Big revolutions have a habit of starting out in unlikely ways. On December 17, 2010, a roadside vegetable seller named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia, protesting against extreme police corruption and ill-treatment. The incident resonated with the locals, and the following day they were out on the streets demanding changes. The authoritarian governments in North Africa and the Middle East would typically crack down hard on street protests, but this time around, it took on a life of its own and kept growing.
The movement came to be known as the Arab Spring. The Tunisian Government was the first one to be overthrown, and by September 2012, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen had also fallen. In addition, governmental changes in numerous other countries in the region had occurred, such as the King of Jordan removing his Prime Minister and replacing him. Hopes were high across the region that a new era of transparent government, democracy, and freedom was about to dawn.
But as we end 2014, those hopes have all but faded. The momentum towards democracy has petered out, with replacement governments feeling a lot like the ones that were ousted, and the leaders who managed to hang on through the Arab Spring now entrenched in power. Then there are the hundreds of thousands of deaths in Syria, the rise of Islamic State, and military rule in Egypt. Journalists worldwide are feeling very clever as they juxtapose the term “Arab Spring” with “Arab Winter”. It’s not all that clever.
With the Middle East and North Africa at least as problematic as it was five years ago, what became of Tunisia? It’s the smallest country on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, and can sometimes be forgotten. Well, yeah… they just had a democratic presidential election there; the first one since the country declared independence from France in the 1950s. Election observers have declared that the election proceeded in a largely fair manner, and the situation could hardly be more different from the other countries that were part of the Arab Spring.
So, what’s been happening in Tunisia, then?
To understand why Tunisia has landed on its feet better than its neighbours, we have to rewind a bit further. The first post-independence leader of Tunisia was named Habib Bourguiba, and he lasted 30 years in the job. He certainly wasn’t perfect, but a couple of key things happened while he was in power.
First of all, he gave Tunisian women equal rights as soon as he entered power, and then he got family planning happening in 1961. It created a broader base of educated, engaged, middle class people than plenty of the other societies in the region. These are the sorts of people who are likely to push back against religious fundamentalism, and people who want to strip away the rights of citizens.
It’s a step too far to portray Tunisia as a perfect role model, though. The national economy has real structural issues, there isn’t complete harmony between the north and the south of the country, and the government led by President Ben Ali was hallmarked by its corruption, high unemployment, and repressive style when it was ousted in January 2011. Islamists governed Tunisia during the subsequent two years, before reluctantly stepping aside in late 2013, and paving the way for democratic elections.
The two main candidates to emerge ahead of the election were pretty different to each other. First, there was 88 year old Beji Caid Essebsi, who had served in key government positions for decades prior to the Arab Spring. He believed in the separation of religion and government, and was favoured by the wealthier sections of the country in the north. The other candidate was Moncef Marzouki, a 69 year old human rights activist who had been in exile in France until he returned to Tunisia in 2011, and had served as Interim President for the past two years. Marzouki was popular in the poorer parts of the country.
The two Tunisian Presidential candidates; Marzouki (left) and Essebsi (right)
The election took place last weekend, and the results point to victory for Essebsi. Marzouki initially refused to concede defeat, but had done so by Monday. Don’t underestimate how classy that last sentence is by North African standards. Essebsi has publically urged Marzouki to keep advising the country on policy, emphasising the need to build strong institutions. It’s still early days, but there’s hope in Tunisia.
Was the Arab Spring worth it?
Gee, tough question… depends who you ask, but it's sad that the answer is definitely not a straight yes. My own opinion is that the people realised something had to change, but they were let down in the execution of the change. Many revolutionaries were solely focused on the idea of banishing their governments, and didn’t give much thought to how to create something functional in its place. With all of the experience gone, and no detailed blueprint or timeline for creating something better, it left a big vacuum that some pretty bad and underqualified people marched into and filled. And more conflict followed.
Tunisia has benefited from its broader base of educated people, its relatively empowered women, and the apparent willingness of its new leaders to call on the experience of other people in the country. There’s nothing magic about it – your odds of a fair and stable system are better when those things are present.
Conflict not only kills people, it also kills opportunities for citizens to reach their potential and push their country forward. As a Global Citizen, it’s clear to me that promoting the rights of women, and ensuring that all kids have access to schooling are vital long-term investments in the future of countries. If we can help to get these basic building blocks in place now, perhaps the next Arab Spring will have a few more happy endings.