The First Middle Eastern Revolution since 1979

Tunisian President Zine al-Abidin Bin Ali has fled the country before the advancing crowds pouring in to the capital’s center. A French eye-witness said of the masses thronging Bourguiba Avenue that “it was black with people.” The Speaker of Parliament [first minister] is caretaker leader of the country, though Aljazeera is reporting that there are already demonstrations in the southern town of Qabis rejecting him, as well. The dramatic events in Tunisia yesterday and today may shake the Middle East, as my colleague Marc Lynch suggested. As usual, the important news from the region is being ignored by US television news. (Here is an English-language eyewitness blog from one corner of the country).

In some ways, the Tunisian Revolution is potentially more consequential for the Middle East than had been the Iranian one. In Iran, Shiite ayatollahs came to power on the back of a similar set of popular protests, establishing a theocracy. That model appealed to almost nobody in the Middle East, with the exception of Shiites in Iraqi and Lebanese slums; and theocratic Shiite Arabs were a minority even in their own ethnic group. Proud Sunni Arab nationalists, in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere, saw nothing to like there, even though they were saddled with a motley assortment of authoritarian presidents for life, military dictators, kings and emirs. Iranian leaders were shocked and dismayed to find that they had made a ‘revolution in one country.’ Their influence would come from championing the (Sunni) Palestinians and supporting Lebanon when it was attacked by Israel, not from their form of government. Iran was not like the French revolutionary republic, which really did become a model over time for much of Europe. It was an odd man out.

The Enlightenment principle of popular sovereignty has been mostly absent in the Arab world, and elections have been an odd Soviet-style shadow play, merely for show lest the dictators and kings be seen to be medieval in lacking anything called a parliament. Lebanon has been an exception, but with a population of 4 million it is a tiny country. The Kuwait parliament has shown signs of life, but in a constitutional monarchy where it was considered gauche to sharply question a cabinet minister related to the king, those are baby steps. It is too soon to tell if American-sponsored elections in Occupied Iraq are sustainable, and you can’t talk about popular sovereignty in a country occupied by foreign troops.

Of course, there is no guarantee that Tunisia will now move in a democratic direction. The demands of the protesters have to do with high food prices and unemployment.

Revolutions are always multiple revolutions happening simultaneously. In Tunisia, there was first of all a revolution of the blocked, educated middle class. The unemployment rate for the college-educated is 20%. The protests late last December were kicked off by the self-immolation of a college graduate who had been reduced to peddling vegetables, and then who lost his license from the government even to do that. The French eyewitness to the massive demonstrations downtown Tunis spoke of seeing ‘entrepreneurs, attorneys, physicians in smocks, students… in short, it was the population in general…” But of course he hasn’t described the general population, he has described the middle classes. Their placards, he said, read: “Bread and Water, but not Ben Ali” and attacking the sinister behind-the-scenes power of Leila Trabelsi Ben Ali, the dictator’s wife, whom they derisively called ‘the Hairdresser.’ (Shades of Marie Antoinette!)

The first lady, called ‘the regent of Carthage’ and ‘la Presidente’ (feminine of ‘president’) was accused in some quarters of having used her marriage to the president to grab control of the economy and to put her Trabelsi clan in influential political and economic positions. Her daughters married among the richest men in the country. It has been alleged that 7 great clans had controlled most of the country’s economic resources, and hers was added to them. She is said to have studied literature in college, though whether she graduated is controversial and she might have finished up as first lady by correspondence school. She is said at one point in the 1980s to have run a unisex hair salon frequented by powerful men, allowing her to engage in social climbing. Some Tunisian journalists from the late 1990s accused her of being too powerful and of having aspirations to succeed her husband.

But it would be wrong to see the revolution only as a middle class movement against corruption and nepotism, fueled by facebook status updates and youth activism. The trade unions (al-niqabat) played an essential role, and were among those demanding the departure of the president. You don’t get massive crowds like the one in Tunis without a lot of workers joining in. There are few labor correspondents any longer, and the press downplays the role of workers as a result of neither having good sources among them nor an adequate understanding of the importance of labor mobilization. It is no accident that on Wednesday the head of the Communist workers movement was arrested (he has been released).

The rural areas should also not be underestimated. The protests began in a small rural town, and have been nation-wide, not just in the capital. The role of rural workers is clearly important, and likely rather more important than Facebook.

The political parties in Tunisia are weak, but they did play a role, with everyone from progressives, to liberals, to the an-Nahdah Muslim party mobilizing and making demands.

Likewise, there is evidence of a classic revolutionary situation insofar as the armed forces split. Ben Ali angrily removed his army chief of staff recently on discovering that the army was confining itself to defending government buildings but declining to fire on the demonstrators.

The big questions are what comes next and how influential it will be. Mohamed Ghannouchi, the former prime minister and speaker of the house who is now interim president, has pledged early elections. It is not clear that he can remain in power to be the one overseeing them. Will the old clan patronage system reassert itself through the elections, or will the political revolution turn into a social revolution with a turn to social democracy? Will the odious French president Nicolas Sarkozy intervene behind the scenes in favor of the Tunisian Right?

As for the question of influence further afield, we should remain cautious. In the Middle East, every tub has so far been on its own bottom. Nobody in Tunisia cited Turkey as a model for what they were doing. People care about their own country and its problems, not about shining beacons on the hill. (And pace the Neoconservatives, no one in the Arab world thinks Iraq is anything they’d like to emulate).

But since Tunisia is Sunni and Arab, it would not be embarrassing for Egyptians, Algerians, Syrians and Jordanians to borrow its techniques and rhetoric for their own domestic purposes, which makes it potentially influential. Certainly an alliance of frustrated BA holders, professionals, workers, farmers, progressives and Muslim activists that results in a parliamentary democracy would likely have more resonances in the Arab world than Iran’s authoritarian rule by ayatollah (Sunnis don’t have ayatollahs). It remains to be seen if little Tunisia is the start of something, or one more false dawn.

France 24 reports on the aftermath of Zine al-Abidin Bin Ali’s initial offer to step down in 2014 and form a national unity government, before his flight from the country.

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Updates can be seen at Twitter, hash tag #sidibouzid.

47 Responses

  1. Don’t forget the overthrow of Jaafar Nimeiri in Sudan in very similar circumstances in 1985 (assuming you consider Sudan part of the Middle East. Antigovernment discontent, mainly over rising food and fuel prices, resulted in a general strike which paralysed Sudan. Massive demonstrations, some on-million strong, followed and the army — Nimeiri’s traditional source of support — could no longer be counted on to restore order. The end came on April 6, 1985, while Nimeiri was on the way home from an official visit to Washington. He was deposed in a bloodless coup led by his Defence Minister and backed by the army. Nimeiri diverted to Egypt where he was to spend the next 14 years in exile.

  2. It’s absolutely incredible! The first time an Arab autocrat has been overthrown in a spontaneous, mass-uprising. Jafar Nimeiri was, nonetheless, overthrown in a military coup d’etat (admittedly to the background noise of a general strike and mass protests). It might be nit-picking on my part, but I think the fact that Ben Ali has been kicked out sans military coup is very significant.

    Forget the Cedar ‘revolution’ in Lebanon (or the colour-coded ones in Ukraine and Georgia). This looks like the real deal. As Professor Abu Khalil mentioned on his blog: Russia was the least likely candidate for a socialist revolution in 1917 & ditto for democratic revolution in Tunisia.

    Amazing to see the EU and US scurrying about to declare their support for the Tunisian people ipso facto the demise of the ancien regime.

    Wishing the people of Tunisia a democratic and pluralistic political future!

    • Take it up with the US State Department.

      Satellite channels like Aljazeera have also helped create a ‘Middle East’ by their coverage and interactions.

      But seriously, *that’s* what is important here?

      • Tunisia is still not in the ‘middle east’.. Just as bangladesh is not in the ‘middle east. It is an arab nation.. But not part of the traditionally definition of the ‘middle east’. If you are talking about the ‘greater middle east’ as had been coined by the bush administration.. Then I guess during the pakistan floods you would be fine with articles reading “the first ME nation to be 1/3 sunk under water”…?

    • For Anthony – the Middle – east is more that merely a geography term in the 7th grade, obviously. It is cultural in every sense: religiously, historically, linguistically,genetically. Sure, there are Roman ruins across the country’s northern perimeter & it’s closer to Sicily than to Egypt, & it was a French colony for a century: Does that mean it’s not Middle Eastern? There are probably nearly as many Tunisians in France as there are in Tunisia, does this mean that they are Africans in the ordinary sense of the U.S. usage?

  3. Dr. Cole,

    Two facts that you mentioned caught my attention:

    “[t]he demands of the protesters have to do with high food prices and unemployment.”

    “In Tunisia, there was first of all a revolution of the blocked, educated middle class.”

    Do you see any parallels accross the globe right now about similar complaints? I mean, I usually don’t take the Tea Party folk that seriously, but some of their complaints seem to parallel those in Tunisia (at least about the economy), and they, at the very least, see themselves as part of a forward-looking group – like many revolutionaries. Also, in London last year we saw large protests as well. How can we contextualize all of these greviences in a broader context? What the heck is going on?

    • I don’t think the Tea Party sees itself as a forward-looking group at all. The very name indicates they want to turn the legal clock back to the founding of the Republic – far-right writers in whose footsteps the teabaggers slog clearly and repeatedly deride democracy and hint at taking the right to vote away from everyone who didn’t have it in 1789. Why else repeal the 14th Amendment?

      They’re nostalgic reactionaries, and we’ve had nostalgic reactionary movements of a failing middle class in Europe during the Depression while America mostly chose to move forward. If these guys in Tunisia are like that, it won’t be hard to tell.

      • Propaganda Alert: The Tea Party, as inspired by peacenik Ron Paul, wanted limited government and strong laws against fraud, corruption, etc. The movement arose out of disgust for BANKER bailouts during the Bush Administration and gained momentum as excessive Statism continued under Obama. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb (Dems and Repubs) saw this movement as a threat to their ostensibly dual option but really mono-option world and co-opted it. Clowns like Sarah Palin, etc. jumped on the bandwagon and attempted to inject their social/neocon agenda into the dialogue with some success as the corporate media is more than willing (eager?) to play along. The Lefty clowns on MSNBC, NYT, HuffPo, etc. then had their Strawman to hack down using their fallback racism claims.

        The Ron Paul branch of the Tea Party is quite PROGRESSive just as the Founding Father’s were moving away from a corrupt, statist system and progressing towards one based on individual liberties.

        Thank you to Wikileaks for inciting this movement in Tunisia and lets hope the move is towards freedom of the individual.

  4. Go Tunisia Go!!! Let’s get a democracy in the ME and put the fear of the people in the hearts of every dictator! Thanks you for covering this, Professor Cole.

  5. Social democracy will not bring bread and jobs, look at the west, neo-liberalism in the guise of democracy presides over high unemployment and inequality, social democracy died an aeon ago.
    The Tunisians have a choice Socialism or ruin!

    • “Will the odious French president Nicolas Sarkozy intervene behind the scenes in favor of the Tunisian Right?”

      What would be the perceived benefit to France of supporting the “Tunisian Right” from Sarkozy’s perspective?

  6. A revolution without toppling the regime…the president has fled the country and his clique is rearrange the house…
    I think Juan has not been accurate with what has happened so far… it looks more of a coup to abort an uprising than a revolution…the army is protecting the people while the regime is getting his in order by keeping the same faces (some of them since 1978) in power…

    government dismissed, a state of emergency declared and members of Ben Ali’s family were not allowed to board a plane, but Ben Ali has fled the country, the capital’s airport and space is closed…Is it a sort of a coup in the name of “the army is …with the people”? For now my assessment says so…the president has been replaced by someone from the same entourage …one of the names I used to hear more than 20 years ago…and they are still around Ben Ali…The regime is then rearranging its house by sacrifying Ben Ali… This would mean the regime as advised by France (and probably the US) is trying to divert the movement to take its breath (6 months)…then there will be a so-called coalition government…if that materialises it would mean involving the same “opposition” leaders…or some of them…

    The imperialist pressure on the Tunisian regime is understandable: France is the country’s largest investor in Tunisia with 1174 companies over a total of 2860 companies representing 41% of the total foreign companies. The French investment reaches about 1.240 billion TND followed by Italy with 1080 million TND cumulated by 642 italian companies. France has refused Ben Ali entrance. 1 million Tunisians live in France.

    the people today are more confident than in 1984 and they’ve learnt in the school of lies and deception as well as in the school of repression, and they have broken the wall of fear…Thus they demanding the “interim president” to go too.

    So far there has been a great development because the working class has entered the field in the big towns…However, this has been halted by the intervention of army using the pretext of “protecting the people”. Let’s not forget that Ben Ali comes from army and was trained in America. So, the potential is there and the stam is still running.

    Another plane is that if a similar movement breaks out in Algeria and Morocco or especially Egypt…That would give a revolutionary aspect to an Arab movement for change…

    The Tunisian national anthem begins with:

    “If one day the people will to live

    Then destiny must reply;

    The might must disappear,

    And bonds must break”*

    One important aspect of the movement in Tunisia is that it has not been hijacked or exploited by any Islamist group or any other party. Despite that it showed the potential and the power of the people and their determination. So far the slogan “Occupation, occupation, untill the regimes falls” has not materialised, which leaves room for a second stage for the movement.

    In the current international situation, the stage is set for more revolts like the ones we have seen in Greece, France, the students’ revolt in England and the protes movement in Europe in general. The connection is that the seeds of the Tunisian uprising have been in issues realted to unemployment, marginalisation, corruption, etc. issues that have been exacerbated by the international Great Depression. Thus the causes of the Tunisians are in tune with the cuses of the workers and the youth in Europe and the world.

    One thing must be said, unlike the BBC, Aljazeera have played a much better role in reporting what has been happening in Tunisia and Algeria. It took the BBC English Wesbite 26 days to run a headline about Tunisia despite the escalation os the movement. It kept the reports sidelined. But the credit has to be given to the twitter and facebook activists and the benefit of the Internet revolution.

    *Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi

  7. Good luck to everyone in Tunisia and the whole world fighting for a just and democratic future !!!

  8. Professor Cole,

    I agree with much of your post, with the exception of your comments on Iran which I think are anachronistic. It may seem today that the influence of “Iran’s authoritarian rule by ayatollah” has little resonance beyond poor Shi’ite communities in Iraq and Lebanon, but that was not the case in 1979 when the revolution did in fact, as many have observed, shake the Islamic world from Morocco to Indonesia. One of the reasons that Saddam invaded shortly after the Pahlavi regime was toppled was out of fear that the revolutionary zeal next door would cross his borders, and many Arab regimes (with the exception of Syria, South Yemen, and Algeria to name a few) threw their weight behind him not out of devotion to his framing the war as an age-old battle between Arabs and Persians but again to stem the revolutionary tide. So while it may seem as if the fervor from the 1979 model has attenuated today, I would hesitate to claim, as you did in the post that that model “appealed to almost no one in the Middle East,” especially at that point in time.

    • The 1979 situation may represent the difference between people in Arab states simply wanting revolution per se, versus wanting the formulations of Khomeini.

      But then no revolution has only one stage. Iran originally fell to a coalition movement that included seculars and leftists, just as many other revolutions included bourgeoise elements that returned to their businesses while their Marxist compatriots gathered all power. So what might have been admired about Iran could have been very short-lived.

    • Its very irritating at how people discredit the movement led by Shiites and (other minorities in including Christians) in Lebanon, to establish an independent governing body for the Lebanese by the Lebanese, by claiming that they are the few that are influenced by “Iran’s authoritarian rule by ayatollah.” They’re not – theyre just sick of the West (and Israel) meddling in their affairs. Anyone well-informed of domestic politics in lebanon would NOT make such a comment!!!

  9. Correction: The prime minister took over temporarily the presidential powers under article 56 of the consitution. People argue that this is unconstitutional because the president has left presumably permanently. Therefore under article 57 of the constitution it should be the head of the parliament.

  10. There is a wikileaks connection too: the Guardian story, in December, of the US Ambassador’s assessment of the corruption of the regime evidently struck a nerve among the public, used to hearing gossip but impressed by these authentic confirmations.
    Who says the US does not assist in the spread of democracy?

  11. P.Cole,

    Why do you insist on using terms such as “Sunni Arabs” when referring to places such as Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. As an Arab I can tell you we don’t really use these terms, and apart from Lebanon, and the US imposed sectarian architecture in Iraq, these terms are not very useful even as analytical units.

    This language is alien to the Arab world. With all due respect, you’re not quite the expert you think you are.

    A “Sunni Muslim Arab Nationalist From Syria”

    • Hi, KR. Social scientists think of language, religion and other attributes as ‘markers of identity.’ The markers are not always politically or socially important, but sometimes they are. In Lebanon, a Shiite Arab is actually dragooned by the list system into voting for Shiite parties and so typically has different politics than a Sunni Arab.

      When talking about Persian Shiites in Iran making a play for influence to the West, it is relevant that most Sunni Arabs are resistant to accepting leadership of Persian Shiites.

      I am not sure why you would want to deny that markers of identity (Sunni, Allawi, Druze, Eastern Orthodox) have been important in Syria. It doesn’t necessarily mean that people are divided; one of the roots of the staying power of the Baathists is that the party can to some degree overcome those divisions with a rhetoric of Arab unity.

      Your allegation that a language recognizing difference is alien in the Arab world is a common assertion of Arab nationalists, who want to make linguistic ethnicity supreme. But there are thousands of Syrian Kurds who have had their citizenship taken away over such conflicts.

      During the height of the Sunni-Shiite civil war in Iraq, 2006-2007, Iraqis would routinely complain about analysts making a difference between Sunnis and Shiites. And that was while they were massacring one another!

      Try to lose the snark about expertism. Nobody in academia takes pride in being an ‘expert.’ Either we get any particular point right or we don’t. You demonstrate to us that we haven’t by presenting good evidence and reasoning. Do a good job, and any good academic will say, ‘yes, you have a point and I should revise my findings.’ In that regard, all you have done is some nationalist hand-waving. You haven’t said anything substantive at all, and to the extent that you have made assertions that could be tested, they seem to me obviously wrong.

    • THANK YOU VERY MUCH!!! This language has been constructed and ingrained into the political narrative by Western (including Arab) media and Middle-east ‘experts.’

      I think it reflects a lack of understanding of the political fabric in the middle-east… its too easy to say that the crisis in lebanon is shiite vs sunni when in actual fact its reflective of a much wider political problem that engulfs the region. Journalists are simply too simple to get it!

      • Juan, sorry but religion is simply not the identity marker that you claim it is… political affiliation is.

  12. The scope of the revolution does not point at middle eastern politics but at western politics. A revolution shared by all classes except the rich and privileged, revolution involving intellectuals and unions and excluding radical violent elements.
    A political revolution where greater democracy is the goal and the will of the people is expressed. So will western people see the Tunisian revolution where the broad community works together to bring down the minority, the rich and greedy whose greed knows no bounds and strive to achieve a government of the people by the people and for the people.

  13. Thank God Tunisia doesn’t have vast reserves of natural resources or a geo-politically “strategic” location. Sometimes, it’s good to be small and/or overlooked.

    Man, oh man, I hope this spreads!!

  14. Thank you Prof. Cole,
    This is not Iraq or any other country of the Arab Sharq, the orient. This is Tunisia with a deep and rich tradition of governance and adherence to modernity. The Tunisians are calling this transformation the jasmine Revolution and it will definitely give an example to emulate. Tunisia, unlike other Arab speaking country, east and west has invested in education, health and modernization since 1750. Remember, ‘Ahd Al Aman under Ahmed Bey gave the first constitution in the Arab world, the struggle for independence took a different approach from any in the Arab speaking countries, even the questionable change of 1987 is different from any change in the rest of the Arab world. Therefore, with this rich sense of belonging to a “national” entity and a level of literacy soaring above 78%, a literacy which includes critical thinking, Tunisia will certainly transition with conviction to an original democratic practice in a region that was inflicted with corrupt regimes and comprador leaders. Again, thanks to the constitution the transition will be peaceful and orderly. Free elections will be certainly held and the hold of the party in power will also dissipate to give way to more diverse and truly representative government.
    Now I would like to remind the western allies of BenAli. Look at him, that ardent opponent of Islamism, is seeking political exile in Saudi Arabia. What a coward move, the Tunisian people will never forget it. This is how low the man is willing to go. He thinks that the Saudis will intervene on his behalf and seek American assistance to bring him back to power. That will never happen; this is not Iraq or any Mashriq country.

    • Hedi,
      What is it with your “Orient”? You are so ashamed of your Arab roots you only want to belong to the occident? By the way, the most famous secular-atheist literary figure in the history of the Arab world was Abula’ala al Ma’arri, from Syria (orient), if secularism is what defines “civilization” for you.

      And by the way, we have far more secular dictatorships than religious ones in the Arab world. One can not even disagree with their definition of the “secular.” If you even happen to be more “liberal” and “secular” than them, then you are a punishment deserving dissident. There are liberal minded people everywhere in the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, but like those in Tunisia sometime ago, they couldn’t speak out. I hope they could soon.

      The problem in the Arab world, which you seem to have missed, is: no leader tends to accept commentary, let alone criticism. Everyone is oppressed under them, whether religious or not.

    • You are a bit mis-informed. Iraq, until the American sanctions and invasion, invested heavily in health, education and modernization, even winning a UNESCO prize for literacy in the ’70s and it’s healthcare system was second to none in the developing world before the sanctions.

  15. The revolution in Tunisia is not only about food, if it was for that only it would have been finished as soon as the former President made some concessions. It has escalated to a political revolution called Yasmin or the Jasmin Revolution, thanks also to Facebook. Thank you Zuckerman for inventing Facebook.

  16. Even before April 1985 in Sudan, protests led by Univeristy of Khartoum students and staff in October 1965 led to the overthrow of General Ibrahim Abbud’s military government. The fact is, this really is not “new”; the question is what happens and who leads next.

  17. Question: Why did not the USA help Tunisians overthrow the dictator like they did with Iraq?

    Answer: Because Tunisia is not a threat to Israel, the freedom of Tunisians is not even an issue.

  18. Many reasons for this revolution
    1. Inflation, high cost for food
    2. Lack of jobs, especially for the educated youth
    3. Lack of democracy, freedoms, civil liberties, poor press freedom
    4. The poor being ignored
    5. Rampant corruption, nepotism, oligarchy
    6. Torture, human rights violations

    Good luck Tunisia. Makes me proud.

  19. “Will the odious French president Nicolas Sarkozy intervene behind the scenes…”

    Living in Paris, and being French, I thank you Juan for this comment!!!
    Ooooh, feels so good to read this!!

  20. Dear professor,

    I enjoyed reading your article, and I think it describes the situation in an objective and rational manner.

    I wonder though, many Arab leaders, and my focus is on Mubarak here, gain strength and maybe even some popularity by appearing as the one’s who stand in the way of a theocracy. Mubarak’s repressive attitude toward the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups left many saying they prefer him over a power vacuum in which such groups (who are quite popular in Egypt) might get to power.

    Egypt suffers from a rise in extremist political Islam, would this form a threat to its future if there ever was a revolution?

  21. “Proud Sunni Arab nationalists like [...] Syria.”

    Really professor Cole?

    The Syrian Baath party has been dominated by more Alawis and Christians than Sunnis since the 70′s. You should cross out “Sunni” and just say “Arab nationalists.”

  22. You say: “Of course, there is no guarantee that Tunisia will now move in a democratic direction. The demands of the protesters have to do with high food prices and unemployment.”

    Agreed… that this does not necessarily guarantee a move towards democracy, but this uprising is certainly not just about food prices and unemployment. It is simply not enough to fix this one problem to placate the demands of the Tunisian people as was demonstrated by the demonstrators rejection of Ben Ali’s proposals.

  23. Thanks professor Cole for this post, there’s not a lot of up to date information in English

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