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Is Sidi Bouzid really unprecedented in the Arab World?

Tunisia
“The most spectacular thing about the events in Tunisia is that they make everything uncertain, but they also make everything possible”

Tunisians made history last week—fact. Never have we seen an Arab dictator flee his country and roam the skies begging for refuge like we did with Ben Ali on Friday night. Never have we tweeted the ill-fate of an Arab dictator’s junta like we did last week. And never have we witnessed a decades-old police state toppled from below in this fashion. In fact, for many Arabs, this may even be the first time they use the expression ‘former president’ in reference to a living man!

Undeniably, the Jasmine Revolution and, even more remarkably, the society’s reactions to post-Ben Ali lawlessness indicate the maturity of a deep-rooted social struggle in the absence of a charismatic revolutionary figurehead and without the political intervention of the national army. Furthermore, it proved to be a true grassroots movement and the culmination of a cumulative struggle against socioeconomic inequalities and repression of freedoms, not merely a response to an electoral debacle or a single incident by select social forces. More importantly, the Tunisian revolution was sparked by disenchantment and desperation amongst the most deprived social classes in the most peripheral regions of the country before ‘conquering’ the capital and engaging the professional middle classes and the Diaspora.

Another aspect brought to the forefront by events in Tunisia was the role of the media. Under Ben Ali, Tunisia ranked amongst the most repressive environments for journalists and was notorious for its severe restrictions on freedom of expression and the flow of information. However, despite the instrumental role traditional and post-traditional media played in the events of Sidi Bouzid, this revolution was unlike Iran’s ‘Green Revolution’ of 2009: Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were not at the core of the Tunisians’ social struggle. For the Tunisian protester, new social media were not the ‘battlefield’ but a channel to express revolutionary fervor and provide a regional and international audience with otherwise scarce information from the real ‘battlefield’—the streets of Tunisian towns and cities.

In other words, the Jasmine Revolution was ‘twitterized’ but was not a ‘twitter revolution.’

In short, the events of the past month demonstrate that the dynamics of Tunisian society were ripe and mature enough to escalate into a social struggle that voiced the grievances of the regions and social groups at the centre and the periphery alike.  The desire for change and the intolerability of humiliation, repression and deprivation overcame fear of Ben Ali’s notorious security apparatus. Tunisians of both genders, of all age groups and from all walks of life took to the streets with aspirations that had outgrown the usual outlets—the homes, salons and Facebook accounts of Tunisians at home and abroad.

Uprooting the Revolution

However, the significance and maturity of the Tunisian revolution pose an important question—is Sidi Bouzid really an unprecedented event in the Arab world? To what extent is the Jasmine Revolution particular to Tunisian society?

The toppling of Ben Ali’s regime from below and the revolutionaries’ persistent struggle to eliminate the ruling party and get rid of the corrupt ruling junta are, beyond the shadow of a doubt, regionally unprecedented. But is the social dynamic behind the events of Sidi Bouzid ever so ‘unique,’ ‘particular’ and ‘new’ to Tunisia and the Arab World?

The question implies that social revolutions are a rarity in human history and are more so in the Arab world—a claim few social scientists and historians will oppose. But the assertion that Sidi Bouzid is unprecedented in the Arab World also implies a certain assumption that the Tunisian revolution is borne in a vacuum and is not the result of a cumulative social process informed by the political dynamics, protest movements and intellectual heritage of Arab and Tunisian social struggles.

The view that Sidi Bouzid is ever so unique and ‘new’ to the Arab World is perhaps a product of neo-orientalist and self-orientalizing discourses which continue to view social dynamics in non-Western societies with suspicion and, therefore, fail to acknowledge that a cumulative heritage of social and intellectual activism exists in these societies.

The result is evident in the coverage of the Tunisian revolution by mainstream Western media. “Holidaymakers evacuated!”, “Civil war looms in Tunisia!”, “Will Tunisia turn Islamist?”, “Can Tunisia change?” are examples of the coverage offered to the average reader in the West. Analysts who received news from Tunisia with a glimpse of hope that believing it could lead towards democratic change credited Western sources for instigating the revolution. Some gave Julian Assange the credit, claiming that Wikileaks’ revelations triggered the revolution. Others wrote that the Tunisian revolution was an inevitable outcome of the information revolution and new social media. Some even credit US democratization policies for Sidi Bouzid. Despite their differing interpretations and their divergent analyses, they all share a total disregard of the political and intellectual heritage, the inbred social dynamics and the pan-regional social struggles which led to the events of Sidi Bouzid and the Jasmine Revolution.

Skeptics have no faith in Tunisian society and question its ability of produce change without help and guidance from the West. More positive analysts can only explain Sidi Bouzid’s success and its reforming potentials by connecting the revolution to this or that Western intervention.

The Jasmine Revolution contextualized

Lebanese academic and political thinker, Fawwaz Traboulsi offered an alternative explanation. Commenting on its potential to inspire change and protests elsewhere, Traboulsi described the Jasmine Revolution as “simply the culmination of a series of popular uprisings [demanding the right to] a decent living, employment and freedom.”[1]

It is in this light that we can contextualize the Tunisian revolution. The events of Sidi Bouzid can be contextualized in their Tunisian and Arab social contexts by refuting the assumption that Sidi Bouzid is an extraordinary event or that the social dynamics at the heart of the revolution are as novel and original as many will have us believe. In fact, Sidi Bouzid can be seen as the product of a long history of inbred social dynamics dating back to the early decades of the twentieth century and cross-cutting with social struggles, protest movements, uprisings and revolutions throughout the Arab World.

It is in this spirit that labor unions, political activists and protest movements expressed solidarity with Tunisian protesters weeks before the final escalation and the downfall of Ben Ali. Most notably, throughout the past four weeks, Algerian unionists repeatedly expressed “solidarity with the brave social struggle of the Tunisian people” at a time when they themselves were mobilizing protestors against unemployment, rising prices and the housing crisis.

Similarly, activists in protest movements in Egypt contested the argument that the events of Tunisia are indeed peculiar and specific to Tunisia and expressed dismay at the increasingly vocal discourse prevalent amongst both isolationist state-run media as well as defeatist elements from within activist circles. While the former presented the events of Tunisia as a specific response to a peculiar variant of tyranny,[2] defeatists lamented the backwardness of Egypt’s reformist movement. In response, one Egyptian activist wrote in frustration: “the Tunisian revolution is only a more mature model of the social struggle in Egypt [...] it is an extension of the revolution we’ve worked towards for more than six years.[3]

An inspiration

Recognizing that social struggles and protest movements contribute to a shared pool of experiences, achievements and accumulative cognition over time and across political boundaries, it is natural to assume that the Jasmine Revolution will have an impact on the social dynamics of, and will inspire protesters in, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Jordan and Sudan—perhaps even in Iran and beyond.

In other words, the Jasmine Revolution itself will become a ring in a chain—indeed it already has.

The events of Sidi Bouzid have already inspired activists and protest movements driven by Maslowian demands elsewhere in the Arab World. Rioting Algerians have looked to their neighbor for inspiration and at least one Algerian is reported to have set himself on fire protesting unemployment and mistreatment by the authorities and imitating Mohammad Bouazzizi whose self-immolation on December 17 triggered the Sidi Bouzid uprising. Rioters in Libya continue to protest the housing crisis in their country; Jordanians protest rising prices; and Moroccans are expressing anger at the poor state of public transportation in the country. Similarly, the Northern Sudanese opposition leader, Hassan Turabi, was arrested after calling for an uprising against al-Bashir days after a historic referendum on the south’s independence.

In Egypt, three cases of self-immolation have been reported within 24 hours. Significantly, the three victims are not known for any political activism and demonstrate the wide array of social groups suffering disenchantment and desperation. The first victim, a 49-year-old restaurant owner from the port city of Isma`iliya, set himself on fire in front of the Egyptian parliament on Monday in protest against the government’s decision to lift subsidies on essential commodities, including bread[4]. Less than 24 hours later, a Cairene lawyer set himself on fire in the same location[5] hours before reports of similar incident involving a 25-year-old unemployed Alexandrian[6].

In short, the Jasmine Revolution has evidently provided angry Middle Easterners suffering extreme class and regional disparities; the recession of productive and labor intensive sectors of the economy; a state of joblessness; rising prices of essential commodities; deteriorating infrastructures; uneven development; rampant corruption; and state repression with a ray of hope and a momentous boost. Rooted in the a long history of social struggles dating back to the Egyptian Bread Riots of 1977, Sidi Bouzid has become a new milestone in Arab societies’ struggle for social justice and democracy.



[1] Fawwaz Traboulsi, « الأمل بالياسمين » (Jasmine Hopes), As-Safir, 18 January 2011 [http://bit.ly/eByjGn]

[2] Shayma’ Abdel-Hadi, «الخصوصية السياسية و الاقتصادية و الاجتماعية و الاعلامية في التجربة التونسية»  (The Political, Economic and Social Peculiarities of the Tunisian Experience), Al-Ahram, 15 January 2011 [http://bit.ly/g9Yea2]

[3] Facebook note, Mohamed Motasem El Haiwan, on 16 January 2011 [http://on.fb.me/dVc3e1]

[4] Al-Masry Al-Youm, 17 January 2011, [http://bit.ly/gfF5kx]

[5] Shorouk News, 18 January 2011 [http://bit.ly/fdBwqy]

[6] Youm7, 18 January 2011, [http://bit.ly/gs1gyS]

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