Friday, January 14, 2011

Tunisia's Successful Intifada

Today Tunisia's long-time dictator Zayn al-Abideen ben Ali fled the country, while Prime Minister Muhammad Ghannouchi assumed the presidency. Some are calling it the "Jasmine Revolution." Juan Cole, who early in his career wrote a book about Egypt's 'Urabi Revolt, provides his historian's eye overview here.

Although I like the phrase "revolutionary situation," I'm shying away from the term "revolution" here as a signaling device designed to convey caution in assuming that a complete political transformation under the guidance of new social elements, which is a key element in history's classic revolutions, will unfold in Tunisia. Ghannouchi is almost certainly an interim figurehead who holds office but probably not power as Tunisia's current elites maneuver to establish a new system. Many protesters are refusing to accept this, but perhaps enough will that the military can regain control, and with that a strong position in which to play kingmaker. Ben Ali's flight is not the end, but only the end of the beginning, and my fear now is that the next few years will resemble those of Kyrgyzstan after the Tulip Revolution, though Tunisia is better off economically and has no simmering ethnic tensions.

While being cautious about the future, however, I also want to highlight that the uprising sparked by Muhammad Bouazizi's self-immolation on December 17 is a tale of the Tunisian people's courage, conviction, and heroism that will have repercussions for Arab political culture for years. It succeeded in part because of its spontaneous and amorphous qualities, which meant that there were no opposition groups for the government to infiltrate and control and no key leaders whose arrest would lead it to dry up. As a historian, I hope someone quickly begins documenting the events through the eyes of participants, especially those in the labor movement and among the rural poor who are not well represented in social media, but whose participation was critical to success. I also wonder if the idea of protests in rural Tunisia, going back to those in 2008 in Gafsa, owes anything to the Algerian culture of protest discussed here.

One consequence of this uprising is that, whatever happens, Tunisia will almost certainly have a more open society. Another is that, from now on, the fact that Ben Ali fell will exist as a metanarrative throughout the Arab world, one which, especially if Tunisia joins Lebanon and Iraq as countries where elections matter, will render old-style repression increasingly difficult.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)



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