How revolt sparked to life in Tunisia

One of the most repressive Arab regimes, Tunisia was thought to be less prone to revolt than its neighbors. But economic, social, political, and demographic currents converged to create a combustible atmosphere.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
Protesters from Tunisia's poor rural heartlands demonstrated in the capital on Sunday to demand that the revolution they started against the repressive Arab regime should now sweep the remnants of the fallen president's old guard from power.

If Tunisia seemed an unlikely place for a revolution, the dusty provincial town of Sidi Bouzid might have seemed the unlikeliest epicenter of a quake that would rock the Arab world.

It lies in Tunisia's interior, far from the glittering coastal resort towns that now attract more than 6.5 million tourists every year. On the three-hour drive from cosmopolitan Tunis, the rolling verdant hills of olive groves give way to a flat expanse of rocky soil broken by cactus hedges.

It was in this small city, where paint peels off the low-rise buildings and dozens of young men loiter on the sidewalks and in cafes, that the revolution began.

On Dec. 17, Mohamed Bouazizi – a young man whose fruit and vegetable cart had been taken by police for lack of a permit – stood in front of the peach-colored wall of the local governor's office, poured gasoline over himself, and struck a match.

His self-immolation might have gone unnoticed, or led to a few protests before being crushed by Tunisia's police state.

Instead, Mr. Bouazizi's act ignited demonstrations that spread throughout Tunisia's interior, and then to the capital. The government's violent crackdown, broadcast through social media, fueled public anger. Less than a month later, the mass popular uprising forced one of the Arab world's strongest autocrats to his knees. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, shattering the silence he had imposed on Tunisians for 23 years.

"Since this revolution happened, today we can speak," says Bouazizi's sister Samya, a young woman whose blue hijab frames tired brown eyes. "We are no longer afraid of the police. Those who are studying may have the chance of finding a job without having to go through all the corruption.... The whole system is corrupt, and with this new Tunisia, I hope all that will change."

Few had predicted that Tunisia was ripe for such an uprising. But under the surface, economic, social, political, and demographic currents were converging to create a combustible atmosphere. With a growing population of educated and aspiring youths, declining economic opportunity, ever-growing political repression, and a corrupt ruling family as the focal point for public anger, all Tunisia needed was a spark.

Many educated, but few jobs

If Bouazizi's act was startling, his despair was not. Despite a growing economy, Tunisia had failed its citizens. The founder of Tunisia's republic, Habib Bourguiba, built a strong education system that delivered university-educated young people on the doorstep of a society that was not ready to receive them. In an economy based on tourism and unskilled labor, the rate of unemployed university graduates steadily grew.

In the past seven years, their number has more than tripled from between 60,000 and 70,000 to more than 200,000, estimates Mahmoud Ben Romdhane, an opposition politician and an economics professor at the University of Tunis.

The regime wasn't living up to its end of the social compact it had struck with citizens, in which Tunisians would sacrifice their freedom of expression, association, and political participation in exchange for prosperity and stability. The prosperity was fading, and nowhere as fast as in Sidi Bouzid, which carried the added burden of being in the interior, which is much less developed than the coast.

Today, the young unemployed in Sidi Bouzid do not aimlessly direct their anger at a bad economy. They have a specific target for their vitriol: the family of Mr. Ben Ali.

"Why don't I have a job?" asked one young man standing on the street. "Because I would have to pay people connected to the president's family to receive one. They take everything from us, and give us nothing. Sidi Bouzid is neglected, and his filthy family was getting rich while we starve."

During Ben Ali's rule, Tunisians watched his family enrich itself, growing ever more powerful as it took over business interests. Dr. Romdhane, a leading member of the Ettajdid opposition party, says the family's wealth grab spiked in the past five years as family members snapped up foreign-car dealerships, banks, and public television stations. Ordinary Tunisians often find that they have to pay a bribe, maybe 2,000 to 5,000 dinar ($1,400 to $3,500), to the right connection in order to find work.

It was in these circumstances that Bouazizi, whose father died when Bouazizi was a toddler, found himself selling produce in the market to make ends meet.

When police confiscated Bouazizi's cart, and a female municipal employee hit him, he petitioned the governor for redress. He was refused, and the humiliation was apparently the final straw.

His suicide on Dec. 17 sparked protests in Sidi Bouzid, led mainly by young people who burned tires and clashed with police. On Dec. 22, another young man in the city reportedly yelled, "No to misery! No to unemployment!" before electrocuting himself to death. The protests soon spread to other towns in Tunisia's interior.

On Dec. 27, they reached the capital.

Fired up by Facebook, Twitter

Social media played a crucial role in spreading news of the uprising, which was not mentioned on Tunisian TV until nearly two weeks after it started. Ben Ali's government was a master of Web censorship, but Tunisians are professionals at getting around it. They exchanged proxy servers and posted images of alleged massacres online, further enraging the population.

Soufiane Chourabi, a journalist for the Tarik Al Jadid newspaper, was one of the first to begin documenting the uprising in Tunisia's interior. The rapid spread of information online was a key reason that the rest of the country joined in Sidi Bouzid's revolt.

When Tunisians saw images of fellow citizens rebelling, they lost their fear, he says. He credits the videos of youths tearing down ubiquitous photos of Tunisia's autocrat as a psychological turning point.

"They needed someone to do that simple thing of taking down the picture of Ben Ali, and that was it. That released them," Mr. Chourabi says. "When Ben Ali's symbol fell, there was no fear. This picture of the big and strong Ben Ali collapsed."

Ibrahim Ben Slama, a university student in Tunis, says he first heard of Bouazizi's self-immolation on Facebook, which was used to plan many of the protests.

He's a member of Tunisia's strong middle class, and says part of the reason the protests spread to Tunis was that the urban middle class could identify with the anger felt in the interior. They coupled their political frustrations with the economic frustrations of Sidi Bouzid, and the entire country rose up in solidarity.

"This time, with Bouazizi, it was the entire frustrations of everyone in Tunisia," he says. "They weren't just asking for jobs; they were also protesting the political problems.... Everyone is facing these problems, so they got out to make their voices heard."

Police fuel anger by killing protesters

Tunisia was now in a state of rebellion, but not necessarily an uncontrollable one. A key turning point came, however, when the police began opening fire on crowds. On Dec. 24, the first protesters were killed by police bullets. In a particularly egregious incident two weeks later, police fired into crowds of demonstrators in Kasserine and Tala, killing at least 10 protesters.

It was after those deaths that Ben Ali's regime truly started to crumble. "Killing people made the anger grow and grow, especially in Kasserine," says Chourabi. "The government thought that by killing some people, they would get frightened and stop protesting. But it was just the opposite – they just spread."

"In those days, we started to really feel that a revolution can happen," adds Jafar Chemli, a Tunis high school student.

Ben Ali's mistakes

As the protests spread and more demonstrators were killed by police, Ben Ali made strategic mistakes in trying to curtail the rebellion. His first speech to the nation, on Dec. 28, was a stern warning. He spoke of the economic impact, said protesting was unacceptable, and threatened to punish the demonstrators.

After that first speech, says Mr. Chemli, "For the first time in my life, I heard people insulting Ben Ali in the cafes and on the street."

On Jan. 10, at the beginning of what would be his last week in power, Ben Ali called the protesters "terrorists," but offered his first signs of being shaken by the unrest sweeping over his nation: He promised to create 300,000 new jobs by the end of next year. But Tunisians scoffed, and the protests grew.

Two days later, he fired his interior minister, who had overseen the violent police attacks on protesters. It was too little, too late. The following day, he was practically on his knees in one last desperate attempt to cling to power.

In a televised address, he spoke to Tunisians for the first time in colloquial Tunisian dialect, promising not to run for reelection in 2014, to conduct investigations into corruption and the killing of protesters, and to allow more freedoms.

Immediately after his speech, the regime turned off its Internet filters that had blocked sites like YouTube for years.

But his plea of "I understand you" fell on deaf ears.

On Jan. 14, thousands of people gathered in Tunis, demanding that he leave.

Mr. Ben Slama was one of them. He left a note at home for his family, telling them this was something he had to do. "For once, we got to do what we have been willing to do for years. I felt peaceful after that, because finally we have done something we should have done years ago."

By evening, Ben Ali was on a plane to Saudi Arabia, and his prime minister had assumed the presidency.

The world will likely never know what finally nudged him out the door that Tunisians had opened wide, but many credit the Army with that role.

The Army chief, Gen. Rachid Ammar, is said to have weakened the president's foundation when he refused to order the Army to open fire on protesters, as the police were doing.

Where does Tunisia go from here?

Ben Ali's departure did not end the struggle. Tunisians are now working to construct a government and a democratic society on the ruins of his 23 years of autocratic rule.

The first week was rocky, with five opposition ministers dropping out of a new unity government and protesters demanding that Ben Ali's whole corrupt system – including his heavily influential RCD party – be removed and the country given a clean slate.

"There is no head of a mafia without a mafia, and that is why we're fighting the current government," said Najah Mahjub, part of a group of protesters who cheered as men tore down the RCD's logo at its headquarters in Tunis. "They have to make us forgive 23 years of corruption."

Indeed, protesters are determined to succeed, despite the fact that the revolution has yet to produce a clear leader who can harness the power of the popular uprising and bring about real change. Having been freed from their fear and found the power in their hands, they are not about to give it up.

"I don't want my brother's blood to have been spilled for nothing," says Samya, Bouazizi's sister back in Sidi Bouzid. "And to demand that, we can use words and violence. I can immolate myself tomorrow if they try to steal these rights from me."

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Tunisia in brief

This Berber land was occupied over the centuries by Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Spaniards, Ottoman Turks, and finally the French. It became an independent nation in 1956.

• How big it is

Slightly smaller than Wisconsin, with roughly the same population as Beijing (10.6 million).

• Who lives there

Mostly Muslims; 1 percent are Christians; 74.3 percent are literate, and 2 out of 3 live in an urban area.

• Who's in charge

Has had only two presidents: Habib Bourguiba, who ruled for 31 years, and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who took power in a 1987 coup. Legislature: an appointed Chamber of Advisers and an elected Chamber of Deputies.

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