Mohamed Bouazizi (left), an unemployed college graduate, started a fruit and vegetable stand to earn a living. He set himself on fire after police closed his stall because he lacked an official permit.
Bouazizi became a “symbol for all the young college graduates who were unemployed,” said Cherif, “a sort of catalyst for the violent demonstrations which followed.”
His lone stand provoked dozens of protests across the country, mobilizing students, professionals, trade unionists, and opposition politicians.
The demonstrators’ agenda quickly widened from protesting against unemployment to denouncing the government’s repression of dissents and the corruption that benefits President Zine Ben Ali’s family and entourage.
The U.S. Embassy in Tunis has previously warned that rampant corruption was undermining the regime’s legitimacy.
A recent Arab Human Development Report cautioned that the Tunisian public “has become restive in the grip of authority fashioned in a bygone age, and the state’s hold on power grows more fragile each year.”
The unrest is “the product of deep dissatisfaction at decades of sustained political repression, rampant corruption and routine silencing of all forms of political dissent,” writes Intissar Khreeji.
Tunisians were willing to accept Ben-Ali’s authoritarianism as long as it seemed the only alternative to radical Islamist rule and delivered economic growth. But – as in Egypt – that passivity-for-security compact appears to be fracturing.
“The familiar narratives of “stability vs. democracy” and “progressive/secular/moderate vs. anti-Western/extremist” no longer work,” Khreeji insists.
The Ben-Ali regime is typical of many parts of the Arab world in employing “a sophisticated system of stick and carrot, of fear and incentive, to maintain the status quo,” notes Nesreen Malik. “In Tunisia itself, there existed a system of subsidies of strategic commodities which granted the state some legitimacy and political allegiance, but even that has crumbled.”
In the 1990s, analyst Steve Heydemann noted, Tunisia “embarked on a new cycle of repression targeting not just Islamist but secular opposition as well.”
The regime’s authoritarian consolidation began with a “crackdown on an-Nahda, the main opposition party of liberal democratic Islamist tendencies, in 1990, in the name of combating the ‘fundamentalist threat’,” writes Soumaya Ghannoushi. “It then moved on to devour all political dissidents, including nationalists, leftists, liberals and student activists. Next came civil society’s turn.”
Like many of the Arab world’s authoritarian regimes, the government proved adept at co-opting, penetrating and undermining independent civil society organizations.
Exiled journalist Bassam Bounenni detailed its interventions against the journalists’ union, the magistrates’ association and the country’s leading human rights group.
The 2009 presidential election was typical of a region where “ageing autocrats use elections for the sole purpose of keeping themselves in power and their family in riches.”
The regime is trying to stem the contagion by censoring the internet and impeding other social media.
“Everything is blocked here,” says blogger Lina Ben Mhenni. “I use a proxy to access my blog, my Facebook profile, and …they censored my Twitter account. It is not accessible in Tunisia.”
But internet censorship could be a mixed blessing for the government, as the Middle East Institute blog notes:
The demonstrations appear to be continuing unabated, though it is increasingly hard to find reliable reporting due to the choking off of uploaded videos. One result, a predictable one, is that rumors spread wildly when genuine information is blocked. That can easily backfire on a regime, especially one like Tunisia’s that has cultivated a moderate, pro-Western image for so long.
*FIDH is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy.