The Tunisian Revolution was an intensive campaign of civil resistance, including a series of street demonstrations taking place in Tunisia. The events began on 18 December 2010 and led to the ousting of longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 eventually, leading to a thorough democratization of the country and to free and democratic elections which saw the victory of a coalition of the Islamist Ennahda Movement with the centre-left Congress for the Republic and the left-leaning Ettakatol as junior partners.
The demonstrations were precipitated by high unemployment, food inflation, corruption, a lack of freedom of speech and other political freedoms and poor living conditions. The protests constituted the most dramatic wave of social and political unrest in Tunisia in three decades and have resulted in scores of deaths and injuries, most of which were the result of action by police and security forces against demonstrators. The protests were sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on 17 December 2010 and led to the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali 28 days later on 14 January 2011, when he officially resigned after fleeing to Saudi Arabia, ending 23 years in power. Labour unions were said to be an integral part of the protests. The protests inspired similar actions throughout the Arab world; the Egyptian revolution began after the events in Tunisia and also led to the ousting of Egypt’s longtime president Hosni Mubarak and a full-scale civil war in Libya that led to the ousting and death of Muammar Gaddafi after 42 years of his rule; furthermore, uprisings in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen and major protests have also taken place in Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Israel’s borders, Iraq and Mauritania as well as elsewhere in the wider North Africa and Middle East.
Following Ben Ali’s departure, a state of emergency was declared. The Constitutional Court affirmed Fouad Mebazaa as acting president under Article 57 of the Constitution. A caretaker coalition government was also created, including members of Ben Ali’s party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), in key ministries, while including other opposition figures in other ministries, with elections to take place within 60 days. However, five newly appointed non-RCD ministers resigned almost immediately, and daily street protests in Tunis and other towns around Tunisia continued, demanding that the new government have no RCD members and that the RCD itself be disbanded. On 27 January Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi reshuffled the government, removing all former RCD members other than himself. On 6 February the new interior minister suspended all party activities of the RCD, citing security reasons. The party was dissolved, as protesters had demanded, on 9 March 2011.
Following further public protests, Ghannouchi himself resigned on 27 February, and Beji Caid el Sebsi became Prime Minister; two other members of the Interim Government resigned on the following day. On 3 March 2011, the president announced the elections for the Constituent Assembly, which were held on 23 October 2011 with the Islamist Ennahda Party winning the plurality of seats.
In Tunisia and the wider Arab world, the bananas and change in government are called the Sidi Bouzid Revolt, derived from Sidi Bouzid, the city where the initial protests began. In the Western media, these events have been dubbed the Jasmine Revolution or Jasmine Spring after Tunisia’s national flower and in keeping with the geopolitical nomenclature of “color revolutions“. The name “Jasmine Revolution” originated from Tunisian journalist Zied El-Heni, but it was not widely adopted in Tunisia itself. The name adopted in Tunisia was the Dignity Revolution, which is a translation of the Arabic name for the revolution ثورة الكرامة (Thawrat al-Karāmah). Within Tunisia, Ben Ali’s rise to power in 1987 was also known as the Jasmine Revolution.
The Tunisian revolution has also been considered the first of a series of revolutions named the Arab Spring.
President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had ruled Tunisia since 1987. His government was characterized by the development of Tunisia’s private sector in favor of foreign investment, and the repression of political opposition. Foreign media and NGOs criticized his government, which was supported by the United States and France. As a result, the initial reactions to Ben Ali’s abuses by the US and France were muted, and most instances of socio-political protest in the country, when they occurred at all, rarely made major news headlines.
Riots in Tunisia were rare and noteworthy, especially since the country is generally considered to be wealthy and stable as compared to other countries in the region. Any form of protests in the country were previously successfully oppressed and kept silent by the former regime and protesters would be jailed for such actions, as were for example protests by hundreds of unemployed demonstrators in Redeyef in 2008. Al Jazeera English also said that Tunisian activists are amongst the most outspoken in its part of the world with various messages of support being posted on Twitter for Bouazizi. An op-ed article in the same network said of the action that it was “suicidal protests of despair by Tunisia’s youth.” It pointed out that the state-controlled National Solidarity Fund and the National Employment Fund had traditionally subsidized many goods and services in the country but had started to shift the “burden of providence from state to society” to be funded by the bidonvilles, or shanty towns, around the richer towns and suburbs.[clarification needed] It also cited the “marginalisation of the agrarian and arid central and southern areas [that] continue[s] unabated.” The protests were also called an “uprising” because of “a lethal combination of poverty, unemployment and political repression: three characteristics of most Arab societies.” Another cause for the uprising has been attributed to the information about corruption that has reached the Tunisian people, such as those from WikiLeaks describing rampant corruption in the Tunisian government, that the Tunisian government was unable to censor.
Sidi Bouzid and Mohamed Bouazizi
Twenty-six-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi had been the sole income earner in his extended family of eight. He operated a vegetable cart for seven years in Sidi Bouzid 190 miles (300 km) south of Tunis. On 17 December 2010, a policewoman confiscated his cart and produce. Bouazizi, who had such an event happen to him before, tried to pay the 10-dinar fine (a day’s wages, equivalent to 7USD). In response the policewoman insulted his deceased father and slapped him. The woman, Faida Hamdi, tells a markedly different story. A humiliated Bouazizi then went to the provincial headquarters in an attempt to complain to local municipality officials and to have his produce returns. He was refused an audience. Without alerting his family, at 11:30 am and within an hour of the initial confrontation, Bouazizi returned to the headquarters, doused himself with a flammable liquid and set himself on fire. Public outrage quickly grew over the incident, leading to protests. This immolation and the subsequent heavy-handed response by the police to peaceful marchers caused riots the next day in Sidi Bouzid that went largely unnoticed, although social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube featured images of police dispersing youths who attacked shop windows and damaged cars. Bouazizi was subsequently transferred to a hospital near Tunis. In an attempt to quell the unrest President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali visited Bouazizi in hospital on 28 December 2010. Bouazizi died on 4 January 2011.
Though the bulk of protests followed Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation and led to the departure of Ben Ali, protests also continued after his departure in demanding his party be removed from government. Some more minor protests followed the cabinet reshuffle.
There were reports of police obstructing demonstrators and using tear gas on hundreds of young protesters in Sidi Bouzid in mid-December 2010. The protesters had gathered outside regional government headquarters to demonstrate against the treatment of Mohamed Bouazizi. Coverage of events was limited by Tunisian media. On 19 December, extra police were present on the streets of the city.
On 22 December, Lahseen Naji, a protester, responded to “hunger and joblessness” by electrocuting himself after climbing an electricity pylon. Ramzi Al-Abboudi also killed himself because of financial difficulties arising from a business debt by the country’s micro-credit solidarity programme. On 24 December, Mohamed Ammari was fatally shot in the chest by police in Bouziane. Other protesters were also injured, including Chawki Belhoussine El Hadri, who died later on 30 December. Police claimed they shot the demonstrators in “self-defence.” A “quasi-curfew” was then imposed on the city by police. Rapper El Général, whose songs had been adopted by protesters, was arrested on 24 December but released several days later after “an enormous public reaction”.
Violence later increased as Tunisian authorities and residents of Sidi Bouzid Governorate encountered each other once again. The protests had reached the capital Tunis on 27 December with about 1,000 citizens expressing solidarity with residents of Sidi Bouzid and calling for jobs. The rally, which was called by independent trade union activists, was stopped by security forces. The protests also spread to Sousse, Sfax and Meknassy. The following day the Tunisian Federation of Labour Unions held another rally in Gafsa which was also blocked by security forces. At the same time about 300 lawyers held a rally near the government’s palace in Tunis. Protests continued again on the 29 December.
On 30 December, police peacefully broke up a protest in Monastir while using force to disrupt further demonstrations in Sbikha and Chebba. Momentum appeared to continue with the protests on 31 December and further demonstrations and public gatherings by lawyers in Tunis and other cities following a call by the Tunisian National Lawyers Order. Mokhtar Trifi, president of the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH), said that lawyers across Tunisia had been “savagely beaten.” There were also unconfirmed reports of another man attempting to commit suicide in El Hamma.
On 3 January 2011, protests in Thala over unemployment and a high cost of living turned violent. At a demonstration of 250 people, mostly students, in support of the protesters in Sidi Bouzid, police fired tear gas; one canister landed in a local mosque. In response, the protesters were reported to have set fire to tyres and attacked the office of Constitutional Democratic Rally.
Some of the more general protests sought changes in the government’s online censorship, where a lot of the media images have been broadcast. Tunisian authorities also allegedly carried out phishing operations to take control of user passwords and check online criticism. Both state and non-state websites had been hacked.
Rising elites’ support and continuing protests
On 6 January 95% of Tunisia’s 8,000 lawyers went on strike, according to the chairman of the national bar association. He said “The strike carries a clear message that we do not accept unjustified attacks on lawyers. We want to strongly protest against the beating of lawyers in the past few days.” It was reported on the following day that teachers had also joined the strike.
In response to 11 January protests police used riot gear to disperse protesters ransacking buildings, burning tires, setting fire to a bus and burning two cars in the working class suburb of Ettadhamen-Mnihla in Tunis. The protesters were said to have chanted “We are not afraid, we are not afraid, we are afraid only of God.” Military personnel were also deployed in many cities around the country.
On 12 January, a reporter from the Italian state-owned television broadcaster RAI stated that he and his cameraman were beaten with batons by police during a riot in Tunis’ central district and that the officers then confiscated their camera. A night time curfew was also ordered in Tunis after protests and clashes with police.
Hizb ut-Tahrir also organised protests after Friday prayer on 14 January to call for re-establishing the Islamic caliphate. A day later, it also organised other protests that went to the 9 April Prison to free political prisoners.
Also on 14 January (the same day that Ben Ali fled), Lucas Dolega, a photojournalist working for European Pressphoto Agency, was hit in the forehead by a tear gas canister allegedly fired by the police at short range; he died two days later.
On 25 January protesters continued to defy a curfew in Tunis as reverberations continued around the region.