Tunisia’s appearance in the headline of the New York Times in January may have welcomed it to world politics and rebranded the conceptions Westerners have learned towards the Arab world. But to those versed in the region’s modern history, socioeconomic reality and Tunisia’s remarkable circumstances, the popular removal of Tunisia’s heavy handed executive and president Mr. Ben Ali has marked the coalescence of long accumulating forces of discontent and stifled populations.
Tunisia broke the mold of the mass media’s contrived imagery of oil politics and Islam as a potent mobilizing social and political outlet along with other Orientalism based notions feeding Arab peculiarities were given no credence as Tunisians reached for the pinnacle of those values sacred to Western thought: democracy and economic dynamism. The initial comparison would have been the Iranian revolution which installed a theocracy, but Tunisia’s history of secular government and non-fervent Islam has led it to be likened more to a socialist-type revolution, though this comparison also seems inappropriate. Other Arab countries, primarily Egypt but also Jordan and Algeria, have demonstrated solidarity with Tunisians’ efforts in replicating their massive street protests.
There is now a widely expressed idea that Tunisia’s sudden political transformation may have larger implications for the Arab world’s incipient democratization, and understandably so considering its history of authoritarian rule, from its caliphs in Islam’s early history to recent executives such as Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. However, the region’s diverse people and vastly different political arrangements make such an expectation seem too simplistic even though it has some merit in light of the tumults throughout. For one, Tunisia has one of the most educated populations in the Arab world, ironically an achievement of Ben Ali’s commitment to having an intellectual country which has now rejected his patronizing rule, and its unusual proximity to western Europe has given it a taste of post-industrialism and individualism in contrast to other larger and more poverty ridden Arab countries which have retained a more traditional lifestyle.
I visited Tunisia in 2009 and even the Sahara desert region showed little symptoms of developing- nations type poverty. In fact Tunisia is not considered such a country by the IMF or the World Bank. A Tunisian friend of mine termed it an “electronic revolution” because of the use of the Internet’s social medium like Facebook to coordinate protests. The reality is that this social upheaval was not a “bread riot” or a demand for a better lifestyle, but anger against childishly stunted political rights and economic woes. The indictments against Ben Ali are certainly egregious, from his 23 year rule to his tacit acceptance of government corruption endemic even at the lowest levels, but the imbroglio comes down to structural inefficiencies common to most developed countries. A look north across the Mediterranean will give striking parallels to the recent life-as-usual halting protests in France and England’s massive student riots because of rising tuitions.
Basically, we are yet to see what real changes will occur in Tunisia as the rest of the Arab world’s people may desire to emulate their struggle, but each country has a different destiny and varying aims. Rulers like Libya’s Gaddafi and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh do not face the same sort of enlightened popular challenge.