When the People Rise Up: Lessons from Tunisia

A few weeks ago it was hard to imagine that Tunisia would experience this massive uprising. Compared to other countries in the region, Tunisia is relatively well off, socially and economically. It has a broad, well-educated middle-class and ranks well in education, health, literacy, and women’s rights, compared to neighboring Arab states. The regime had kept a very tight grip on media, political parties, and security. However, a relatively minor incident managed to trigger an uprising and overthrow President Zine al-Abidin Bin Ali who had been ruling the country for 23 years. It all started with Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26 year old college graduate and street vendor who set himself on fire after being beaten and insulted by the police. Bouazizi would have never imagined that his action would lead to a revolt that forces the president to flee the country.

What happened in Tunisia sends multiple alarming messages to many regimes in the Middle East. First, it emphasizes that revolts don’t necessarily need major incidents to get sparked. People’s anger accumulates and it could be ignited for the slightest of reasons. Recognizing the importance of public satisfaction in many Arab countries is now more critical than ever. Second, the Tunisian revolution was neither initiated nor led by any political, religious, or even foreign leaders. In fact, opposition parties didn’t join the revolt until its last day. This emphasizes that the continuous attempts by many Arab regimes to hinder the influence of opposition figures and religious movements don’t necessarily secure their reigns. It might actually lead to spontaneous revolts that are much more difficult to control. Third, it became clear that no matter how good the relations between these regimes and Western administrations are, the latter will not offer support to overthrown leaders. After fleeing the country, the former Tunisian president was denied permission to land in many countries, including by his strongest alley, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.

It is hard to assume that the Tunisian revolution could be exported to other neighboring countries. However, it seems that it has inspired people across the region. During the last few days, protests have emerged in Algeria, Egypt, and Jordan, calling for political and economic reforms. Several desperate individuals have been emulating Mohamed Bouazizi and setting themselves on fire. It remains to be seen whether those actions will lead to similar results to what happened in Tunisia.

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