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What’s Happening in Tunisia?

With an apparent coup taking place in Tunisia, it’s worth stepping back and understanding how we got to this point. Nick Baumann has a good primer. So let’s break it down.

Tunisia is a repressive Muslim North African country ruled under a dictatorship since 1956. The suicide of a young produce seller with a university degree, Mohamed Bouazizi, seems to have set this off. Bouazizi didn’t die for over a week after setting himself on fire, but the city from which he came, Sidi Bouzid, rioted in sympathy with him almost immediately. Bouazizi’s death seems to have resonated with an underclass frustrated with high unemployment and a lack of freedom. Brian Whitaker writes:

Reporting of these events has been sparse, to say the least. The Tunisian press, of course, is strictly controlled and international news organisations have shown little interest: the “not many dead” syndrome, perhaps. But in the context of Tunisia they are momentous events. It’s a police state, after all, where riots and demonstrations don’t normally happen – and certainly not simultaneously in towns and cities up and down the country.

So, what we are seeing, firstly, is the failure of a system constructed by the regime over many years to prevent people from organising, communicating and agitating.

Secondly, we are seeing relatively large numbers of people casting off their fear of the regime. Despite the very real risk of arrest and torture, they are refusing to be intimidated.

Finally, we are seeing the breakdown of a long-standing devil’s compact where, in return for submitting to life under a dictatorship, people’s economic and welfare needs are supposedly taken care of by the state.

This has grown rapidly over the past few days. First, the Tunisian President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, said he would not seek re-election. Then, today, he immediately stepped down and left the country for Malta. The Prime Minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, has taken over and a state of emergency declared. The Ghannouchi is a key ally of Ben Ali’s, but before he left, Ben Ali vowed that new elections would be held within six months. Police continue to beat and disperse protesters, but this has all the elements of a coup.

This doesn’t mean that this will usher in democracy in Tunisia; the coup for the moment looks internal, with the Prime Minister displacing the President. The White House has released a statement saying that the Tunisian people have a right to choose their leaders. It’s not yet clear whether they will be allowed to exercise that right.

The BBC has a good liveblog up with constantly updating information.

…very good report by Christopher Alexander in Foreign Policy, who adds that a Wikileaks cable released by the Guardian may have had an impact.

Shortly before the December protests began, WikiLeaks released internal U.S. State Department communications in which the American ambassador described Ben Ali as aging, out of touch, and surrounded by corruption. Given Ben Ali’s reputation as a stalwart U.S. ally, it mattered greatly to many Tunisians — particularly to politically engaged Tunisians who are plugged into social media — that American officials are saying the same things about Ben Ali that they themselves say about him. These revelations contributed to an environment that was ripe for a wave of protest that gathered broad support.

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David Dayen

David Dayen