NOTRE DAME, Indiana — Of the world’s 22 Arab states, Tunisia seemed to be the least likely to witness a popular revolution that would force an autocratic president to flee the country.
For decades, it was a showcase for the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund — a success story of economic reform and structural adjustment. Yet, the revolution came despite a brutal police state, positive growth rates, and decades-long Western support of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s corrupt regime.
Many Arab countries share some or all of these characteristics, but Tunisia has certain unique features that, combined, have contributed to the success of this democratic revolt.
Unlike many Arab states, Tunisia has a broad middle class, which is highly educated and politically conscious. In the 1960s and 1970s, Habib Bourguiba, the “founder of modern Tunisia,” invested large portions of the state budget in education and in promoting a sizable middle class.
Tunisian society is homogenous and moderate in orientation and demands. Its Islamic movement al-Nahdah (Renaissance Movement) is considered progressive and moderate. For decades, it has embraced the progressive Personal Status Code and the rights of women, which Bourguiba had enshrined in the Tunisian society, recognized pluralism and coexistence of all political and ideological forces, and advocated democracy as the system of government.
Tunisia is highly urbanized, which explains how protests spread quickly throughout the country. Despite the fact that the revolt began as a spontaneous youth uprising, the political infrastructure with a long history of popular struggle fueled its momentum. Student, teacher, labor and lawyer syndicates showed extraordinary defiance to Ben Ali’s repressive machine, and their steadfastness neutralized the military which refused to carry out the falling president’s orders to shoot at the demonstrators.
Since independence in 1956, Tunisia’s unique military has been de-politicized with a small budget and a civilian head. With 30,000 men, the contingent is smaller in size than the inflated security and police forces that Ben Ali built to safeguard his regime. These elements contributed to the success of the revolution and were ignited by a deep feeling of humiliation at the personal and societal levels.
The act of the educated young Tunisian from the small town of Sidi Bouzeid, who set himself ablaze thus igniting a nation-wide popular revolt, was a protest message not only against poverty, but mainly against humiliation and repression. The demonstrations that ensued held up freedom and dignity among their foremost demands.
The Tunisian revolt will send shock waves to other autocratic Arab regimes and to their western backers. Arab citizens will try to emulate it, while regimes and their western allies will try to contain the growing popular wrath.
It is not difficult to predict who might be next, especially considering most Arab states are corrupt, repressive and frustrating their people’s aspirations for change. Egypt, Yemen, Algeria and Lebanon could be likely candidates, but what is certain is that the Arab world will not be the same after the successful revolution in Tunisia.
The revolution has shattered several myths: the myth of Middle Eastern democratic exceptionalism, the myth of achieving economic reform without political liberalization, and the myth that western backing of autocratic regimes in the region will maintain stability and protect western strategic interests.
Tunisians who bravely battled Ben Ali’s repressive machine in a non-violent and peaceful resistance show that the key to stability is freedom, dignity and democracy.
This is a lesson that western states have to learn as well. Supporting autocratic regimes and denying the citizens of the region their legitimate rights out of fear of Islamists and change is unethical and cannot be sustained.
The calls for change go beyond grand ideologies, Islamic or leftist, and center on concrete and clear demands that the people of the region now share: freedom, dignity, social justice and democracy.
Emad Shahin is the Henry R. Luce Associate Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.