Flashback: Tunisia’s revolution at 5

Tunisia continues to defy categorisation. This small North African country with perhaps Africa’s best-educated population (around 10m), has been the continent’s economic star for decades. It was also the byword for stability in a notoriously unstable continent.

Zine El Abedine Ben Ali ruled with an iron fist but he delivered growth, education and a sophisticated, modern country that functioned. Many countries, not only in Africa but in the rest of the developing world, have authoritarian, dictatorial rule without anywhere near the level of development of Tunisia.

Quite a few, pointing to the ‘benevolent’ dictatorships in the Asian Tiger economies, maintained that they could live with an authoritarian regime as long as it was delivering economic goods and security. We, from the outside, believed that the ever-pragmatic Tunisians were prepared to trade off the relative lack of free speech and the unwelcome attentions of the secret police for economic growth and a stable future for their children.

So when the ‘Jasmine’ Revolution’ – so named after the sweetsmelling little white flowers that Tunisians are so fond of – suddenly appeared and blossomed over less than one heady month, it was hardly surprising that most of the world, and Africa in particular, reeled in shock. Suddenly, Ben Ali was gone and his elite bodyguard, after a few violent skirmishes with the army that remained loyal to the nation, had been neutralised. The death toll among the people, estimated to be around 100, while far too high for a nonviolent society like Tunisia’s, is actually remarkably low in comparison during similar political upheavals elsewhere.

Real democracy

But now that the dust seems to have settled, comes the realisation that Tunisia has done it again. It becomes the first independent African country (or for that matter, Arab country) to make the transition to true democracy. Real democracy does not consist of the ritual, and often meaningless, casting of votes every once in a while after which the public is firmly shut out of the governing process.

Real democracy is when the people have the supreme power in a nation. Power cannot be given – it is a contradiction in terms. If power is given, then the real power resides with the giver, not the recipient. It is sham power, just as voting in a rigged election is a sham of democracy. Power is taken and held.

Over four weeks, the citizens of Tunisia took power. This was not an army coup, or one led by foreigners, or even by the often toothless opposition. Nor was it inspired by WikiLeaks, or Facebook or Twitter – although many fathers have come forward to claim the child. This was a revolution of the people, by the people and for the people.

This revolution happened because the people were ready for democracy. It happened because the people had power and now wanted to utilise it. Those who opposed the will of the people, the paramilitary machinery built by Ben Ali, melted away in the face of genuine people’s power. The challenge now will be to hold on to this power until the habit of democracy becomes ingrained.

Holding steady

What happened in Tunisia will be discussed and debated for a long time to come. There will be all kinds of analysis and studies and comparisons and contrasts. In our opinion, however, what happened was a society maturing into a democracy and reclaiming the power that has always been its own. As we were going to press, the long-standing Prime Minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, and the interim President, Fouad Mbazza, former Speaker of the House, were trying to cobble together a unity government by incorporating members of the opposition and civil society participants.

A new government which included several former ministers (members of Ben Ali’s mammoth RCD party which had ruled unchallenged for 23 years) had hardly been announced when people took to the streets again. This time, their earlier chants of “Ben Ali Out!” changed to “RCD Out!”. The new government was not about to argue with people who had only days before cowed one of the most powerfully entrenched leaders in Africa, Ben Ali, to flee in disgrace and seek sanctuary in Saudi Arabia. Ghannouchi and Mbazza quickly divested themselves of the RCD as other members scrambled to put as much distance as they could between themselves and the fallen party.

Earlier, the interim government had bowed to the people’s force by springing dissident blogger Slim Amamou from the torture chambers of the notorious Interior Ministry and rushing him to be sworn in as Minister for Youth and Sports in the new cabinet. Amamou’s release from imprisonment and elevation to the cabinet was perhaps designed to symbolise the end of the repression of free speech and the imposition of censorship that had flourished under the Ben Ali regime.

But demonstrations and protests do not govern nations. It is therefore critical that the new government should contain experienced administrators, even if they were former members of the regime, so that normal life and business can resume. Otherwise the revolution can run out of steam.

The danger is that if acts of sporadic violence, such as the looting of shops and burning of cars, continue or escalate, the army could move in, declare a state of emergency and, in effect, mount a coup against the people’s revolution. It is said that revolutions are hatched by the middle classes but carried out by the working classes. Perhaps – it is ironic that the same policies that allowed the growth of one of Africa’s largest middle classes, should be the trigger for the Jasmine Revolution.

Over the next few months and even beyond, there will be considerable jockeying for power as former opposition figures return from exile and parties such as the Communists and the Islamists, who had earlier been left out of the reckoning, demand inclusion in the new government structure. Whatever the final composition of the government in Tunisia, it will have plenty to build on. Tunisia was not another poverty-stricken developing country with a brutal ruling cabal lording it over the toiling masses. It is the most successful economy in Africa with the highest per capita GDP of any non-oil country in the continent. It has virtually universal free education to university level and its poverty level of 3% is better than that in several EU countries. The cities are clean and modern and the road networks perfectly maintained. Its growth rate of 5% for a period lasting almost 16 years has only been matched by Botswana. It is indeed a country that works.

Tunisia, with its population of 10m, has no valuable minerals or other resources and half of it is desert. Yet it has the most dynamic and diversified economy in the southern Mediterranean. There are over 2,500 foreign investors in the country, making everything from candies to aircraft parts and it has become a major tourist destination for visitors not only from the traditional European areas but also from Africa. Underneath, however, resentment was brewing. One of the main causes of disgruntlement was the lack of jobs for the educated youth. The spark which set off the conflagration came about when a graduate, unable to find employment, had set up a fruit and vegetable stall.

It was closed down by heavy-handed police action. Frustrated, he set fire to himself and later died. In most of Africa, few would ever consider not having a job as a legitimate reason to attempt suicide but the real cause of the public anger which seethed around this incident was that over the past seven to eight years, corruption in high places has become blatant.

Lady Macbeth

The arch villain is considered to be Ben Ali’s second wife, Leila Trabelsi, who has been dubbed the Lady Macbeth of Tunisia. According to Tunisians in the know, she acquired immense power and influence over Ben Ali, even deciding which ministers to retain and which to fire. It is said Tunisian diplomats, ministers and even newspaper editors lived in terror of her.

She, and her large network of relatives became avaricious. They plundered private businesses and dipped their hands in the public coffers. They became unaccountable to anybody. The greater the resentment and animosity they aroused, the greater the need to silence criticism. The secret police and their torture chambers were kept very busy indeed while the media poured out an endless stream of praise for the First Lady. Their greatest error was in grabbing large chunks from the middle classes. By doing so, they signed their own death warrants.

Trabelsi and her partners in crime looted left and right and nobody had the power to stop them – so they thought. When the retribution came, it was brutal. One of her nephews was stabbed to death but she herself escaped.

So while we hail the fall of a dictatorship through the determination of a people to stand up for their rights and reclaim their country, we should not lose sight of the solid achievements that Ben Ali’s long tenure as head of state brought about.

Had he stepped down five years ago as he was required to do, had he allowed people to express themselves and had he returned his vicious security dogs back to their kennels, Ben Ali would have been hailed a great national hero, statues in his honour would have been erected, streets and building would have been named after him and he would have joined the ranks of Africa’s wise men.

To think that he threw away the chance to take his place among the continent’s great historical figures instead of joining the international rogue’s gallery for a handful of coins is tragic. But perhaps his greatest contribution may well be that he unwittingly ushered Tunisia into an era of real democracy.

Anver Versi

African Business Magazine



Related posts