. by Nouri Gana
To outside observers, Tunisia had long appeared to be a stable, progressive, and pro-Western country, although it has had only two presidents since independence in 1956. However, both Habib Bourguiba’s one-party system and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s censorship had silenced opposition groups that did not abide by their rules. Opponents who challenged the regimes or called for genuine democratic reforms were jailed, disappeared, or went into self-imposed exile. Despite harsh suppression, however, sporadic dissension manifested itself as far back as 1983.
On 17 December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the government’s corruption, police abuse of power, and tough economic conditions. His self-immolation was the spark that ignited a revolution, catching Ben Ali by surprise and ending his rule. Tunisia was the first Arab country to oust its long-term dictator, in January 2011, at the start of what became known as the Arab Spring.
This book is timely and a valuable addition to the literature on Tunisia. It provides insightful accounts of the events that led to the 2010 – 11 Tunisian revolution as well as the challenges facing the country’s transition to democracy. Its lengthy introduction helps readers to navigate through the book by explaining the approaches taken by its contributors. Together, these authors provide detailed analyses of the revolution from “multidimensional and multidirectional perspectives” and examine it in historical context. As Sami Zemni points out, the revolution “did not come out of nowhere.” It “has a history.” The forces that started the revolution in December 2010 can be traced back [End Page 123] to the early 1990s. Moreover, the revolution cannot be understood by focusing on only domestic events, ignoring regional and international dynamics that set the revolution in motion.
The first part of the book discusses the roots of discontent by focusing on external actors that shored up Ben Ali’s regime. The International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment program, including privatization and cutting subsidies on basic commodities, succeeded in turning the economy around. But it also fostered widespread corruption by the ruling family, its cronies, and senior officials. Meanwhile, most Tunisians were left behind because international financial institutions did not address poverty, high unemployment among youth, inflation, or the erosion of the middle class.
Evidence is presented that the United States, serving its own interests, ignored Ben Ali’s authoritarian rule for the sake of stability. It favored his actions to remove Islamists from the country’s political discourse and to prevent al Qaeda from establishing a foothold in the region. US officials remained silent when Ben Ali used force to suppress unarmed protesters in December 2010 and January 2011. With Ben Ali’s departure, the Barack Obama administration had no choice but to deal with the Ennahda Movement – dominated government to promote US regional interests.
France’s close diplomatic and economic relationship with its former colony was detrimental to the advance of democracy in Tunisia. France’s policy of noninterference in Tunisia’s domestic affairs had served the dictators well by its silence on their gross violations of human rights and the absence of an independent judiciary. French loans and European dealings also contributed to uneven economic development, resulting in regional disparities and unrest in Tunisia.
The second part of the book examines the important genealogies of dissent. It points out that many observers paid little or no attention to the emerging forces of change in Tunisia. Zemni argues that there is a need to make a distinction between the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), whose leadership was co-opted by Ben Ali¸ and the local union militants who challenged the corrupt system. In January 2008, for example, the Gasfa Phosphate Company denied jobs to qualified locals and instead hired ruling-party loyalists. The resulting protest spread across the region and lasted five months until it was brutally suppressed by the...