2020 marks ten years since young Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the local police officials who had seized his cart and produce. Now known as the Arab Spring, this single act of defiance triggered a wave of social movements across North Africa and the Middle East, toppling autocrats and starting civil wars, in a bid for democracy and human rights. Many regard Tunisia as the lone success story, with countries such as Syria and Yemen now embroiled in devastating civil wars and conflicts.
After gaining independence from France in 1956, Tunisia had their first president Habib Bourguiba. He was regarded as a liberal but authoritarian leader and was succeeded in 1987 by Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Ben Ali embodied the authoritarianism of his predecessor to a much greater extent, harassing and imprisoning opponents, winning elections by margins of over 90%, and presiding over a police state where torture and censorship was rife. Tunisia did experience some economic growth, but the effects were mostly felt by the wealthy in big cities and on the coast, while people in the countryside remained side-lined. This dissatisfaction led to several protests, and by 2010 many had realised that the regime was less powerful than it seemed. The emergence of social media helped movements grow, as Tunisians found a way of communicating and organising without regular police interference.
Tunisia was primed for revolution – all it needed was a spark of ignition. This came from Bouazizi’s cousin, who filmed the self-immolation and uploaded it online. When the video was released, protests erupted in Bouazizi’s hometown, and more followed in the South. In Kasserine, police opened fire on protesters, killing 22 and injuring many more. All the while, these injustices were being filmed and circulated on social media, attracting national attention and outrage.
Ben Ali had crossed a line and people could no longer keep their heads down. 80,000 people marched in Tunis, holding banners demanding ‘jobs, freedom, national dignity’. In poorer districts people protested primarily for economic reasons. They wanted roads built and more jobs. In urban regions, activists and students demanded civil freedom, such as the right to expressions without threats from the police.
Cracks appeared in Ben Ali’s façade and, on the 14th January, he fled to Saudi Arabia, never to return. The first free elections were held and various political parties, both secular and Islamist, agreed to collaboratively form an interim government, and develop a new constitution for their country. But as tensions from opposing sides grew, progress in parliament stalled. The political assassinations of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, the former a politician and leftist critic of fundamentalist Islam, and the latter being the founder of the People’s Movement party, flooded Tunis with protests. Citizens feared that the democratic experiment would regress back into authoritarian rule or lead to civil war.
The demonstrations reverberated around neighbouring countries, leading to a wave of protests. In Egypt, 18 days of collective action, involving protests in Tahrir Square, Cairo, which hundreds of thousands attended, ended the autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign. In Libya, demonstrations broke out against Muammar al-Gaddafi, who was discovered hiding in a tunnel and publicly killed. However, not all revolutions had such clear-cut outcomes: protests in Yemen led to a civil war which continues today, with over 100,000 dead and widespread famine. In Syria, protests against Bashar al-Assad led to the use of chemical weapons and foreign intervention. Its civil war has seen ISIS claim territory and place it under strict Islamic law, causing millions of refugees to flee. In Bahrain, the pro-democracy protest was quickly crushed, and today the country remains under a repressive regime.
Back in Tunisia, the freedom granted by the revolution and the collapse of a surveillance state also had negative impacts for the country, as it made it easier for terrorist groups to organise. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for a massacre on Sousse beach in 2015, intending to undermine the tourism industry and the democratic revolution. In response, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, who won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts, helped push through a new constitution. After several free elections, the conflict abated.
Despite what many have labelled progress, many Tunisians feel disillusioned. The negotiations were rightly praised but took up a lot of political energy. The focus on political identity and the state has meant that the economic problems that powered the original revolution have been ignored. Economic growth has more than halved since 2010 and living conditions have fallen for many, who see the revolution as to blame. In 2018 protests broke out against the cost of living and unemployment, in a country where young people make up 85% of the jobless. This reflects a wider issue with the process of democratisation: the rich benefit, but the poor, who start the revolutions, are ultimately neglected.
Today, eight out of 10 Tunisians say corruption is endemic. Many are attracted to the fundamentalist messages peddled by extremist groups. Others seek to migrate to Europe. The conflict has decimated economies globally and in Syria, millions of displaced people have contributed to the European refugee crisis. This has encouraged the rise of populism and xenophobia in the west.
Dissent has now been crushed and human rights groups have described the conditions in Egypt and Syria as intolerable.
In spite of this, the Arab Spring retains a certain lustre. It shows that by working together, people can topple even the most powerful-seeming autocracies, and how social media can be utilised to effect change, transforming the face of revolutions.