Youth Protests Blossom into a Jasmine Revolution as Tunisian President Flees Country

by Brett Wilkins

It all started on December 17 when Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old unemployed college graduate, set himself on fire after police confiscated his unlicensed produce stand. Bouazizi’s tragically desperate yet inspiring death captured a whole nation’s seething yet silent fury at a regime that for 23 years had ruled over a corrupt police state that promised jobs but delivered little save for repression and lies. Bouaziziz’s self-immolation led to other protest suicides and mass youth unrest. The demonstrations started out in the boondocks but eventually spread to the capital, Tunis. They were the largest protests againstZine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his cronies in the regime’s history and his state security forces responded with deadly force, killing more than 60 Tunisians who wanted only what so many of us in the West take for granted: economic and political freedom.

Bouazizi's tragically heroic act ignited a nation.

But the more force the oppressors used, the more youth seemed to take to the streets. Half the population of Tunisia is under age 25; that’s a lot of disenfranchised, disenchanted… just plain dissed young people. It was a popular, organic revolt, not an Islamist uprising or a CIA-engineered coup plot. There were no firebrand clerics leading the marches; really no prominent leadership at all. Just young people taking out their seething frustrations and taking to the streets. Some were calling it the Facebook or Twitter Revolution because social media played a critical role in fanning the flames of discontent and spreading the news to a captivated world. “Tunis now: the chants continue,” the Washington Post quoted one Tunisian in a crowd of thousands of demonstrators tweeting, “‘No to Ben Ali even if we die!” Even Wikileaks played a part; leaked US diplomatic cables revealed the shocking extent of the ruling regime’s corruption and excesses. But the name that would stick was the Jasmine Revolution, and it was quickly swelling to a dramatic crescendo– yesterday, after ruling Tunisia with an iron fist since Ronald Reagan was president of the United States, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia for exile in Saudi Arabia.

People power deposed Ben Ali. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

For the very first time in the history of the Arab world, a popular uprising deposed a tyrant. Ben Ali’s ouster sent a wave of elation cresting over the entire Middle East and a wave of fear up the spines of dictators from Morocco and Mauritania in northwest Africa, across the Maghreb and the sands of Arabia and up into Jordan and Syria. Internet users and bloggers welcomed and spread the news across the Middle East and around the globe. “Take a breath people. We are living history,” the New York Times quoted journalist Dima Khatib tweeting. “Tunisians have given us the best gift ever. I am happy to be living today.” Mohammed Al-Maskati, a blogger from Bahrain, also expressed his elation on Twitter: “I can’t believe my eyes… It actually happened in my lifetime!! An Arab nation woke up and said enough!!”

Some were comparing events in Tunisia to the 1979 revolution that toppled the brutal, US-backed Shah of Iran. But there’s one big difference– the Jasmine Revolution was not led by Islamists with an agenda. It was led by ordinary young people who just know they deserve better than a life of economic and political stagnation and repression.

So, what now? This revolution is far from complete. A yawning power vacuum has opened up in this country that has known nothing but authoritarian rule for so long. The Arabist blog summed up the sentiment of a nation with the title of its latest post: “Where Tunisia is now: exhilarating limbo”:

“Ben Ali has fallen. An Arab dictator of 24 years has turned out to be removable— not by a relative, former ally or military chief, but by a popular insurrection. This is historic first for the entire region and I will come back to it tomorrow.

In the meantime, though, we should not assume that Tunisia has become an instant democracy. The announcement today that Prime Minister Ghanouchi was assuming the presidency has yet to be accepted. Rioting and looting are continuing in the streets of major Tunisian cities, sometimes targeting the homes and businesses of regime cronies, but also of ordinary citizens. Some suspect police desertors to be looting. The situation is chaotic and the army is showing signs of wanting to impose order.

With no clear leadership with the moral authority to get people to go back to their homes, it may be days before the situation resolves itself. What interim president Ghanouchi does tomorrow in his meeting with the opposition — whose very definition will be controversial, notably over whether En-Nahda’s Islamists could become part of an interim coalition government — will be crucial. Right now, there does not seem to be any indication that Tunisians are accepting any government as legitimate. Ghanouchi will have to either move quickly to build a credible alliance (here the international community may have a role in confering legitimacy) or step aside for someone who can.”

Today there are reports of a deteriorating security situation in Tunisia, with heavily armed troops “ruthlessly” enforcing a dusk-til-dawn curfew in a desperate bid to restore order. Soldiers and state security forces are still clashing with protesters and people are still dying. Dozens have been killed in two separate prison fires. Some fear a military takeover. But the overall feeling is still one of overwhelming elation. An interim president, Fouad Mebazaa, has been sworn in and has ordered the creation of a unity government that will include opposition parties, including previously banned Islamists. Opposition leader Najib Chebbi says the country could hold internationally-supervisedelections within the next six or seven months.

In the meantime, the world watches in fascination as a very rare event unfolds; a popular revolution in the Middle East untainted by neither the poisonous philosophy of Islamic fundamentalism nor the insidious meddling of imperial America.

It is a cautiously glorious day in Tunisia.