LOGO -DCLI - Centre International Lebret-Irfed

Home page > Documents > Monthly publication

Tunisia: the revolution is just beginning

by Ahmed Mainsi

"Development and Civilisations" n°393-394 April-May 2011: Tunisia: the revolution is just beginning, is now available in English.

The popular mobilization in Tunisia has obtained the unimaginable: the ousting of a regima that, for decades, had locked up all space for liberty. The author looks back on the sequence of events leading to the revolt and reads into the post revolutionary situation: How to reorganize the country? How to assure that demands are respected?

by Ahmed Mainsi(1),
and Boutros Labaki(2)

Sommary :


by Yves Berthelot


The articles and the Opinion Column that we are publishing here and the lessons on the passage from dictatorship to democracy in countries like South Africa, Cambodia, Chili, Spain, Liberia and Sierra Leone, have been inspiring and this prompts me to propose to our readers, three subjects for reflection.

The fall of a dictatorship liberates the voice of the people and their expectations. Happily, their voices differ; but as to expectations, they are so numerous that it will not be possible to fulfill them all. Impatience grows, which extremists are out to exploit. Forging a consensus on priorities among all the political parties by associating in this process honest personalities of the old regime, and taking some fast decisions that show that things are truly moving in the direction desired by the people, are two necessities that demand a lot of courage and skill.

Re-forging national unity is a question of balancing between truth, justice, pardon and reconciliation. The truth about past atrocities and their authors, justice for the victims and condemnation of the guilty, while respecting the right of defense, are necessary components for pardon and reconciliation.

All revolutions bring different forms of destruction and create uncertainties which, in the context of today’s globalized economy, are particularly harmful. More than applause and advise, an adequate international aid must reply to the demands of the new government.

Yves Berthelot

P.S. : 300 000 Libyans displaced by the armed conflicts were received in Tunisia, half of them by poor families from the south. Some 20 000 young Tunisians found themselves rejected by the European Union. Tunisia counts 10.5 million inhabitants, the Union, 500 million. We need here a bit of decency and strategic vision!

Tunisia: the revolution is just beginning

by Ahmed Mainsi

The popular mobilization in Tunisia has obtained the unimaginable: the ousting of a regime that, for decades, had locked up all space for liberty. The author looks back on the sequence of events leading to the revolt and reads into the post revolutionary situation: How to reorganize the country? How to assure that demands are respected ?

Tunisia has been undergoing a popular revolution since 17th  December 2010. The protests started in the city of Sidi-Bouzid, in the centre of the country, and spread out to all regions in the country. Hundreds of martyrs fell in different regions, in particular in Thala, Kasserine, Regueb, Sidi-Bouzid and Menzel Bouzaiene(3), but also in the capital, Tunis, and in practically all other cities after.

The weakest link in the chain of Arab dictatorships was swept away on 14th January 2011, then, the shock waves reached Cairo on 25th January and provoked the fall of Mubarak on 11th February. The revolutionary tsunami, would sweep, although in varying degrees, through the other Arab countries: Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Bahrain, Oman, Jordan, Syria and even Saudi Arabia. Everywhere, the demonstrations initiated revolutionary dynamics which gradually developed around two main areas: economic and social (social injustice, unemployment, disparity between the regions, corruption), and political (overthrowing the dictatorship and setting up democracy).

Concerning certain facts

On 17th December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young degree holder reduced to selling fruits and vegetable in the streets to survive, resorted to self-immolation by fire in front of a government building in Sidi-Bouzid, to protest the confiscation of his merchandise. He was hospitalized in a critical state. As soon as they heard the news, small merchants and the unemployed youth went out to demonstrate. On 19th December, the movement heightened and the police started using tear gas against the demonstrators, arresting several dozens.

On 24th December, protests spread out to Menzel Bouzaiene (not too far from Sidi-Bouzid). The police shot at the crowd, and an 18 year-old demonstrator was killed. On 27th  December, the movement reached the capital, Tunis. Around a thousand young unemployed graduates dared to defy the authorities and were dispersed with truncheon blows.

On 6th January, demonstrations intensified (in numbers and with the determination to pursue to the end with the protest movement). Several thousands of lawyers went on strike to denounce police atrocities. Several bloggers and young rappers were arrested. It was no longer only the marginal and the jobless who went to the streets to express their discontent with the economic and social situation; from then on, political demands became part of the movement’s agenda. On 8th January, the police murdered dozens of persons in the city of Thala, Kasserine and Regueb. On 10th January, students demonstrated in Tunis and on the 11th, the riots reached the capital’s poor suburbs. For its part, and after some hesitation, the trade union centre UGTT, (or Tunisian Workers General Union), under pressure from grassroots militant unionists, engaged in intermittent regional general strikes(4). The objective conditions for launching a revolutionary situation seemed reunited. To the dictator’s arrogant threats (first speech) and concessions (second and third speeches), the giant demonstrations all over the country, on 14th January, expressed their opposition with a single common call: « Clear off!» That very evening, the dictator fled. A new era opened in Tunisia.

The Tunisian revolution is not the doing of a spontaneous generation

Some claim that this movement was spontaneous, launched, developed and undertaken by the youth, in less than a month’s time (from 17th December, 2010 to 14th January 2011!) thanks, essentially to social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

Sure enough, with the new means of electronic communication: internet, WikiLeaks, Facebook, Twitter, we are in the presence of a third industrial revolution, characterized by a new source of energy, information, and a new mode of communication and exchange. And, just as the first industrial revolutions (first that of coal, of the steam engine and of the railway, then that of oil and the piston engine) contributed to the advent of deep changes in the world, this third industrial revolution cannot but interact with other factors in order to generate such change. But, from there to claim that the bloggers and other internet users carried out the revolution in Tunisia is to jeer at history and the people who make it.

This simplistic vision of things, which is neither spontaneous nor innocent, allows its holders to discredit the long struggles and sacrifices of revolutionary forces, progressive, democratic, trade union, as well as youth movements. Lulling people with the illusion of change which came about almost by mutual consent, of toppling the dictatorship with « a jasmin revolution » (whose color is not bloody red, the color of more than the 300 killed), allowed certain centers of interest to get rid of an ally that has become troublesome(5), while keeping the control of the revolutionary process that has begun.

Certainly, the demonstrations that spread throughout the country especially during the month of January, did not have a political direction nor a common program (no party can claim to have led the movement). But the slogans and rallying cries of the demonstrators indicated a clear political consciousness, and it is because they drew them from this revolutionary frame of reference built by peoples’ struggles against dictatorship, injustice and corruption.

On the other hand, militants of the opposition, from different tendencies, were at the front line of the demonstrators (wherein a great part, especially in the interior regions, was made up of Left trade union and political militants, all tendencies put together). « Bread (or employment), liberty, national dignity », this slogan in itself capitalizes a whole economic, political and social program which is in no way spontaneous.

Outside of these factors which have directly contributed to the emergence of the revolutionary process, the economic and social situations, as well as the struggles preceding the explosion, had prepared the ground for it. Indeed, the economic development model, based, among others, on sectors which need little skilled labor (as in low-cost tourism, subcontracting in textile, or call-centers, etc.) and have been weakened by a strong dependence on foreign capital, suffered the ill-effects of globalization. And even if a quite relative economic growth was sometimes registered, it was to benefit the regime held by a mafia, dictatorial and corrupt family.

The social cost of the economic crisis, aggravated by the scourge of this corruption, had its share of victims in the regions (the 10% richest of the population gain a third of the earnings while the 30% poorest have to be content with less than 10% of the GDP), where the gap between the coastal zones and the interior of the country became more and more visible. These underprivileged, the youth in the regions in particular, would provide the key revolutionary potential. Pauperization, dictatorship and corruption were at the root of the revolution.

Let us also recall that already in 2008, there was the revolt in the mining basin of Gafsa, which expressed discontent over unemployment, poverty, corruption and also against repression, followed by that of Ben Gardane in the South.

The masses in revolt already sent clear and strong signs of a developing political consciousness and prepared the plain for the sparks that would shoot up from Sidi-Bouzid. It was clear that those who were on top could no longer continue to rule, and those below no longer wanted this regime. The escalation of the internal economic, social and political contradictions created revolutionary conditions in the country. Social revolutions are determined by objective laws and do not come on order; Tunisia did not miss this lesson from History.

Therefore, everything – economic, social and political crisis – announced a revolutionary situation, which Western secret services could neither ignore nor stop; neither could they foresee its size nor its chronological development. They were already there to accelerate the dictator’s departure, in order to be able to manage the crisis and organize the counter-revolution.

We can affirm, without danger of committing a mistake, that just as the revolutionary process in Tunisia, as in the other Arab countries, was not the work of some spontaneous generation, neither are the similarities in observed patterns (snipers, jailbreaks, anti-riot militia …), in these same countries, the expression of something accidental.

Acknowledging the role of Western Ministries and their secret services, notably American, should in no way make us go for the notorious theory of a conspiracy, a nihilist vision with regard to the people’s struggles and their capacity to impose change. And yet we must keep note of their petty calculations if we want to pursue our revolution to the end. The ease with which the Americans dropped Ben Ali’s regime, as this became a source of instability, together with an assured neutral position among military officers, shows a change in American diplomacy. From now on, they can safely play the game of democratic change, especially since contacts in the area were able to convince them that there were members of the elite capable of negotiating this turning point, for the best of their common interests.

Revolution and counter-revolution: a test of strength

Since the departure of Ben Ali, a tussle has been engaged between the counter-revolutionary forces - Tunisian as well as foreign – and the Tunisian people. For the first, the « Jasmin Revolution » has been achieved; the common people have accomplished their mission; there is no more need to demonstrate, everyone should go home and leave the rest to the state apparatus, as bequeathed by the dictator and directed by his party, the notorious RCD (Democratic Constitutional Rally). The counter-revolution cries for anarchy, but the more the people resist the more it slowly shows its true color: apart from police repression, henceforth traditional, the prison doors have been opened to allow criminals of all sorts to organize hold-ups and commit acts of pillage and vandalism, militias have been armed and paid to attack the towns, companies and even schools, the residents are being terrorized…

And yet, the revolutionary process continues to develop and structure itself: demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes are being organized; district committees, national and regional councils for the safeguard of the revolution, as well as political fronts, are being formed…

The wheel of history is moving forward, slowly but surely: the press is freeing itself, the opposition parties are now recognized, the first government is falling, then the second; the governors, appointed from among the old guards of the dictatorship to head regions as well as local governments, are being ousted; the RCD and the political police have been dissolved. The demand for a National Constituent Assembly has been accepted and is taking its due course thanks to the elaboration of an electoral code which guarantees people’s representation and parity for women…These are the evident gains for the revolution.

On the other hand, though we can rightly affirm that, up to now, the dictator has been toppled, the dictatorship, though badly beaten, still holds most of its resources and can come back anytime in the guise of pseudo-democracy.

The show of force continues: for the revolution, the point of no return has not yet been attained while for the counter-revolution, there is the red line that it must not cross.

This test of strength went on at the level of how to organize the process of the democratic transition. While the people and the democratic forces chose to organize district committees, regional councils as well as the National Council for the Safeguard of the Revolution, the government created a National High Commission for political reforms, composed of « experts », and charged it with proposing, from the top, the necessary reforms. This first attempt was aborted, and due to pressure was transformed into a High Authority for the realization of the objectives of the revolution, political reforms and the democratic transition. It is a way of usurping both the name and the role of the National Council for the Safeguard of the Revolution.

From fourteen, the number of participants increased to more than seventy members. Representatives of political parties, of the trade union centre, of civil society associations as well as of « national personalities » have joined this structure. However, in the selection of these latter, the concern of decision-makers was clear: to isolate popular and progressive forces and to drown them in a majority that would be manageable for the advocates of the project. Resistance built up into a front which imposed the enlargement of the Commission’s composition to more than 155 members, to include representatives of the regional councils for the safeguard of the revolution and the families of martyrs.

The content of the work to be done also evolved. From a presidential regime recommended by the first commission of experts, the participants in the enlarged body opted for a National Constituent Assembly. Two products finally focalized the debates: the draft of the statutory order pertaining to the election of the future Tunisian National Constituent Assembly scheduled for 24th July 2011, including the composition of an independent structure for the supervision and organization of elections; and the draft of the « Republican Pact » or « Tunisian Declaration of the basis of Citizenship », which would guarantee the gains obtained by the country. Among the most important provisions of this decree project, were adopted :

  • the exclusion from candidacy of those who, in the last 23 years, held responsible positions within Ben Ali’s RCD party;
  • the adoption of a list voting system with a proportional representation and the largest remainder method(6);
  • the adoption of the condition of parity between women and men, with a classification of the candidates on the lists, on the basis of the principle of alternation …

What are the perspectives for change in Tunisia and the Arab world?

First of all, we must remember that the dictatorship’s economic and social base has not been touched, no more than certain foundations of its state apparatus (administrative structures, high authorities, juridical arsenal …). We can also rightly wonder if the revolutionary process will move towards a deepening revolution or if it will be just a more or less long episode between two authoritarian regimes, between two reactionary periods.

Until then, the people, with its youth, its political and trade union forces, its human rights and civil society militants…, have successfully thwarted the strategies of the counter revolution. But this latter has not given up and continues and will continue to confront the program of the democratic revolution, which is on today’s agenda, namely: the basic democratic freedoms, the freedom to demonstrate and organize, political pluralism, the convening of a sovereign constituent assembly and free elections, as well as greater social justice and parity.

In their varying relationships with this program of the democratic revolution, three important camps seem to emerge on the electoral horizon of the National Constituent Assembly scheduled for July 2011:

  • the economic, political and social forces, with interests tied up to the old regime of Ben Ali, of his state apparatus and of his party, the RCD. These forces could either continue to directly oppose the changes by acts of counter-revolutionary violence, or try to enter the ranks of new parties but with new identities;
  • the fundamentalist camp: boosted by its contribution to the fight against the old regime and by the support from internal economic, political and social reactionary forces as well as other Arab Gulf countries and even certain Western interest groups;
  • a wide front of citizens and progressive elements rallying the forces that are favorable to a genuine transition, leading to the construction of a democratic republic.

The speculations concerning an alliance between the first two movements under the umbrella of a common front of “clean” RCD sympathizers and « moderate » Islamist groups, is not to be ruled out. It is even quite probable that it is supported by the Americans and the French. This solution may not only safeguard the dictator’s economic and social bases, but it could pave the way to the emergence of an obscurantist dictatorship on the political and cultural spheres.

As to the last perspective, it is still the only true solution for a democratic transition in Tunisia. Debates are engaged from the top among these different forces, including militants of Left political parties but also liberals, trade unionists, associations… and from below with the participation of regional councils for the safeguard of the revolution. With the country having hardly any resource that can be coveted by foreign interest groups nor representing a geopolitical stake of primary importance for these same groups, an internal relation of forces in favor of the revolution could allow the realization of this front’s objectives. It will be otherwise for the other Arab countries where the economic (like in Libya) or geopolitical (like in Egypt) stakes takes precedence over the internal socio-political stakes.

Ahmed Mainsi

The revolt of the mining population

The rapidity with which the « Jasmine Revolution » shook up the Tunisian dictatorship contributed to occulting certain events that preceded it and could have force of prediction. For me, it seems only right to go back to these past events and give more place to those men and women who contributed to « start the History » of this revolutionary movement.

Indeed, on the 5th of January 2008, a revolt broke up in Redeyef (30,000 inhabitants), in the mining basin of Gafsa, 400 kilometers south of Tunis. At its origin was a protest movement against the fraudulent results of a competition organized by the all powerful Phosphates Company of Gafsa or the CPG. This latter has been exploiting, since the beginning of the 20th century, important phosphate mines and has governed the economic and social life in this semi-desert region abandoned by the central political authority.

Young unemployed graduates, women, widows of victim miners in the Moulares mine, were the first to organize protest actions, in the form of peaceful demonstrations, hunger strikes, sit-ins by the Company entrance. These protest actions – apolitical at the start and whose rallying words were « Dignity, determination » - rapidly spread out to several mining cities. Then, in a few weeks, the protests gained the whole population; the trade unionists of the local UGTT (General Union of Tunisian Workers) headed the movement. The city of Redeyef became the epicenter of the protests.

In April, a giant demonstration there gathered more than 20,000 men and women of all ages and all conditions of life. The central power which, up to then, was content with giving vague promises and some changes, suddenly raised its voice. A test of strength was engaged between the people, who were exemplarily united around trade union leaders, and the government forces. This lasted several months.

The repression was ruthless: military occupation of the city for several weeks, arrests and torture of hundreds of men, vandalizing of shops by the police, abduction of young people who took refuge in the mountains, three deaths during the clashes between demonstrators and the police forces.

But the population held its fort. The women played a major role as organizers of gatherings and as spokespersons for the men in prison.

In December 2008, after sham trials at the Gafsa tribunal, heavy prison terms were pronounced against the leaders, despite protests from international human rights defense organizations and observers, jurists and lawyers. In November 2009, most prisoners were freed after months of suffering and all forms of humiliation.

There was little media coverage of what happened then in Tunisia; few political parties, apart from the Greens, showed interest in the issue; few Tunisian intellectuals expressed their solidarity. And yet, thanks to mobile phones and internet, the information passed the borders of Tunisia and escaped censorship…

And, in Nantes in particular, where many from Redeyef reside, young Tunisians of the diaspora, with or without papers, supported by human rights advocates and trade unions, bravely alerted public opinion, despite threats of repression of which certain later became victims …

It was not yet the Arab Spring, jasmines were not yet in bloom, but the mining people’s revolt had started to pave the road to liberty. Let us not forget this.

Jeanine Garnier
Founder of the association AMINAT (Nantes - Gafsa Friendship)

Opinion Column

They dared!

If I had been told, during my last stay in Tunisia in the spring and autumn of 2010, that the dictatorial regime of the Ben Ali-Trabelsi clan was coming to an end, I would probably have come up with some very skeptical remarks. I even had the impression that the oppression was becoming heavier, that the signs of hope were more and more contained. The total absence of freedom of expression, the omnipresence of informers, police threats, all sorts of pressure that maintained a palpable climate of tension and behaviors of schizophrenic nature.

And yet, in the spring of 2009, after the exemplary struggle of the revolts in the mining basin, all the friends I met in the Gafsa region confided their feelings of helplessness and exasperation facing the political situation. Admiring the Redeyef people’s resolve, they admitted, in strict privacy of course, to feeling sort of guilty for their silence and their fear to show their solidarity.

And yet, these last months, young Tunisian internet users, in France, called my attention to some Tunisian sites and their bloggers who made a mockery of censorship. I thus learned that other protest movements had gathered hundreds of persons in Ben Gardane or in Sfax. In the deafening silence of the media. With the total ignorance of the majority of the Tunisian population.

Faced with their hopelessness, how often did I remind some friends that according to historical patterns, all dictatorship is fated to disappear. I dared to evoke Southern Europe or Latin America. « But, how long will we have to wait? » they asked me. And, just like them, I doubted. In December 2010, it took just a spark, in the real and figurative sense, and the sacrifice of a young fruit vendor, to make thousands of young Tunisian men and women mobilize their social network and dare raise the leaden weight which, for decades, had oppressed their country, and to liberate themselves from the fear that paralyzed past generations.

They were very rapidly supported and were joined by all components of the Tunisian society in the whole country: middle and popular classes, men and women of all ages. In the name of dignity and justice, peaceful demonstrators, by hundreds of thousands, opened a path that many geo-politicians judged improbable. They refused to continue to be exploited by their tyrants.

Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Syria, Libya have followed their footsteps, with unfortunately unequal results. This Arab spring which has just started, is shaking our convictions. It calls on all citizens, who are fighting for a more just and free society, to a duty of solidarity with all those men and women who want to establish more democracy in this part of the world. But without the price of blood. We know that it will be very long, very difficult.

The pride among Tunisians is legitimate, they dared open the gates.

I would like to hope that our political leaders responsible for the North of the Mediterranean will choose to support them economically, instead of reinforcing at all cost the ramparts of the European fortress.

Jeannine Garnier
Founder of AMINAT

AMINAT (Amitié Nantes Gafsa - Nantes Gafsa Friendship

Since 1992, the association’s project has been to promote exchanges between the French and Tunisian civil society actors, in a double concern for equality and reciprocity, outside of the classic logic of humanitarian aid. In partnership with a network of Tunisians in the city of Gafsa, the association started with organizing bilateral exchanges (educational; teachers), then made it possible for some hundred of persons, mostly coming from the Nantes region, to spend some time in the city, guided by Tunisian friends.

It means to discover a country and its inhabitants «in other ways», outside of the often deforming structures of mass tourism, by using and sharing places of life of the local population and by choosing to see the country with the participation of its inhabitants who host and guide. On several occasions, groups from Gafsa were hosted in Nantes. Each sojourn is an occasion to take some time for a common reflection that we define together.

Can we talk about "the" Arab spring?

Last 25 May, the Secours Catholique organized, in Paris, a conference on the theme: « The Arab Spring: where are we at now?»

During the discussions, the speaker, François Zabbal, of the Institut du Monde Arabe, pointed out the different aspects which this movement puts to light: the Pan-Arab ideology, hard-hit by decades of authoritarianism; Islamism, neither proposing acceptable societal projects to the rebel youth; the position of the Christian communities with regard to the powers that be (at times ambiguous, particularly in Syria) and their fear of the Islamisation of the Arab states; the existing regimes destabilized by this new form of protest, which is neither that of an armed Islamist group nor that of a military coup; the new forms of repression against protest actions as inspired by the Iranian « know-how », etc. An observation came up: despite the fact that we talk about « the » Arab Spring, we must bear in mind that the situation in each country differs with regard to the consequences of the demonstrations. Thus, strictly speaking, the Egyptian revolt is not a revolution since the Constitution has not been abolished and the ruling Party is not outlawed, a situation which is very different from that of Tunisia which will soon elect a Constituent Assembly.

Situations also vary regarding the army. Its legitimacy and its institutional position are different with each country. Historically, Bourguiba, in Tunisia, did not give the army the same position given to it by Nasser in Egypt, Khadafi in Libya or Bouteflika in Algeria. In these latter countries, its interlocking with the state and the economy makes it a « business army » which plays a major social, political and economic role.

A Chain Arab Uprisings

by Boutros Labaki

Tunisia may have been the first to rise up and « succeed » in its revolution, but other Arab countries have followed. These movements, being unexpected, can still be explained by a series of political, economic and social factors. Boutros Labaki retraces here the evolution in the region within the last decades. He shows how these conditions have been put together to produce the uprising of civil societies, and assesses the gains, but most of all the challenges that are still to be faced.

The self-immolation, by fire, of Bou Azizi in Tunisia has surely shocked everyone. But few persons expected these shock waves that have been shaking the Arab world since December 2010. We must also add that the « informed observers » were, at the start, not really totally surprised by this revolt in deep Tunisia. Still, the amplitude it took was unexpected, for the majority of observers. Their surprise was even greater with the outstretching of the movement: the shock waves spread out to Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Yemen, Libya, Mauritania, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, to Syria then to Iraq, with, for the moment, varying intensity and consequence from country to country.

These revolts have, to say the least, surprised everyone and is a lesson for the Western world, especially by their pacific character (except for Libya, Yemen and Syria), their demands for democracy and social justice. This astonishment comes, essentially, from the conviction, communicated by the heads of Arab authoritarian regimes (among others) to the Western leaders and media, that the choice was between their regimes and the Salafist regimes. The option of a regime that is democratic and more socially just was eliminated. Certain persons were convinced that « democracy was not made for the Arabs ». And yet, observing the three series of phenomena would have enlightened some minds.

Fundamental social, economic, cultural and educational changes

In the course of the last five decades, the evolution of the Arab world has been marked by progress in education (especially on the university level, despite a rise in the illiteracy rate), a mediocre economic growth, a standard of living in stagnation and regression in more than one country, the persistence and rise in rural and urban poverty, persistent and often increasing unemployment especially among the university graduates of Tunisia and Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi-Arabia… The UNDP(7) reports on human development in the Arab world illustrate these facts quite well.

Then, the spread of satellite television showed to the people that another kind of life was possible. On top of this, « economic liberalization » trends promoted after the adoption of the Washington Consensus(8) and the IMF(9) injunctions, have only resulted in increasing the social inequalities in societies, enriching a handful while impoverishing the poorest and stunting the middle class. Emigration towards Europe (for the Maghreb countries) and the Gulf countries (for the Machriq countries) served as a partial outlet for the social tensions in these societies. This, up to the world economic crisis, preceded by measures closing down the European borders to North Africans and, in the Gulf countries, to Arabs from the Machriq countries, due to competition with Asian labour.

Rigidity, authoritarianism and corruption in Arab political systems

These regimes are either absolute monarchies, semi-constitutional monarchies, authoritarian republics with « hereditaristic » tendencies, or the Lebanese exception of a consociative parliamentary democracy. These frozen authoritarian regimes which stifle or limit people’s freedoms, eliminate or restrain pluralism in politics and in media, have been perpetrated for decades in societies where audiovisual media, especially television, continually show « free societies ». In these regimes, democratic reforms were often promised, rarely realized on paper, never in action. Elections, when they took place, were rigged, under the pressure of the authority in power and money. Organized modern civil society was often stifled or submitted to authoritarian power. In very few countries could one find NGOs which were independent of the reigning power and which could conduct free public exchanges with the citizens. The electronic means of communication – Internet, Facebook, Twitter, WikiLeaks, SMS – enabled diffusion of information, short-circuiting official censorship and allowing the mobilization of the motivated educated elite.

Social protest movements are not new

In many countries, social protest movements, which were more or less violent, have been going on since decades. In Egypt, since the end of the 1960s and in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, in 2000, the workers’ movements alternated with student movements and hunger riots. Jordan has been experiencing similar movements since the years 1990. The same for Tunisia with, among others, the 2008 revolt. Algeria, Morocco experienced these revolts against hunger and for liberties. Yemen has also experienced food riots and democratic protests in the South and the North. Trade union movements and parliamentary experiences were stifled in the 1970s. There were, in Saudi Arabia, the Mecca Insurrection at the end of the 1970s and equality movements against oppression in the eastern provinces, majority Shi’ite, and in the western provinces which are of Sunnite majority.

Between 1968 and 1975, Lebanon experienced protest movements of students, workers, fishermen, farmers; a social protest movement led in 1987 by the Lebanese CGT (General Confederation of Labour), in the whole country then divided and at war; trade union protest movements (the last being in 2008 after 12 years of wage freeze).

Iraq, which has not yet overcome the consequences of the 1980-1990 wars, of the blockade and especially the 2003 invasion, is experiencing popular social protest movements against corruption, which has been agitating the country since the start of 2011. The same goes for Sudan, Oman and Mauritania. In the other countries like Libya, revolt movements have been stifled in bloodbaths and in silence. And it is only in 2011 that we get to know about them.

For decades, the Arab peoples have joined hands in fighting for freedom, dignity and social justice. Therefore, nowhere were these movements of spontaneous character. They are the result of interaction among the three series of phenomena mentioned above. And there was certainly a domino effect which has been labelled as the Arab socio-political « tsunami ». The Tunisian spark validates this. The use of audiovisual and electronic communication played an essential role in the transmission of shock waves, which had various effects, on the political level. In countries without or with little vertical social cleavage (religious, linguistic, tribal, regional) like Tunisia and Egypt, the changes were less difficult to accomplish than in the countries with vertical social cleavage (Libya, Algeria, Jordan, Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Lebanon, Oman, Mauritania, Sudan, Iraq). In these different countries, power is in the hands of one of the vertical social groups. This power quite often succeeds in mobilizing its group and tends to use it as a protective shield against change, making the change difficult and complex.

To this shock wave, how are those in power reacting?

First of all by qualifying these movements as subversive, in the service of foreign interests, and by violently suppressing them. Then, by making economic concessions: raising civil servant salaries, offering jobs, engaging in investment projects, lowering the prices of staple food, providing social housing …

In some countries, the power in place mobilizes its vertical social group and allies against change. It provokes counter-demonstrations, riots and battles. Such is the case of Libya, with its ongoing civil war, with military interventions from the outside (mercenaries and the NATO(10)). Or else, it can call for external military assistance, as Bahrain has done with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces.

Some semi-constitutional monarchies, like Morocco and Jordan, whose reigning families enjoy traditional prestige because their lineage goes back to the family of the Prophet of Islam, have made compromises with the popular movements, alternating openness, negotiations and repression.

They succeeded in containing these movements after diverse types of reforms. It would seem that Syria is trying to move in this direction, although with a different political regime and international and regional positioning. Two heads of state – Zein El Abidin Ben Ali, in Tunisia, and Mubarak, in Egypt, had to abandon their seats of power. They have been charged in court in their countries, with corruption, abuse of power and for having ordered the security forces to shoot at demonstrators.

Attitudes and roles of extra-regional and regional powers

A priori, it seems that these powers did not expect these ongoing series of revolts to happen now. In general, they started by observing the events, contented with asking governments to lessen the use of violence against the people. Then, in the Tunisian and Egyptian cases and, much later, in the Libyan case, they asked for a slow transition; then the Chief of state’s departure, a request realized in Tunisia and in Egypt.

Thanks to the press and to American grey literature, we discovered the active role of American NGOs and Institutes (with the backing of certain agencies of the U.S. executive and legislative authorities), in giving various forms of support to organizations with democratic aspirations, promoting human rights and public freedoms. This type of support, manifest at certain periods under the George Bush mandate, was especially visible in Egypt. A great number of observers believe that for the United States, it means preparing for a change of allies who, though faithful, had become too unpopular and troublesome. These allies could be replaced by regimes that depend on the armies and so called moderate Islamists, with the example of the present Turkey. Similar tendencies are seen in Tunisia and in Egypt. As to Syria, American and European pressure seems to be aimed inter alia at influencing external politics and at radically modifying the regional alliances of the power in place, in Damascus.

In the Arab peninsula (especially Yemen and Bahrain), it is the GCC, regional authority under the Saudi leadership, which intervenes with the blessings of Uncle Sam.

This intervention is political in Yemen and military in Bahrain. In Libya, due to the military turn of events, the NATO, the United States, France, the UK, Turkey, Qatar, with the blessings of the Arab League, intervene on the political, humanitarian and especially the military sphere, against the power of Gaddafi. Russia and China oppose as much as they can to these Western interventions which they judge misplaced.

Temporary assessment of gains and perspectives

In Tunisia and in Egypt, the revolutionary changes had the first priority of eradicating the remains of the old regime, accused of feeding the « counter-revolution ».

However, gains have already been realized:

  • the fall of former leaders, freezing their wealth acquired through corruption, bringing them to court, especially in Egypt;
  • change of government by successive strokes in Tunisia and in Egypt and the dissolution of the Legislative Assemblies;
  • dismantling to a certain extent the leading political parties of the two former regimes in Tunisia and Egypt; dismantling the «State security apparatus » in Egypt;
  • accomplishment of partial and temporary constitutional changes in Egypt and the preparations for a Constituent Assembly in Tunisia;
  • prospective elections in Tunisia and in Egypt.

On the level of Arab and foreign politics, Egypt has initiated significant changes:

  • gradual lifting of the blockade at the Gaza Strip by opening the Rafah crossing;
  • organization and promotion of inter-Palestinian reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, the two brother enemies, and that, despite Israeli protests;
  • decision to modify the selling price of Egyptian gas to Israel (which are way below the world and local prices) and bringing to court the Minister who had prepared and executed this sales contract for gas;
  • gradual thawing of relations with Gulf States and with Iran, unilaterally broken by this latter for three decades, after the signing of Israeli-Egyptian treaties.

Thus, Egypt gradually joins back the Arab world, constituting a major strategic change in this latter and in the Middle East. The Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs has just been elected Secretary-General of the Arab League. These gains in the internal affairs of Tunisia and Egypt, and in the domain of external relations in Egypt, can only be maintained, protected and especially developed if they can lean on regimes that are enlightened by political and social democracy, working for the interest of citizens and contributing to political, economic, social and cultural progress. Such regimes are conceivable only if in each of the two countries, a political front is organized, rallying together political and social forces equipped with a program of radical democratic, political and economic reforms. The struggles will therefore be long, difficult and complex.

Boutros Labaki

Some dates to remember: uprisings in the Arab World in 2010 and 2011

17 December : the start of massive and repeated demonstrations in Tunisia.
28 December : first Algerian protests.
14 January : flight of Ben Ali to Saudi Arabia. Demonstrations start in Jordan ruled by King Abdallah II since 1999.
17 January : immolation of a businessman in Mauritania which, since 2009, is ruled by Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. First protests in Oman, ruled by the Sultan Qabus Ibn Said since 1970.
18 January: In Yemen, the dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, in place since 1978, meets with students’ contestation.
21 January : a movement is born in Saudi-Arabia which, since 2005, is ruled by the King Abdallah 1st.
25 January: an important demonstration succeeds in occupying the Sahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, ruled by Hosni Mubarak since 30 years.
30 January: first Moroccan protests, as King Mohammed VI has not realized the hopes placed on him at the start of his reign. From February on, in Algeria, sit-ins and especially strikes succeed in obtaining certain political and social advances.
10 February: start of demonstrations in Iraq.
11 February : departure of Hosni Mubarak.
14 February : protests in Bahrain; Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, king since 2002, engages in some evading measures.
17 February : in Libya, bloody repression of the « Day of anger » which mobilized thousands of demonstrators in the coastal cities and in the interior.
20 February: peaceful demonstrations in Morocco. End of February: demonstrations increase in Jordan.
18 February: start of protests in Kuwait.
23 February: Saudi King Abdallah announces social measures.
25 February : « Day of anger » in Iraq, demanding for democratization.
16 March: in Bahrain, the start of repression against oppositionists; curfew in the capital, Manama
18 March : in Syria, arrest of adolescents provoke demonstrations in Derraa; President Bachar el-Assad brutally represses the opposition.
19 March : start of military intervention of the coalition (U.S., U.K., France) in Libya.
31 March : the Kuwaiti government presents its resignation to the Emir Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah.
6 April: in Algeria, 80% of government employees go on strike.
15 April : Algerian president Bouteflika promises the reform of the Constitution.
23 April : Yemeni President Saleh gives his agreement in principle for a plan of transition proposed by the CCG.
24 April : new demonstrations in Morocco.
30 April : in Yemen, Saleh retracts…
In May: war rages in Libya; police repression and anti-Shi’ite measures intensify in Bahrain; armed repression continues in Syria; in Yemen, the president holds on to power; the strikes continue in Algeria…

Sources : Wikipedia ;
LeMonde.fr (May 2011)


[1] - Ahmed Mainsi is General Adviser for Information and Orientation in Tunisia’s Education Department, and a political and trade union militant. Contact : ahmedmainsi@yahoo.fr

[2] - Boutros Labaki is professor in Development Economics at the Saint Joseph University in Beirut and is Chairperson of the Lebanese Institute for Economic and Social Development (ILDES). From 1991 to 2000, he was the Senior Vice-president of the Council for the Development and Reconstruction of Lebanon. With the Centre Lebret-Irfed, he currently occupies the post of Vice-president for the Middle East and the Arab World. Contact : boutros.labaki@gmail.com.

[3] - Cities in Tunisia’s centre, south and west, victims of the regime’s discriminatory economic policies

[4] - The theory of a foreign intervention to make the trade union bureaucracy join the movement is not to be ignored either.

[5] - For this, see the WikiLeaks revelations.

[6] - In this type of election, each party presents a list of candidates. The number of votes are divided according to the number of seats (electoral threshold). Then, one proceeds to the total division of the number of votes obtained by each list according to this threshold. The seats which are not attributed are distributed among the candidates in the order of the largest remainder. The proportional with the largest remainder methods allows minorities to be represented but engenders an explosion of the political formations.

[7] - United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

[8] - The Washington Consensus is a body of standard measures applied to economies in difficulty due to their debts with international financial institutions based in Washington (World Bank, International Monetary Fund) supported by the American Treasury Department.

[9] - International Monetary Fund (IMF)

[10] - North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Follow-up of the site's activity RSS 2.0 | Site Map | Contact | Legal Informations | Credits | Mumbaï (India), January 2004 - Bangalore (India), August 2005