A Jasmine Revolution for Tunisia?

What a difference a few days make. Since writing my post on the demonstrations in Tunisia on Wednesday, President Ben Ali went from claiming that only terrorists and fanatics were protesting toannouncing that he would not run for re-election when his current term expires in 2014. He also assured the population that censorship would end, political freedoms would be extended, and ordered police to only shoot protesters in self defense. Not surprisingly, many of the demonstrators didn’t buy it. Early Friday, Ben Ali went a step father by apologizing, dismissing his entire government and calling for new elections within six months. Again, the protesters did not back down and instead, the concessions by Ben Ali appeared to bolster them and a state of emergency was declared as violent clashes continued in the capital Tunis. Then, in the course of an hour and a half, confirmed reports came flooding in announcing that Ben Ali had left the country, members of the ruling family had been arrested at the airport, Tunisian airspace had been closed, and the army was in control and handed over ruling authority to Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi. Debates over the constitutionality of Ghannouchi assuming control instantly started, leading the Constitutional Court to declare Tunisia’s Speaker of Parliament, Fouad Mebazaa, as interim leader early Saturday. Meanwhile, Ben Ali and his family have found refuge in Saudi Arabia, much to the chagrin of online commentators.

As has been typical with the ongoing situation in Tunisia, the reports of the government’s collapse first appeared on Twitter before being reported by Al Jazeera and culminated with the announcement by Ghannouchi on Tunisian state television. Thus, when the dust settled and the 7 pm curfew went into effect on the streets of Tunis Friday night, it appeared the repressive 23 year rule of Ben Ali ended due to the uprising of common people, showing once again that those who come to power in a coup are apt to be forced to leave by a coup as well. Already commentators are dubbing this the “Jasmine Revolution” after Tunisia’s official state flower. But there is still much speculation about what the coming days will bring and whether this “revolution” will bring about any real change at all.

Those are the facts of the situation. Beyond that, there is a lot to say and a lot that is still unknown about what lies ahead for Tunisia.

The political situation and the rule of law

The events in Tunisia are unprecedented for the country in a number of ways, which also makes much of what will happen next unclear. This uncertainty has already played out with the assumption of power by the Prime Minister, only for it to be transferred to Mebazaa due to which article of the Tunisian constitution should control the situation. The assumption of Mebazaa as Interim Leader means that he now has 45 to 60 days to create a new government and hold elections, which Mebazaa himself cannot stand for.

The African Union appears content with the interim government’s constitutional legitimacy, andrecognized the new Tunisian government in an emergency session of the AU’s Peace and Security Council on Saturday.

That recognition brings up interesting questions about when a coup is legitimate and when it is not. Normally the AU suspends members when a coup occurs, including when an incumbent leader unconstitutionally extends their reign. Last year in Niger, the military overthrew President Mamadou Tandja after he abolished the Constitutional Court in order to hold a referendum allowing him to change the constitutional and stand for a third term. Tandja then proceeded to rule by decree, in direct opposition to the country’s constitution. Yet when the military stepped in following popular demonstrations in the capital, their attempt to restore constitutional rule was met with suspension by the AU. Why this situation is any different and warranted a different response from the AU is unclear, but comments by at least one member of the Peace and Security Council to Voice of America may suggest the difference in outcome: the hope that Tunisia will serve as a lesson for other repressive governments on the continent and in the Arab world.

That sentiment is echoed in many of the statements released by other heads of states and on blogs around the internet. Statements by both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted at the importance of universal rights and the domestic strength of states that adhere to human rights principles as well as the possible consequences to those leaders that did not. These were probably the most supportive statements for the demonstrators, but statements from EU President Jerzy Buzek andother European leaders such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel backed the will of the people for a democratic transition, even if their tone appeared a bit cautious. Even the Arab League called for a solution to the crisis that would respect the will of the Tunisian people. Online, Arab bloggers both inside and outside the region cheered on events as they developed on Friday. But there were also calls to not believe the battle was won, at least not yet.


The start to a real Arab Spring?

The overthrow of a dictator by virtue of a popular uprising is not a common event in the world, and certainly not something any one was expecting in Tunisia. Though corrupt and repressive, Ben Ali’s regime largely flew under the radar of international groups by promoting steady economic growth and a picture of a moderate modern Muslim country. The fact that such an uprising occurred in Tunisia has many commentators wondering whether this will be the spark that starts a real Arab Spring and brings an increase in political freedoms to other countries in the region.

The term “Arab Spring” has largely been discredited due to its overuse in recent years. The general idea was that the invasion and establishment of a democratic regime in Iraq would create a domino effect throughout the region. That clearly did not happen. But the Jasmine Revolution, if that is what it turns out to be, offers an organic movement for change coming from within and not from the outside. That offers far more potential for regional influence than US activities in the Gulf.

However that assumes that Tunisia will have a happy ending. There are already reports of militia-like groups looting and randomly firing on people in the streets and prison riots following the announcement of Ben Ali’s fall. Emergency curfews are still in effect as military forces are a common site on the streets of Tunis. All of this serves as a good reminder that a military takeover is not really the same thing as a revolution, though something has to be said for the popular uprising that brought the military to action. Nevertheless it is unclear whether the “Jasmine Revolution” will bring actual change to Tunisia or just be a change of the faces in control of a police state. Unfortunately, the survival of the uprising for the people will likely determine whether it has any effect on other states in the region.

Protests over food prices are already occurring in neighboring Algeria and Jordan, and reports came in over the weekend of clashes with protesters and police in Libya, leading to the suspension of YouTube where videos of the clashes were being shared. News agencies are also reporting that at least one man set himself on fire in front of the Egyptian parliament in Cairo while another did the same in Mauritania in protest of state corruption. These events suggest that the political freedoms, economic security, and freedom from state corruption sought by Tunisians are also fervently wanted by others in the region. Given these events and the celebrations of the coup by Arab bloggers online and in the streets of other Middle Eastern countries, there may be a potential for a real Arab Spring here, but the continuance of business as usual – including the limits on political and social freedoms that has become the standard operating procedure for the region – is just as likely a consequence of Friday’s events.


Final thoughts

These are only some of the issues facing Tunisia in the coming days and weeks. Although the demonstrations garnered very little Western media coverage before, it is likely that Tunisia will be in the news for some time to come. Commentators are already rushing to give their opinions about what the uprising means and what it could signify, as well as what caused it and what may happen next. This will not end anytime soon as the unprecedented events of this past week offer a lot to digest and a lot to think about for Tunisia, the region, and the world at large.

However there are two things that seem certain. The first is that economic stability and progress cannot permanently displace the need for fundamental freedoms. While rising food prices and high unemployment in the countryside fuelled the initial protests, it was the simmering tension from years of political repression that prompted the outpouring of angst on the streets.

The second is that the victory in overthrowing Ben Ali’s regime belongs to Tunisia and Tunisia alone. Despite the debate over the role that Twitter, Facebook, and Wikileaks played in the uprising,  January 14, 2011 belongs to the people of Tunisia for doing what – to the best of my knowledge – has never happened before: a regime change in an Arab (or Arabised) state via popular uprising with no interference from the outside. Social media has the potential to be a powerful mobilizing tool, but true revolutions still require people to take on incredible risks and stand up for their rights.

I am a strong believer that organic change from the inside is far more sustainable and carries more meaning that change brought on by outside actors, but as to whether this suggests that the winds of change are upon North Africa and the Middle East, I have no idea. However Tunisians earned their fair share of adulations this week by standing up against corruption and for the betterment of their country. In any analysis of these events, that fact that this day belongs to them should not be forgotten.

Originally published on Foreign Policy Blogs