Tunisia: a revolution

From the Jan.-Feb. 2011 issue of News & Letters:

World in View

Tunisia: a revolution?

by Gerry Emmett

Protests have exploded in Tunisia and Algeria. On Dec. 17, in the city of Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia, 26-year-old street vendor Mohammad Bouazizi doused himself in gasoline and burned himself to death in a despairing protest at the confiscation of his unlicensed fruit and vegetable cart.

Then on Dec. 22 another young man, Hussein Nagi Felhi, also killed himself in protest via electrocution. As he climbed the high voltage power line he shouted, “No for misery, no for unemployment!”


Within days of these horrible incidents, protests were spreading throughout Tunisia. Frustration with soaring youth unemployment, chronic political repression, and anger at government corruption has welled up from the interior to the capital, Tunis, and shows little sign of stopping. The government tried to enforce a media blackout, and the demonstrations and strikes received little coverage outside. But in return, sympathetic international hackers have taken down Tunisian government websites.

Masses took to the streets demanding the end of ruler Ben Ali’s government. They are supported by the country’s labor unions. In the face of peaceful protests, the government has wavered between offering reforms and firing on the people, killing dozens so far. Tunisia is an ally of the U.S., but diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks reveal that the U.S. considers it “unfree,” with a “mafia”-like ruling family.

Meanwhile, unrest spilled over to neighboring Algeria, where clashes with police over food and housing left dozens injured and at least three people dead.


After the regime decided to fire on the crowds, there was no turning back. On Jan. 14 Ben Ali left the country for whatever exile he can buy, and Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi took power in his wake, but was replaced the next day. The situation remained uncertain. One opposition figure, Najib Chebbi, said “This is a crucial moment. It must lead to profound reforms, to reform the law and let the people choose.”

But the overthrow of aging autocrat Ben Ali could have consequences far beyond the Maghreb. Across the region, it is certain that many would agree with the Lebanese student who said, “We are not used to seeing something like this in this part of the world. It is bigger than a dream in a region where people keep saying ‘what can we do.’ Young people across the Arab world should go to the streets and do the same. It is time that we claim our rights.”

Further, the labor movement and student protests show a profound international affinity to the experiences of European workers and youth resisting capitalism’s austerity plans. Rising food prices and housing shortages around the world should place the Tunisian struggle in the center of global attention.

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