Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – In mid-December, 2010 in the small Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, a small drama unfolded that would change the world, and certainly would change Tunisia. Tareq Mohammed Bouazizi, a street peddler who had just bought $200 worth of produce to sell off a cart, was harassed by police for not having a license (none is needed to sell off a cart). They were likely looking for a bribe, but Bouazizi didn’t have money for that. Bouazizi sought redress with a local municipal official but claimed that she slapped him and sent him away (she denies this). Then he went to the governor’s office and still got no satisfaction. He stood in the street before the office, having bought a can of gasoline, and doused himself, setting himself afire, shouting beforehand “How do you expect me to make a living?” People around him put out the fire, and he was taken to a series of trauma hospitals.
Despite strict press censorship, news of what happened to Bouazizi spread like wildfire in Tunisia’s towns and cities, and outraged youth who identified with the young man began staging demonstrations. This was strictly illegal, and they attracted malign police attention.
By the end of December it appeared that Bouazizi might live, and the president of Tunisia, Zeyn El-Abidin Ben Ali, visited him in hospital. On Jan. 4, he died.
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“TUNIS, TUNISIA – JANUARY 24: Protesters carry a coffin draped in the Tunisian flag representing martyr Mohamed Bouazizi outside the prime minister’s office on January 24, 2011 in Tunis, Tunisia. Protesters from the countryside and the hamlet of Sidi Bouzid, the town where the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ started, walked through the night to descend on the prime minsiters office where they tore down razor wire barricades. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images).”
Ben Ali ran a seedy Mediterranean police state with tens of thousands of secret police who intensively spied on the public and forbade the slightest sign of dissent.
A lot of the protests targeted the police, and police stations were burned down. The secret police were particularly hated.
state was overwhelmed by the massive protests that broke out that January in all parts of the country. By January 14, he was forced to flee the country.
I wrote about all this in my book, The New Arabs.
In the subsequent months, a caretaker government prepared the country for its first free and fair elections for a constituent assembly that would author a new constitution, which took place in the fall of 2011. The winner was the center-right Nahda or Renaissance Party, many members of which tilted toward civil Muslim activism. But it lacked a majority and had to go into coalition with leftist and liberal parties. The situation was fragile and there was anti-leftist violence, and the new constitution was not ready as soon as it should have been. By summer of 2013, labor unions and youth organizations staged another set of huge demonstrations that forced the government’s hand. By January of 2014 there was a new constitution. In the subsequent election the Renaissance Party lost to a secular rival.
Tunisia’s road has been rocky, but it still has well-regarded elections, and Human Rights Watch admits,
- “Tunisia has made important strides in protecting human rights since 2011. The authorities adopted a progressive new constitution, held free and fair legislative and presidential elections, adopted laws to improve the status of women, and improved legal protections for detainees.”
Freedom House says that Tunisians after the 2011 revolution enjoy “unprecedented political rights and civil liberties.”
Some of this good work was undone by ISIL terrorism in 2015 and after, causing the government to declare a state of emergency, under which government forces have far more power than they should.
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TUNIS, TUNISIA – NOVEMBER 30: Tunisian demonstrators carry banners during a march against violence towards women in Tunis, Tunisia on November 30, 2019. (Photo by Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images).
As HRW also says, there’s lots more to be done.
But Tunisia went from being one of the more repressive states in the world, where Ben Ali’s corrupt family and friends may have owned 50% of the gross domestic product, to being a relatively democratic country with many more freedoms. Parties run the gamut from left to right, and the elections meet international standards. There is more freedom of the press in Tunisia than in any other Middle Eastern country, and that includes Lebanon and Israel. Still, there are some constraints (apparently it is bad to badmouth the country’s small military and there are still blasphemy laws). If Tunisians can ever get rid of that state of emergency, the police will go back to having serious legal restraints under the constitution. ISIL is no longer what it once was, and perhaps there is hope in that regard.
The protests in the US over the murder by police of George Floyd are small, proportionally, by 2011 Tunisian standards. Before Ben Ali fled, there were 200,000 people in the streets of Tunis. Since the US is roughly 33 times more populous than Tunisia, that would be like 6 million people in the streets of Washington, DC (the district only has about 700,000 people).
Still, in both cases tremendous popular energy has been unleashed demanding key reforms. It seems clear that chokeholds and teargas should be forbidden, and it is highly desirable that police be demilitarized. The First Amendment needs to be restored, since police around the country have been interfering with peaceable assembly, a constitutional right. Second Amendment activists have told us for years that their cause guarantees the liberties of the other amendments, but we haven’t really seen them come out in favor of the Floyd protests or take a stand when police have illegally clearly peaceful demonstrators or even attacked them.
A whole host of police and penal reforms is needed, including abolition of asset forfeiture, ending cash bail, prohibiting racial profiling, ending qualified immunity, and adoption of Portugal-style decriminalization of most drugs. The House of Representatives is moving on some reform measures, but will be blocked by the Senate and Der Trump.
The Tunisian youth and unions only got a relatively progressive constitution by coming back out into the streets in summer-fall 2013 and making the constituent assembly fear for the stability of the country if they did not speed up their work and make some compromises. Even the pro-Islam Nahda Party acquiesced in an article making women and men equal, and they backed off making Islam the state religion.
If US protesters are going to be as successful as the Tunisian ones, they must get real legislative changes. And the biggest hope for those changes on a national scale is to get Trump out of the White House in November and to take the Senate away from the Republicans. But that is only the beginning, since the Democrats will have to be pressured to make significant changes.
In the long run, shaping institutions is what matters, which means the hard work of enacting laws and electing progressives.