Letters from Tunis: The Jasmin revolution deserves a place in history

22 March 2011

"Today, Tunisia is one of the names of freedom in the world," this sentence was written on Facebook on 15th January, that is, on the day Ben Ali left the country. Started almost by chance, the Jasmin revolution has now spread all over the Arab world: Algeria, Sudan, Mauritania, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Syria are all on the move.


Dateline: 17th December 2010. Sidi Bouzid, a town in central Tunisia. Twenty-seven year old Mohammed Bouazizi sets himself alight. Nobody could imagine that this singular act would become the catalyst for an uprising, sparking demonstrations and riots throughout the country, leading not only President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to step down after 23 years in power, but also pushing other Arab countries to do the same. It is true that, as Chérif Ferjani, Professor at Lyon University in France, stated, the so-called Jasmin revolution like other revolutions in history had its "unforeseeable side", but other than this it was not organised at all, it was spontaneous, it was a natural consequence of deep resentment among educated, but jobless Tunisian young people. As Muhammad Haddad, professor of Comparative Religions at the University of Tunis, perfectly described: "The Jasmin Revolution is a revolution that was begun and led by Tunisian youth. The political forces are trying to follow, the intellectuals, myself included, are stunned by an event which we could imagine in the most beautiful of our dreams. During the day, the young  peacefully occupy cities and suburbs and clearly and bravely brandish their claim: a real change and not only a change of facade."

The Tunisian revolution clearly showed different phases:
1.    At first it looked as a social movement, mainly apolitical, only asking the government for "jobs, dignity, freedom."
2.    When the central power responded with repression the movement became "against Ben Ali", but still without any political colour.
3.    Then, after the President's speech in January,  the refrain became "Ben Ali out of the country."
4.  After Ben Ali left the refrain changed to "the RCD (Rassemblement Constitutionel Démocratique, that is the Constitutional Democratic Rally) out of the country".

The issue came to a head, due to the increase of self-confidence and self-esteem among the population. The first three points have occurred; the fourth has yet to come. The reason is to be found in the main problem Tunisia has to face, that is, the aftermath. Two scenarios are possible:

1. An Iraqi scenario, that is to expel all the representatives of the old regime, so creating a dangerous political vacuum that would mean a catastrophe; or
2. a South-African scenario, which imposes the choice of a charismatic leader, such as Mandela, but unfortunately there is no such a person.
The questions now are: does Tunisia need immediate elections? Who are the actors of the new Tunisian order?
As to the first question the answer is another question: if Tunisians vote for a new government, which electoral law will be used? If they vote with the old one, there will be only one legal party that is the old and hated RCD. If a new electoral law is required, Tunisia will need time. As a matter of fact on 17th January, the Prime Minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, appointed Yadh Ben Achour, an eminent scholar whose father and grandfather were Grand Muftis of Tunisia and who hails from one of the country's most distinguished family of scholars, to be the president of Tunisia's Higher Political Reform Commission, which is charged with overseeing constitutional reform in post-Ben Ali era the rules which will govern future elections. For this reason Tunisians, the new actors of Tunisian society and politics, will have more time to organise themselves. The major new actors are young people, who in the streets, on Facebook and Twitter, have won their fight. Most of them are from the middle classes, are well educated and they will not now quit the political scene. Another of the actors will be women, who I am sure will be the strongest enemy against radical Islam linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. "Tunisian women", as the Tunisian activist Raoudha Karafi told me, "do not want to lose their rights, granted by the founder of modern Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba in 1956."
I believe that Tunisians will manage to build a new free country since they are largely immune to radical Islam and they will never abandon their secular view of Islam and society. What is really important to underline is, as Professor Haddad wrote, that "a new generation is born in Tunisia, they feel free and bold. The new generation will do better than us in terms of freedom. The challenge is not to get rid of a man but of a system. Freedom has a price we are willing to pay."