Tunisia, a pleasant jolt.

Deepak R. January 21, 2011

Today morning, I asked a friend of mine:
"Did you read about Tunisia?"
The reply:
"Who is she?"

I was a bit relieved. At least I knew that it is the name of a country. To be honest, that was all that I knew till last week. But, in last couple of days, the puzzles (ya plural) that Tunisia poses is nearly filling my thoughts.

President of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was ruling the country for 23 years under an on-paper-democratic, but in-practice-dictatorial regime, has stepped down and sought asylum in Soudi Arabia on Jan 14, 2011 following a popular uprising. Ya you heard that right. "Popular Uprising"; not an electoral sweep, not an internal military coup, not an imperialist military invasion. Indeed puzzling to me.

Tunisia : The Context

Tunisia is a country with 10.5 million people, which is less than the population of Mumbai, and nearly one-third that of Kerala. It is the northern most country in Africa and has a long coastline facing Mediterranean. The similarity with Kerala only starts there. Economics and human condition are even more strikingly similar to those of Kerala.

Economy and Human Condition

Tunisia has a literacy rate of 74.3%, population growth rate of 0.98% per annum and a life expectancy of 75.78 years at birth1. Public education expenditure is around 7% of GDP. It has a Human Development Index of 0.683. (Kerala has 0.814, India has 0.519.)

It has a pretty strong economy with per-capita GDP being one of the highest among African and Middle Eastern countries. Contribution from agricultural, industrial and service sectors to the GDP are 11.6%, 25.7% and 62.8% respectively which strikes a close match with the corresponding figures for Kerala (17.2%, 19%, and 63.8%). Percentage of people below poverty line is 7.4 (Kerala has 10%). Unemployment rate 14.1% (Kerala has 9.4%).

Basic education training is mandatory for children between 6 and 16 years of age. Apart from Arabic, which is the official language of instruction, French and English are taught from third year of school studies. The gross enrollment ratio at tertiary level (higher education) is 31% with gender parity index of 1.5.2

History and Governance

Traces of civilisation are estimated to have started from as far back as 5000 BC in Tunisia. It has faced conquests by Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, Turks and finally by the French. Tunisia achieved independence from France in 1957 after a movement led by Habib Bourguiba, who later became the first Tunisian President. In 1987, doctors declared Bourguiba unfit to rule and, in a bloodless coup, then Prime Minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali assumed the presidency.

Religion - Post Independence

More than 99% of the population is Muslim. Islam is the constitutionally declared state religion and only a Muslim can be the President of Tunisia. On the other hand, the constitution gives every individual right to practice her religion and this religious freedom is widely exercised. There is sizable population of Christians and Jews.

Tunisia's policies on religion have lot of surprises to offer. The Tunisian legal system is based on the French civil code and on Islamic law. Their Code of Personal Status is considered one of the most progressive civil codes in the Middle East and the Muslim world. Polygamy and unilateral divorce is outlawed. Women hold more than 20% of seats in both chambers of parliament. Tunisian government has restricted the wearing of Islamic headscarves (hijab) in government offices and it discourages women from wearing them on public streets and public gatherings. There were reports that the Tunisian police harassed men with "Islamic" appearance (such as those with beards), detained them, and sometimes compelled men to shave their beards off.3

It is not just the present uprising that is puzzling in Tunisia, and hence was the plural in the opening remark!

Human Rights - Post Independence

In 53 years of independence Tunisia witnessed only two presidents, Bourguiba and Ben Ali, both of whom had lots to speak about democracy, liberalism and even socialism, but had hardly anything to do with it. Both the presidents represented the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD party) which was called the Socialist Destourian Party during Bourguiba's time. The present membership of RCD is 2 million (1 in every 5 Tunisians are members of RCD.) Independent Tunisia was regarded as one of the most oppressive regimes in the Arab world4. In the Economist's 2010 Democracy Index Tunisia is classified as an authoritarian regime ranking 144 out of 167 countries studied5. In 2008, in terms of freedom of the press, Tunisia was ranked 164 out of 1786.

Is it a leader-less, theory-less revolution?

It is quite difficult to answer that sitting back here in India. Nor is it easy to follow the entire array of news articles on the issue. Guardian has 137 articles under the Section: News > World News >Tunisia. There are reports of active participation from the bar association and trade union activists in the protests. But it looks to me more like a spontaneous outrage, a leader-less, theory-less revolution.

The protests began in December 2010 after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a government building. Mohamed Bouazizi was a 26 year old Computer Science graduate who took to street vending to earn a living and was outraged when the police confiscated his small wheelbarrow of fruit because he did not have a vendor's permit7. Reading from the post Jan 14 confusion regarding the caretaker government, and resignation of 4 ministers, it seems that there is no single organisation that can claim the leadership of the rebellion, or take up the task of steering the all deserving revolution to a stable new government.

Wikileaks, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube have played their part too. An estimated 18% of the Tunisian population is on Facebook. Youtube is blocked in Tunisia, but Al-Jazeera was heavily quoting Facebook pages and Youtube videos in their reporting.8

Is this the template for 21st century rebellions? Is it the most desirable? We have to wait and watch. Already people are airing fears of whether the revolution will help Tunisia make a new beginning9. There is a frightening absence of alternate ideas and leadership for future of Tunisia. Are we saving the child from the dragon's mouth and leaving her under its feet? I would like to believe not. At least, I hope the regime change would give enough breathing space for the thinkers and activists of Tunisia to regroup, come forward and lead it at least to a liberal democracy.

In Solidarity

When I started reading on Tunisia, I was puzzled on how such a rebellion could ever happen. Now I'm wondering where it is next. Algeria, Libya, Pakistan?10 Let's raise our fists in solidarity with the people of Tunisia and with all those oppressed masses who will rise to rebellion in the days to come.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the progressive Pakistani poet would have been delighted to see his words taking form in Tunisia.

Jab Zulm-o-Sitam ke Koh-e-garaan
Ruii ki Tarah Urd Jain Gay
(When the enormous mountains of tyranny
blow away like cotton. )
~ Hum Dekhenge, Faiz Ahmed Faiz11

But I would rather reserve that poetry for the day when sisters and brothers of Pakistan rise up in revolt. For now, I would end up with the words from Sadri Khiari, a Tunisian activist exiled in France since early 2003.

There is no oppression without resistance. There is only time stretching more or less slowly before unexpected -- or out of sight -- the collective heroism of a people arises.12

Nasser Nouri's photostream at Flickr.

Politics, tunisia, Labour, Neo-liberalism, Note, World, Struggles Share this Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported


Add comment

Login to post comments


People's revolution but

People's revolution but "leader less", "theory less" and confusion that how could such a rebellion take place??? With the birth of uprisings in the world post industrial revolution and with the advent of Communist thought, ideas of equality and fraternity, leaders like Gandhi, Bhagat Singh, Lenin, Che, Fidel and Mao perhaps by and large our systems were conditioned or tuned to acknowledge any movement as uprising only if it has an ideology to back and leader to lead. "Leader-less unrest" same was the tag also attached to the last summers struggle in Kashmir and was hence disqualified by many thinkers/intellectuals. I am afraid, but it seems to me that the so called intellectuals/thinkers have perhaps either monopolized the revolutionary ideas or have conservatively attached the ideological refinement and enlightenment to a class onto itself of leaders/intellectuals/thinkers who are a different species from masses. I am more confused, as to why the intellect and conscience of the masses is not trusted? Are they a lot of fools who it just for the heck of it? Surely, it was not a pingpong.

On the other hand west is surprised by the fact that how could people of an Arab country come out on the streets against the "on-paper democracy" and "practiced dictatorship"? After all, democracy outside 1st world nations was not a subject of interest except for the pretext of waging war and looting oil and selling arms. West has always tried to restrict the dose of democracy outside it in the southern nations. A friend from Egypt once very well explained the concept of "on-paper democracy" and how it is an exercise of enthroning a puppet regime by the west as part of creating hogwash of democracy? What a vacuum it creates around the issue of "citizenship and its relationship with citizens"? Citizenship has no significance for a national apart from getting passport and showcase it outside that country's boundaries.

With apprehensions or no apprehensions about the sustenance of Tunisian uprising and its result, atleast, this is agreeable that a leader-less people's uprising is anyday more valuable than a military coup. And I would even say, that its a subjective experience of the citizens with their nation, their problems and challenges that its better not to apply lens of objectivity to humiliate the unrest, people have fanned against the oppressive system. Let us be in solidarity.

Thanks Deepak for throwing some light on it.

And I would even say, that

And I would even say, that its a subjective experience of the citizens with their nation, their problems and challenges that its better not to apply lens of objectivity to humiliate the unrest, people have fanned against the oppressive system.


The leader-less question.

Thanks for the comment, Seema.

The lens of objectivity, I guess, is a personal problem of mine. It doesn't leave me even when I'm thrilled to the core. It may be partly attributed to the trade I'm practicing :)

Ya, I'm thrilled to the core on seeing the Tunisian people being able to kick out their worst enemy in such a brilliant fashion. But the question about the uprising being leader-less/theory-less was part curiosity and part anxiety. The curiosity is of course because it challenges the ideas that the system has conditioned me to believe in, the ones you too mentioned. The anxiety is in seeing the present constitution of the caretaker government in Tunisia.

By the way, "leader" to me is not necessarily an individual, It is any coherent group of people that provides leadership. I have no lack of respect for the wisdom of crowds, and I see organisations and ideologies as outgrowths from the crowds necessitated by the situation.

Deepak, the comment was more

Deepak, the comment was more of an expression on the Tunisian uprising rather than a critic in true sense of a well written piece which is aptly depicting the dilemma and attempt of the writer to overcome for the want to stand in solidarity. For me, comment was a cathartic way to break the 'conditioning' of myself, I mentioned above.


A loud YES, to the opinion that Tunisia's revolution was a theoryless, leader less (even now also). That part is a vacuum. Still they won the revolt. These mean a unique classification of rebellions, kinds irrelevant.

When we connect this with economy, again we get puzzled. Reason is, the most appropriate is to analyze this revolt in the basis of GNI - Gross National Income. Though various factors are summarised; of culture, demography, society, are more similar to Arab nations, except six GCC - Gulf Cooperation Council. Amply documented finacial corruptions are widely spread and obviously written in all streets, nooks and corners of villages of those countries like, Yemen, Sudan, Egypt, Morocco. But the people there are not yet overcome so called pseudo democratic, autocrat regimes: WHY??? If it's merely matter of economy, people would have it done.

Less income and bleak future emerge out of un elpoyment might be a big motive for this revolution. Going to one inch more ahead mentioing the immolation of Mohammed Buazizi, legendary turned the street vendor. Statutory note, all jobs are honourable and worship; although he was a Computer Graduate, because of severe un employment haunted many, he opted to be a street vendor of vegitables and fruits. No municipality license, so lady police cinfiscate his wheel barrow and slap on his face. Went for lodge a complaint, none of the officals heard him. This incident and disregard to his identity affected him deeply and set himself fire.

Although Tunisians were seeing the luxury quasi mafia regime of Ben Ali for 23 years, they didn't think about it. No destabilization attempt or harsh noteworthy standard of criticisms were not seen in the past. Read, average 7 years will take for a graduate to find job there, what a pathetic situation?!! Mindlessly they lived till now. One youth's sacrifice awaked them from the slumbering...now it's charged, demostration continues.. Lack of such motives, or a very less thoughtful life aggravate and help delay the revolutions.

Hope the Jasmine Revolution will not be jasmine, some thing else but hard in future for other countries. Mainly I see chances for Egypt, in first place. Libya no chance, since he is well managing the autocracy. Do not know, why Pakistan was listed in that in the above article, in that category. Pakistan is dissimilar and a toxic disease, a painful complex country, too different from all these.

Every where, let people get back their LIFE and TIME. In unity, bright hopes are registered...Samad

On Pakistan

Samad, thanks for the comment.

Adding Pakistan to the list was just a wishful thinking and not substantiated by any information I have. The wounds from the recent incidents were still paining inside me.

Deepak, In that sense, i too


In that sense, i too fully subscribe your view. Seems to be too far away, as the blood sheds and corrupted system there are not subjects of discussion for pakstani people..

Economy and other reasons

Samad, I agree with your observation that the reasons for the revolt cannot be traced down just to economic causes. And the self immolation by Buazizi is only the last strip of hay that broke the camel's back. What is your take on the causes, Samad?

What surprises me is that there was already a hope that the regime might change from the very initial days of protest. From December 27, 28 itself, we see reports predicting that the uprising can put and end to Ben Ali's regime. The lead line of the article How a man setting fire to himself sparked an uprising in Tunisia in Guardian on Dec 28 reads:

A relatively minor incident has become the catalyst for a wave of protests that may end the presidency of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali

Where did they get that kind of a hope? May be it is because such protests were too rare in Tunisia (unlike in Egypt).

Whatever be the case, the people in Egypt, Libya and Algeria now know where to look for hope.

As per my observation goes,

As per my observation goes, if the political rights of the people are curtailed, the spaces of expression shrink and hopelessness seeps in for no change in the attitude of system in treatment of citizens, then economic disparities become fertile ground for the accumulation of anger which has the tendency to facilitate an uprising. Since, Tunisia became a dictatorial or a police regime, therefore a dignity which an individual seeks from the system was completely lacking. and that vacuum sored in the eyes of dwindled economy. We have a very good example of somewhat similar situation in India. Though, people there are not going to opt for Tunisian style uprising. What happening in Bengal is a real devastation. Whether it be Left or TMC, its people, their lives that is at stake.

I wish, if i would be allowed

I wish, if i would be allowed to disagree on that. I may have to differ. Not last strip, but first strike of the chord...wild spread of the ripples then, i would say. We haven't seen so far protests and street demos there. Heard the bin ali regime provided quality life in early few years, since then it prevailed for a while, then a stagnancy, then his wife's family trabelsi mafia took over and looted. Guardian's observation is rarest kind. Neighbourig France was to send their riot police, US watched and in a mood to help their erstwhile ally Bin Ali..There was an interesting thread that the military chief General Ammar played down military operations when he was asked to. also he warned and advised bin Ali to flee..(no evidences) 'More scripts are yet to come out' - this is the end line we see in all notes about the complexity of the dynamics of the revolution.

Libyans are just as hungry as Tunisians

Samad, I stumbled upon this article by a Libyan when your remarks about Libya was still inside me.

Libyans are just as hungry as Tunisians, Hisham Matar, Guardian Jan 21, 2011

A very interesting read.

I am, by instinct, wary of revolutions. The gathering of the masses fills me with trepidation. But seeing the Tunisian crowds in Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the familiar street throbbing like a hot vein, was one of the most glorious things I have seen in all of my 40 years. From before I was born, we Arabs have been caught between two forces that, seemingly, cannot be defeated: our ruthless dictators, who oppress and humiliate us, and the cynical western powers, who would rather see us ruled by criminals loyal to them than have democratically elected leaders accountable to us. We have been sliding towards the dark conclusion that we will forever remain trapped between these two beasts. The men and women of Tunisia took us back from the brink of that precipice.

My point might be not so

My point might be not so accurate...the write up elicited above was a representation. As I said, Ghaddafi is managing very well. He distributed the revenue from oil to his people - do not know how much he did, how many libyans benifited. Those are peripheral. But such a decision followed by action was accomplished. Unlike other leaders, he is very strong in his actions and policies. Will not wait and will not care of world opinion. That is his record. He said, he was pained by the fall of Bin Ali. Moreover, he asked, 'why you wouldn't have waited for 3 more years, didn't he told he (bin Ali) would dethrone in 2014....':( That's all about Ghaddafi and Libya. That was the outset of my view.

Our concurrences are obvious and let them speak, while differences, if they are too many or too less, may derive more concurrences again. Such concurrences will be focussed to one point agenda - wellbeingness of people, uprising of people..sinking of the kind of autocratic looting regimes..

Thanks to you Deepak, for your clarifications, for your well structured classy essay. You spared your more time while we all just not doing that...