By Marwan Al Kabalan
This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 28/01/2011
Two weeks after the removal of Tunisian president Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali from power by popular uprising, Tunisia has not yet returned to normal life. Protesters do not seem to be content that the president who ruled the country with an iron fist for 23 years is no longer in power. Demonstrators may have not articulated specific demands beyond Bin Ali's departure, but cosmetic changes to the state are not likely to be enough to satisfy most Tunisians today. The latent force behind the widely known now as the Jasmine revolution is hence becoming a matter of fierce debate in Arab and western circles. Analysts and anchors seek to establish whether the Tunisian revolution was driven by economic or political factors, i.e. bread or freedom.
Indeed, the spontaneous protests were sparked when Mohammad Bu Azizi, distraught after authorities shut down his vegetable stall for operating without a licence, set himself on fire in the city of Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010. Much of the reporting on the demonstrations has emphasised Tunisians' economic grievances: unemployment, inflation, rampant corruption and the high cost of living. Yet, as instability remains, many believe now that material difficulties may not have been the sole factor in pushing President Bin Ali out from power.
In fact, economically motivated riots broke out in Tunisia in the early 1980s but did not bring down the government of then President Habib Bourguiba. Other protests, less significant though, in the 1990s were swiftly suppressed too. Furthermore, Bin Ali's promises in the middle of the most recent unrest to tackle unemployment and cut the prices of basic goods could not stop the momentum of the protests.
Given the living standards in Tunisia, higher than in many other Arab countries according to the IMF and World Bank, it seems that on a more fundamental level, Tunisians were protesting authoritarianism. They have had just two presidents since the country's independence from France in 1956. The first was Bourguiba, who led the independence battle against the French and then established a secular, single-party authoritarian regime. The second was no other than Bin Ali himself, who engineered Bourguiba's ouster in 1987, when it appeared that the "father" of independence had grown too old and detached to govern effectively.
Following his inauguration as president, Bin Ali promised political pluralism and freedom of expression. Although he did not keep these promises, he retained a degree of popular support throughout the 1990s because of the bloody civil war in neighbouring Algeria between its secular single-party regime and the Islamist opposition. When he started cracking down against free speech and potential dissent, citing Islamic opposition as the reason, many in Tunisia were willing to pay this price in order to avoid the fate of Algeria.
Having crushed the main Islamist movement — the Nahda party — Bin Ali established himself as the uncontested ruler of the country. He consolidated one of the darkest and most repressive dictatorships in the Arab world. He retained Bourguiba's governing political party, renaming it the Constitutional Democratic Rally. The name was a cynical choice, for Bin Ali's Tunisia would come to have zero press freedoms, a censored internet, monitored phone and email communications, and only token opposition in a toothless parliament.
These were the main features of the regime against which tens of thousands of Tunisians have been demonstrating for over a month now. It is true that Bin Ali has fled the country and that an arrest warrant has been issued against him, but most Tunisians believe that remnants of his regime might be attempting to abort the achievements of the revolution. Prime Minister Mohammad Gannouchi, a left over from Bin Ali's rule, is trying to assemble an interim coalition government and claims that new elections will be held in the coming months. Officials in the ruling party, the executive branch, and the security services have an enormous stake in the status quo and will try to preserve it. It appears that elements of the military pushed Bin Ali to depart the country, perhaps in the hope that sacrificing him and making modest concessions to the demonstrators — new elections, broader press freedoms, more leeway for the opposition, and so on — will suffice to restore order and leave the status quo more or less intact.
That does not seem to be working as tens of thousands of demonstrators have pledged to stay in the streets until their demands for complete change are met. That makes the Jasmine revolutions as much about freedom as it is about bread.
Dr. Marwan Kabalan is Director of the Damascus Centre for Economic and Political Studies