Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Holly Pickett for The New York Times
Updated: Oct. 24, 2011

For years, Tunisia was known mostly as the most European country of North Africa, with a relatively large middle class, liberal social norms, broad gender equality and welcoming Mediterranean beaches. But in January 2011 it took center stage as the launching pad of the wave of revolt that swept through the Arab world and beyond.

For all its modern traits, Tunisia had one of the most repressive governments in a region full of police states, and levels of corruption among its elite that became intolerable once the economic malaise that has gripped southern Europe spread to the country.

The uprising began in December 2010, when a fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in the impoverished inland town of Sidi Bouzid to protest his lack of opportunity and the disrespect of the police.

In what became known as the Jasmine Revolution, a sudden and explosive wave of street protests ousted the authoritarian president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled with an iron hand for 23 years. On January 14, Mr. Ben Ali left the country, after trying unsuccessfully to placate the demonstrators with promises of elections. According to government figures issued later, 78 protesters died and 94 were injured during the demonstrations.

In the months after the revolution, Tunisia struggled with continued instability, new tensions between Islamicists and secular liberals and a still-limping economy. But of all the Arab states it may have been the best positioned for a successful transition to a liberal democracy, with its relatively small, homogenous population of about 12 million, comparatively high levels of education, a large middle class, an apolitical military, a moderate Islamist movement and a long history of a unified national identity.

Millions of Tunisians cast votes on Oct. 24 for an assembly to draft a constitution and shape a new government, in a burst of pride and hope that after inspiring uprisings across the Arab world, their small country could now lead the way to democracy.

In another first for the region, a moderate Islamic party, Ennahda, appeared to emerge as the big winner. Preliminary results indicated it had won at least 30 percent of the votes cast, and party officials told a news conference the party had come out ahead in nearly every voting district. Ali Laredi, a top Ennahda official, said it expected to receive possibly more than 50 percent when the final results are tallied.

The party’s leaders had vowed to create another kind of new model for the Arab world, one reconciling Islamic principles with Western-style democracy.

After the Revolution

The prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, created a government of unity, but in late February, as demonstrations continued, he resigned in response to complaints that he was too closely tied to Mr. Ben Ali. He was replaced by Beji Caid Essebi, who was chosen because during a long career as an official of the Tunisian dictatorship he built a record of trying to change the system from within.

Mr. Essebi’s caretaker government was confronted with nearly daily protests by a variety of groups, and the police force, provincial governments and the judicial system have all been badly weakened by their links to the ousted regime.

The interim government scheduled elections for July 24, when voters were to pick members of an assembly that will rewrite the constitution. But in June it announced the vote would be held in October. Election officials said that millions of Tunisians were unregistered, while leaders of the dozens of new parties that sprang up since the revolution said they needed more time to be able to compete with Ennhada, an Islamic party that had been banned by the dictatorship.

Polling suggests that Ennahda — whose name means the renaissance in Arabic — enjoys broader support than any of the country’s other 60-odd authorized political parties, most of whom did not exist until after the revolution.

Accused as subversives or terrorists, members of Ennahda bore the repressive brunt of Mr. Ben-Ali’s reign — two decades of torture, prison or exile — suffering that has established their credibility, particularly among the more conservative residents of the country’s rural areas.

Mr. Essebsi has responded to the continuing protests and occasional violence in the capital and around the country by alternately pushing back and giving in. In early September, as protests and violence continued, Mr. Essebsi announced a broad security crackdown, including authorizing the Interior Ministry to ban meetings deemed to threaten stability and to put individuals under house arrest.

In June, Mr. Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, had been convicted in absentia of theft and unlawful possession of cash and jewelry. The judge in the case sentenced them to 35 years in prison and levied a $65 million fine. The couple also face drug and weapon charges.

Birth of a Movement

The Tunisian revolution began when Mohamed Bouazizi, a college-educated street vendor, burned himself to death in protest of his dismal prospects amid Tunisia’s poverty. A wave of violent demonstrations spread, of the kind not seen since Mr. Ben Ali came to power 23 years before in a bloodless coup. Dozens died as security forces fired on protesters.

The protesters came together after circulating calls to rally over social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Many were unemployed college graduates, and they angrily demanded more jobs and denounced what they called the self-enrichment of Tunisia’s ruling family.

It is not religion, nor the adventures of a single leader, nor wars with Israel that have energized Tunisia, the subsequent uprising in Egypt and elsewhere in the region. Across the Middle East, a somewhat nostalgic notion of a common Arab identity, intersecting with a visceral sense of what amounts to a decent life, is driving protests that have bound the region in a sense of a shared destiny.

A remarkable two-year collaboration gave birth to a new force in the Arab world — a pan-Arab youth movement dedicated to spreading democracy in a region without it. Young Egyptian and Tunisian activists brainstormed on the use of technology to evade surveillance, commiserated about torture and traded practical tips on how to stand up to rubber bullets and organize barricades.

They fused their secular expertise in social networks with a discipline culled from religious movements and combined the energy of soccer fans with the sophistication of surgeons. Breaking free from older veterans of the Arab political opposition, they relied on tactics of nonviolent resistance channeled from an American scholar through a Serbian youth brigade — but also on marketing tactics borrowed from Silicon Valley.

Rulers’ Lavish Lifestyles Fueled Anger

Protesters seemed to direct much of their anger at the great wealth and lavish life of President Ben Ali’s second wife, Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser, and their extended family, most notably their son-in-law, the billionaire businessman Mohamed Sakher El Materi.

A gracious dinner at Mr. Materi’s home was detailed in a cable from the American ambassador to Tunisia that was released by the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks and fueled at least some of the outrage: a beachfront compound decorated with Roman artifacts; ice cream and frozen yogurt flown from St. Tropez, France; a Bangladeshi butler and South African nanny; and a pet tiger in a cage.

State television reported the arrests for “crimes against Tunisia” of 33 members of Mr. Ben Ali’s family. The government also said its prosecutors had opened an investigation into the family’s overseas assets, while the Swiss government moved to freeze their assets in Swiss banks.

A Successful Election Day

For Tunisians, the scenes at the polls in October — a turnout far above expectations, orderly lines stretching around blocks, satisfied smiles at blue-inked fingers — already seemed to wipe away 10 months of anxiety and protests over the future of the revolution that ousted Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. For the first time in their history, many Tunsians said, they expected an honest count of their ballots to determine the country’s future. 

Many people expressed faith that the act of voting itself would change Tunisia for the better, no matter who won. Some argued that democracy would make public officials more accountable. “The people in power know that we are keeping a watchful eye,” said Kamel Abdel, 45, a high school philosophy teacher voting in the crowded slum of Tadamon.

Most voters said their biggest concerns were the economy, jobs, and finding candidates with integrity.

Ennahda had a long history of opposition to the dictatorship before Mr. Ben Ali’s persecution eviscerated it in the 1990s, and its leaders have said that they hope to establish a durable, pluralistic democracy that will protect the rights of individuals and minorities regardless of who is in power. They often cite the model of Turkey, a secular democracy now governed by a party with an Islamic identity.


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