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Mohamed Bouazizi
Mohamed Bouazizi

The Tunisian uprising came about by chance on December 17 2010. A street vendor of vegetables, Mohamed Bouazizi, had his goods confiscated by Police. It wasn't the first time this happened. But this was his only source of revenue. Mohamed was a graduate, he would and could have done better qualified jobs, but unemployment rates in his country, especially for youths, did not provide him with an alternative. He is exasperated. He goes in front of the government office in Sidi Bouzid and sets himself on fire. This is the spark that ignites the revolt against the regime. The people's rage spreads in other zones like Kasserine, Jendouba and arrives in Tunis.

President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, former chief of the Secret Service, had risen to power on November 7 1987. Two years before, a coup d'etat had defenestrated Habib Bourghiba, founder of the nation (he had lead Tunisia to independence from France on March 25 1956) but then sick and struck by the first symptoms of senile dementia. Ben Ali initially tackles the protest menacing an armed intervention, accuses foreign mass media, promises hard sanctions against the rioters. He does so from the screens of the State television airing menaces and statements.

Ben Ali had always managed power in an absolute manner, just like any other dictator, and with a heavy hand. Over time he has crushed any form of dissent and opposition. He knows no other method to handle crowds. His strongest opponent, Rashid Ghannouchi, an islamist who had received a death sentence from Bourghiba (for an alleged coup attempt) and successively had then been pardoned, founder of a party that was banned, had been forced to flee his country and live in exile in London.

Ben Ali had managed to gain Western support for having fought islamic fundamentalism, while no one had paid the necessary attention to the abuses perpetrated by his regime and, at the same time, cared about a President ruling his country with the methods typical of a dictatorship. As a matter of fact, Ben Ali had taken military courses in France (Chalon sur Marne artillery school), intelligence classes in the United States (anti-aircraft artillery school in Texas and a senior intelligence course in Maryland), had risen to power with the blessing and support of the Italian government (PM Bettino Craxi and former SISMI - military intelligence - chief Admiral Fulvio Martini), had served as a military attache' in Morocco and Spain and was a former ambassador to Poland. He was, to all effects, a reliable person.

On the other hand Ben Ali was also a tyrant hated by his own people. Much worse was his wife, Leila Trabelsi, who had an awful reputation. Her family clan was accused of corruption and embezzlement of public funds. Originating from a family of low lineage and limited culture (Leila was a hairdresser before meeting Ben Ali and marrying him in 1992), immediately after the wedding her family dedicated their efforts to enriching themselves regardless of the lawfulness of their acts. Surrounded by 10 among brothers and sisters, there wasn't any attractive business that would not go through the Trabelsis. Leila showed off a luxurious lifestyle and a scornful attitude. The strong age difference with her husband (he was born in September 1936, while she was born in October 1956) made her influence on her partner's decisions particularly effective.

zine el abidine ben ali
Zine el Abidine Ben Ali

Following the threats against the demonstrators and having become aware of the amplitude and determination of the protest, Ben Ali resurfaced on television using moderate tones. He promised institutional reforms, more individual freedom, use of internet without restrictions, but foremost Ben Ali promised not to candidate for the 2014 elections (a Constitutional reform in 2002 had allowed his mandate to be renewed limitlessly). 

His offers were turned down and protests continued: on January 14 2011 Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia with his wife and three children. He had initially asked for asylum in France, but it was refused. The former Tunisian president left behind a wave of violence that in less than a month had caused around 200/250 deaths among unarmed protesters.

Ben Ali's departure did not put an end to the violence: loyalist militias continued to shoot on people causing deaths, wounded and resorted to systematic abuse and torture.

On January 15 2011 Fouad Mebazaa, an old figure linked to the independence struggle and to Bourghiba's days and with a long pedigree of ministerial and diplomatic posts, was nominated President of the Republic ad interim (a post he will retain until December 12 2011).

On January 17 2011 a new government of national unity is installed including both people from the old regime and members of the opposition. The experiment fails: 5 ministers immediately step down.

Tunisia continues the dismantling of the old regime: the portraits of the former president disappear from the streets, the State television changes name ( Tunisie 7 - the number referred to Ben Ali's take over turns into Television Tunisienne), the names of the streets associated to the dictator are removed.

On January 30 2011 Rachid Ghannouchi returns home after 22 years of exile spent between Algiers and London. A cheering crowd awaits him at the airport.

rachid ghannouchi
Rachid Ghannouchi

The new Tunisian authorities issue an international arrest warrant for Ben Ali and his wife. The accusations include: high treason, money laundering, embezzlement of State funds. Ben Ali is accused of having transferred funds abroad and having made real estate investments worth 5 billion euros over his 23 years of Presidential mandate.

The 'Rassemblement Costitutionnel democratique' (R.C.D.), the regime party (heir of the old Socialist Desturian Party of Bourghiba), is suspended on February 6 2011 and dissolved the following month (March 9).

The social situation remains very critical, several young Tunisians attempt clandestine immigration via sea to Italy. On February 27 2011 waves of illegal immigrants onboard boats from Tunisia start reaching the Italian island of Lampedusa. Italy proclaims a humanitarian emergency.

Protests in the streets continue and PM Mohammed Ghannouchi resigns on February 27 (5 protesters will die on that day). Figure of the old regime, member of the RCD (from which he had resigned in January 2011), several times a Minister under Ben Ali (of Finances from 1989 until 1992, of International Cooperation and Foreign Investments until 1999 and briefly a PM), after Ben Ali's escape Ghannouchi had been charged with running (with 6 other people) the country's transition to democracy and national conciliation. But Mohammed Ghannouchi did not have the love of his people as he was too compromised with the old regime when he had gained the nickname of 'Mr. Oui Oui', a Yesman for the dictator.

His post is taken over by Beji Caid Essebsi, an old lawyer (born in 1926) and one of Bourghiba's first counselors, several times minister (of Interior form 1965 until 1969, of Foreign Affairs from 1981 until 1986) and former Parliament Speaker (1990/1991). After Ben Ali's coup Essebsi had been Ambassador to Germany and had left Parliament and retired in 1994. It was always the same attempt: to facilitate a democratic transition. In this case, since the man was not as involved with the past regime, he obtains the people's approval.

On March 3 2011 President Mebazaa announces that Tunisia will hold parliamentary elections in July to elect a constituent assembly (with 217 members). The date will be postponed until October 23 due to difficulties in compiling electoral lists.

On June 20 2011, following a summary trial based on an old Tunisian code and without having the right to defense, Ben Ali and his wife Leila are condemned to 35 years for theft and embezzlement of public funds and jewels. Similar trials are held against other members of the Trabelsi family, many of whom have also fled abroad (France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Canada). Ben Ali will total 66 years of prison sentences following other trials. His wife will allegedly go through a suicide attempt.

In the mean time protests continue with uninterrupted intensity: on July 17 2011 government buildings and police stations are assaulted wounding 4 agents. After clashes between police and protesters the following day a 14 year old boy is killed by a stray bullet in Sidi Bouzid.

On August 8 2011 a mass rally is held to ban former regime officials from re-entering politics and following more protests and clashes on September 2 a curfew is imposed on several areas of Tunisia. A 17 years old girl dies and several people are wounded.

Regardless of all of this, the democratization process continues. On October 23 2011 the elections for the constituent assembly are held with a high voter turnout: over 90% of voters. It is the first fruit of the social awakening and of the desire to move on. Tunisia had not held a vote since 1956.

Elections will see the presence of 500 foreign observers, fraud accusations are limited and overall the vote is deemed as fair and regular. Parliamentarians are elected on the basis of a proportional vote.

Ghannouchi's moderate islamist party Ennahda (The Rebirth) wins with over 1,5 million votes on the 4 million available and obtains 89 seats out of 217. The others winners are:

the 'Congress for the Repubblic', a secular center left party, with 29 seats

the 'Popular Petition for freedom, justice and development' (Aridha Chaabia in arabic), a populist party created a few months before the vote by a businessman living in London, obtains 27 seats (later reduced to 19 due to financial irregularities)

the 'Democratic Forum for work and freedom' (Ettakatol), a social democratic party, with 20 seats.

Lastly with 16 seats the 'Progressive Democratic Party' (secular centrist party) and other minor parties.

On November 22 2011, the three biggest parties agree on power sharing: Hamadi Jebali from Ennahda becomes Prime Minister, Moncef Marzouki of the Congress for the Republic is nominated President of the Republic and Mustafa ben Jaafar from Ettakatol is named President of the constituent assembly. Other independents also join government.

There are still a number of problems haunting Tunisia: corruption, unemployment, public order. Protests and counter-protests follow one another in the streets of Tunis. On December 10 2011 the constituent assembly adopts a provisional Constitution (Law on the provisional organization of public powers) and two days later Marzouki is confirmed as first President elect of the country.

The latter will assign Ennahda's Hamad Jebali the task of forming a new government within three weeks. On February 1 2012 Habib Khedher is charged with drafting the new Constitution and on February 14 2012 the six members of the Commission in charge of the drafting are appointed.

map tunisia


The democratization process in Tunisia is not complete. The Constitutional reform is not over while it advances along a bumpy road each time there is an attempt to reduce civil liberties with the inclusion of Islamic law (an amendment from Ennahda to introduce Sharia law was filed on March 3 and withdrawn on March 26. Another proposal that stated that women were complementary to men was submitted on August 6 and withdrawn following protests on September 28).

Not even the demonstrations and the protests that cyclicly take place are over because the economic crisis has not been overcome and unemployment, especially among the youth, is still high. Corruption has not been eradicated.

It is hence obvious that we should question where lay the positive elements that make of the Tunisian case a hope story and one of the most successful examples of the Arab Spring.

Firstly, we should underline that any transition from a dictatorship to an infant democracy is never painless. There are winners and losers, power is handed over into different hands, equilibrium and relations of power change, abuses are committed by those that have never benefited from liberties and don't appreciate their boundaries, institutions and State structures collapse and are not immediately replaced, social chaos. The way out of this can only come after a period of transition because modifications not only involve structures, political formulas and the state apparatus, but also the men charged with applying them.

There are people that have to go from relations and social behaviors in an authoritarian and despotic context to relations based on consensus, that take into account the importance of public opinion, the non-use of force and the relevance of dialogue. On top of that there are also individuals coming from abroad and that during previous lives acted in the role of illegal opponents and that now have to face new responsibilities. And, without going very far, this is the case of Rashid Ghannouchi.

The road to democracy is always long, it follows tortuous routes because it doesn't only have to change structures, but also people's minds. A popular vote in 2011, the second one in 55 years of Tunisia, cannot suffice as evidence of a common political denominator in a country, even though it still is per se a significant event. Time is needed to allow civic-minded people to evolve.

With such a premise it is worth underlining the positive aspects of the Tunisian experience:

the Ghannouchi case

his first political experience was under Bourghiba. He founds an islamic party in 1981, the 'Movement for Islamic Tendency' (Harakat al Ittijad al islami ) after an earlier political infatuation for Nasserism. He is then arrested and sentenced to 7 years in jail. Freed in 1984, Ghannouchi is arrested again in 1987. This time around he is accused of an alleged coup attempt. Freed by Ben Ali, he founds Ennahda, but after a few years is forced into exile. He is charged by Tunisian authorities of leading a terrorist group and this label is accepted by a good portion of the West.

Once returned home, his CV could have lead Ghannouchi to take his revenge against the old regime and/or the West and to embrace extremist positions both in politics and religion. He doesn't do so even after elections results legitimate his leadership and would potentially allow him the political power to do as he wishes. From a symbol of resistance against the dictatorship, Mohamed Ghannouchi has become a man of dialogue. He immediately agrees with the secular parties in the Assembly to favor a transition to democracy. Ghannouchi is not even against, during the initial stages of the revolution, that people colluded with the past regime continue to temporarily occupy public posts. His political Islam is moderate. It preaches tolerance and continues to do so even after the Commission charged with drafting the new Constitution votes to maintain article 1 as it had been written by late President Bourghiba in 1959: "Tunisia is a free and sovereign State with Islam as its State religion, Arab is its official language and it is a Republic" (actually, as previously stated, there was a failed attempt by Ennahda to introduce Sharia in order to take cover from the extremist views of the Salafists). The secular structure of the State was basically confirmed. Ghannouchi knows that Tunisian society has strongly assimilated the concept of secularism and that tourism is one of the major financial resources for the country. He also knows that is wasn't Ennahda that started the revolution against Ben Ali, nor that it was inspired by religious demands. It was the people who kicked Ben Ali out, not a religious idea. Ghannouchi thus accepts that other social instances be part of this political changeover. He knows he has a political credit to spend due to his past experience (but he is not the only one with this pedigree) and that his party benefits from its philanthropism, but also that Tunisia ought to look ahead.

The role of the Armed Forces

Tunisian Armed Forces have never been, as opposed to nearby Egypt or Algeria, a central part of political relations. During the revolution the top military brasses watched political events develop and left their man in the barracks. The same can be said for security forces, except for an initial support to Ben Ali until his escape. This circumstance has allowed for a speedy progression towards democracy without major bloodbaths.

Ennahda's agenda

Ennahda has picked up the pragmatism of its leader.
Ghannouchi's party has won not only because Islam is and will remain, as identical developments in other Arabic countries have shown, the sole identifiable common element for populations in this part of the world. His rise to power was democratic and he democratically is trying to bring his agenda forward knowing that other secular stances also exist in Tunisia. The slogan that won Ennahda the elections was simple: integrity, honesty and muslim values. Islam as a guarantee of morality.

In other words, the party combined tradition and innovation and focused its attention on the country's endemic problems (corruption, social inequality, fight against the elites, unemployment, favoritism). Ennahda did not entrench in the position deriving from its religious appeal and wasn't only about rhetoric, but decided to tackle everyday problems. This was possible thanks to a widespread organization (neighborhood committees, charitable organizations, strong relationship with mosques) lacking in other parties and that allowed them to have a direct link with the people's demands and turning them into a political agenda. Furthermore, Ennahda could count on significant financing coming from the Gulf.

In the Tunisian political landscape, Ennahda did not put itself in contrast with other party's ideas, but rather assimilated both Bourghiba's secular nationalism and the reformist and modernization demands coming from the people. Concerning women's rights, Ennahda was clear about the freedom to choose whether or not to wear the veil and the right to divorce, introduced by the secular family code in 1959.

On the economic level, Ennahda is in favor of a free market economy, but intends to add a social welfare system. A sort of muslim socialism. Prior international treaties have also been confirmed.

Tunisia's democratic path

As part of the process of becoming a democracy, Tunisia has chosen to create a constituent assembly. Libya has done the same. Under this point of view, Tunis could become an example for other countries. It did not only swap a leadership with another, but has decided to modify its institutions looking at the future.


As elsewhere, Tunisian Salafists represent a potential danger to the democratization of the country and have lately inspired extremist groups' growing episodes of violence and intolerance. This is mainly because Ennahda's moderate Islam does not allow fundamentalists the political space they would want.

The radical fringes of this movement have been at the centre of violent demonstrations, protest rallies, raids in universities and more. But it is also true that Tunisia has a long experience of secularism and of the associated liberties, gender emancipation and egalitarian laws.

In the Tunisian political landscape Salafists do not surpass 10-15 thousand followers (and thus their numbers are not that relevant) and are split between the 'Hezb al Tahrir', outlawed but tolerated group preaching for the institution of a Caliphate and the strict application of Sharia, and the 'Front for the Reform' (Al Islah), lead by Mohammed Khoja and authorized under the Ministry of Interior on May 11 2011 (they were the 118th political group to be allowed to operate in Tunisia). 

Some of their actions (attacks on women, ban on the use of alcohol, extremist preaching by its leaders, open anti-semitism) have gained these groups a media coverage that is probably above their true political weight in Tunisia. Nonetheless, the attack against the US embassy in Tunis on September 14 2012 by yet another fundamentalist group, 'Ansar al Sharia' lead by Seif Allah ibn Hussein also know as Abu Iyad, is an alarm bell of the instability affecting both religious and political Islam. And this is an issue not only for Tunisia, probably more capable than others of metabolizing the phenomena through a pragmatic and democratic approach, but for the entire Arab world.

sahara tunisia


Despite some initial successes, Tunisia still faces several challenges. The road is still long and difficult.

The first victory was making democracy work through a vote. And this was a major step in this part of the world.
The second success was including all parts of society in the democratization process.
The third one was having reached these aims through hardship and struggle, but without excessive and indiscriminate bloodbaths.

There remain several challenges facing the new Tunisian leadership: the approval of the new Constitution, the judicial reform, the fight against corruption and favoritism, a push for the economy, reducing unemployment, fighting poverty especially in the country's inner regions, creating more social justice, reconstructing the country's security apparatus, renewing the country's ruling class allowing more room for the youth, rebuilding democratic institutions, systematically and not sporadically respecting human rights, eliminating indiscriminate arrests and torture used by the regime both under Bourghiba and Ben Ali, giving the country more security with respect to neighboring nations (it is the case of Libya whose refugees still station on Tunisian soil) and on the domestic front against the spread of terrorism (in February 2012 police dismantled an Al Qaeda cell in the country).
The spirit of moderation and social inclusion accompanying the democratic process gives us hope. And several social actors are to be praised for this. But the fight between the so called 'modernists' and the 'islamists' is not over yet.

The fact that Tunisia's moderate Islam is on the right path was indirectly confirmed by a recent statement by the current head of Al Qaeda, Ayman Al Zawahiri, that exhorted Tunisians to rebel against "the government of fake Islam".

Several international analysts have found similarities in Ennahda's political approach and Turkish Recep Tayyip Erdogan's 'Party for Justice and Development' (AKP). Both formations carry a moderate Islamic agenda, both came to power replacing secular military regimes, both are in favor of a multi-party system, both look to the West and both leaders are pragmatists ready for compromise and tolerance.

During public statements, Ghannouchi himself has often made reference to Ergodan as his Turkish model.

Yet there are specific differences among the two countries. Their political starting points differ, their history is different, national societies are structured in different ways, Tunisians do not have to face interference from the military as happens on a daily basis to Erdogan, they have different foreign policy priorities and regional contexts they fall into.

In this virtuous path towards democracy (the process should complete on June 23 2012 with Parliamentary and Presidential elections) Tunisia acts as a pacesetter for other countries involved in the so called Arab Spring. It represents an example, moreover a positive one, that could help other nations reach the same objective. Just like other Arab nations, it is the role of political Islam that has found in Ghannouchi a prudent political interpreter in the union of religion and state affairs that makes the difference. Unfortunately in the wider Middle Eastern landscape there aren't many other Ghannouchi in sight.