The protests in Tunisia began on December 17, 2010 when fruit seller and university graduate Mohammad Bouazizi lit himself on fire after government officials destroyed his street stall. Twenty-three days later, on January 14, 2011, President Zin El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country as Tunisians celebrated what no other Middle Eastern or North African nation had achieved in decades: the ousting of an autocratic leader through home-grown, popular demonstrations.

That Tunisians single-handedly toppled Ben Ali is, in and of itself, no small success. That this was done in less than a month makes the feat that much more profound. While it remains to be seen whether Tunisia will emerge as a democratic, pluralistic, and prosperous state, the country’s surprising achievements thus far have already provided important insights into the current state of political activism and popular discontent in the region.

Perhaps the most striking revelations relate to the power of individual action to inspire political transformation. The Tunisian experiment demonstrates that, in a politically repressive atmosphere dominated by economic inequality, a “non-political” act by one, ordinary person can ignite a collective struggle for social, political, and economic change. While Tunisia has its own particular blend of political and economic conditions that breed such an environment, these elements exist to a greater or lesser degree in other regional countries as well.

At the same time, however, social unrest and protests, particularly over economic matters, are not new to the region. And while history reflects the tendency for such socio-economic protests to cross national boundaries, it also demonstrates the limited capacity such events have to bring about regime change in the Arab world. As such, though the Tunisian example has and will likely continue to contribute to the already unstable domestic environment in neighboring countries, imitation of these protests on its own is unlikely to produce similar results in other Arab nations. For better or for worse, those governments that learn from Ben Ali’s mistakes and calibrate their responses to these demonstrations correctly will likely prevent a Tunisian-style transformation from spreading around the region.

Individual Action, Collective Mobilization: How “One Man’s Act” Transformed Common Perceptions of Populist Politics

As Tunisia demonstrates, the blend of economic inequality and political repression, which has become the norm for regional countries, continues to be a source of simmering popular resentment. To cope with these daily injustices many in the region, like Mohammad Bouazizi, regularly resort to benign forms of “illegal” behavior, engaging in violations of relatively minor laws in order to eek out a living or create spaces for social expression. Unable to find paid employment despite holding a university degree, Bouazizi took to selling fruits and vegetables on the streets, without the necessary permits. In mid-December, local policemen destroyed Bouazizi’s stall, as punishment for his refusal to pay the protection money regularly extorted by the police from itinerant salesman. When efforts to have government officials hear his case failed, Bouazizi doused himself with gasoline and lit himself on fire, in the ultimate act of individual desperation.

Through government acceptance of these illegal activities, which are largely disorganized but socially pervasive, a tacit social contract between the people and the state has developed in many countries of the Middle East and North Africa. This unspoken agreement has replaced the “bread contracts” that once governed the relationship between the rulers and the ruled. Through these “bread contracts”, governments guaranteed their citizens’ economic welfare, through subsidies and other forms of public support, in return for the people’s acceptance of often-repressive government rule. Since the rise of neoliberal economics, these countries, which have become incapable of providing the basic social and economic services that would stave off illegal behavior, turn a blind eye to these actions, in return for popular acquiescence to the status quo.

While creating space for individual autonomy in otherwise repressive political environments, this arrangement also remains inherently unstable, as the competing expectations of different groups make it difficult for all to remain satisfied in the long-term. Bouazizi’s story reflects this reality. In Tunisia, policemen regularly engage in extortion, supplementing their meager incomes with bribes extracted from ordinary citizens. Bouazizi’s refusal to pay this bribe created a tension between the practice of illegal police extortion and his own unlawful operation of an unlicensed street stall, which resulted in far-reaching, destabilizing consequences for Tunisian society.

The instability of this social contract, however, runs even deeper. Even the smallest instance of government betrayal, such as the destruction of an illegal fruit stand, puts the system at risk when the incident is sufficiently public. Where collective political mobilization has been constrained, the actions of one, ordinary person can take on national significance as other members of society, who themselves engage in daily acts of legal subversion, come to identify with the suffering of the individual protagonist. Mohammad Bouazizi’s struggles, his inability to find work, his efforts to support his family by becoming a street vendor, and his refusal to succumb to police extortion, became the engine for political mobilization because Tunisians saw his story as reflecting their own struggles with the system. In such a way, individual acts of defiance or desperation, whether or not intended as political gestures, hold the very real potential of inspiring collective action, despite the absence of organized political groups, civil society organizations, or leadership structures.

At the same time, because it is so crucial that the act of the individual or small group be one that resonates with society at large, actions that appear to be imitations of the Tunisian uprising are less likely to lead to mass mobilization in other countries. What is key is that the despair and frustration of the indigenous population be captured. To the extent that these acts look to be “copy-cat” moves, in imitation of the Tunisia demonstrations, they may fall flat in other Arab countries.  The spate of self-immolations in Egypt, which have occurred in the aftermath of Tunisia and have failed to generate any mass protests amongst Egyptians, appear to bare this out.

Nonetheless, what makes Tunisia so exceptional and these protests so disturbing for regional leaders is not the domino effect they may cause, but rather the lessons they teach about the sites and centers of potential political change. After focusing year after year on stifling political parties, limiting civic organizations, and silencing opposition leaders, autocratic governments in the Middle East now see potential threats to their survival in the individual, atomized activities of their citizens. Having themselves created the circumstances that support this brand of political activity, regional governments must now face the possibility that one day “one man’s act” may rewrite the terms of their future.

Tunisia: The Ingredients for Political Change

The lessons taught by Tunisia will likely take months if not years to unravel. Nonetheless, because of the insights Tunisia offers into the potential for similar mobilizations in other Arab countries, certain aspects of greater Tunisian society and the demonstrations more particularly are worth highlighting now. First, as a result of years of government repression, Tunisian civil society has by all accounts remained under-developed and stagnant, while opposition parties have for some time been weak and largely politically irrelevant. As such, neither group played a substantial role in creating or sustaining the Tunisian protests.

Despite being amongst the most competitive economies in the region, with one of the highest GDPs in Africa and the Middle East, Tunisia suffers from high rates of unemployment especially amongst its youth. At the same time, since the mid-1990s, Tunisia’s higher education system has rapidly expanded, increasing from 102,000 enrolled students in 1995 to 365,000 in 2005. These realities have created a situation in which unemployment amongst university graduates has steadily increased and is expected to grow further, as enrollment in Tunisian universities continues to rise in the coming years. According to a World Bank report, 46 percent of university graduates in Tunisia remain unemployed a year and a half after graduating. In fact, in Sidibouzid, Bouazizi’s hometown and the site of the first protests, 32.3 percent of the unemployed hold an advanced academic degree. In large part, the absence of adequate job opportunities stems from precisely from the country’s recent efforts at economic growth, which has disproportionately focused on developing the tourism industry, as well as low-skill sectors, such as textiles and clothing manufacturing.

In Tunisia, as in countries such as Egypt, Sudan, Morocco, Yemen, and Lebanon, economic prosperity falls along geographic lines, with urban areas outpacing rural territories and the southern and interior parts of the country remaining largely underdeveloped compared to the north and coastal regions. Unsurprisingly, the protests developed along these fault lines – while Bouazizi’s stall was located in a Tunis market, his self-immolation occurred in the interior town of Sidibouzid, where the protests started. After a few days, the protests spread to neighboring municipalities and soon to Tunis. Within two weeks, solidarity movements had formed in every city in the country.

The protestors themselves represented a wide swath of Tunisian society. While labor unions were the first to take part in the demonstrations, the protests came to include lawyers, teachers, and students amongst other groups. The focus of the protests also transformed over time. While the country’s deteriorating economic situation remained a strong theme throughout, calls for political freedoms, human rights, and an end to corruption and dictatorship quickly gained traction.

The authorities reacted aggressively to the spread of unrest, implementing a severe security clampdown. In a public speech on December 28, President Ben Ali was unyielding, promising “to apply the full force of the law” and eventually ordering security forces to fire on demonstrators. As the protests continued, the government’s security apparatus took increasingly harsh action against the protestors, ultimately leading to the deaths of over 60 individuals.

Perhaps the demonstrations most striking feature was their decentralization. While Bouazizi’s self-immolation undoubtedly sparked the unrest, the protests lacked any defined leadership structure, though labor unions and the national bar association played a significant role particularly in organizing protests and sit-ins. Nonetheless, as past protests in the region have demonstrated, economic grievances transform into national movements only when they tap into a political cause. The decentralized nature of Tunisia’s protests, stemming in part from the absence of populist political spaces within Tunisian society, may have propelled the demonstrations towards embracing a variety of political persuasions and social groups, making it difficult for the government to effectively quash the uprising.

There are few Arab states where one cannot find the staggering unemployment, inadequate job opportunities and weak political structures found in Tunisia. To varying degrees across the region, education-levels have outpaced economic opportunities, distribution of resources between urban and rural population centers has been uneven, and civil society groups remain either politically or functionally unable to bring about necessary social and political changes. While many regional government, including Tunisia, permit their citizens a relatively wide degree of social freedoms, political rights in almost all Arab countries remain severely constrained. Like Mohammad Bouazizi, citizens of other regional nations regularly engage in benign instances of illegal activity in order to cope with these restrictions and make ends meet. As such, even though Ben Ali may have lacked the strong patronage network, which most Arab leaders rely on to protect their positions, the stage otherwise seems ready for Tunisia-like uprisings to erupt in other regional countries.

As history shows, however, social unrest, particularly of an economic nature, is not unusual for the Middle East and North Africa and, in fact, is likely to pick up pace after the events in Tunisia. Many of these Arab countries have a long track record of dealing with these protests so as to protect their own interests. While Ben Ali clearly failed in his handling of the demonstrations, many regional leaders may learn from his mistakes and refrain from further eroding the tacit social contract between citizen and state by resorting to military force and failing to make real concessions to the protesters’ demands.


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