People Power in Tunisia


On Saturday December 18th last, the Tunisian police stopped Mohamed Bouaziz, an unemployed university graduate, and seized the hand cart of fruit and vegetables he had been selling to support himself and his family. Enraged by the injustice and despairing of any escape from destitution and starvation in Tunisia’s impoverished economy, increasingly ravaged by rising food prices, the young man set fire to himself in protest outside the town hall in Sidi Bouzid, 200km south-west of the capital Tunis. The young man was later to die in hospital.

Angered by the incident, several hundred local youth, equally suffering from unemployment and repression from the police, gathered to protest the incident and Tunisia’s corrupt presidential regime. Local police responded with tear gas and violence. Since that time, and until the time of writing, just following the fleeing of ex-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, mass rioting and violent clashes with the police have swept the country. Death tolls are disputed but, for example, in Kesserine, an inland town, far from the tourist industry of the coastal region, the death toll estimated by local doctors and hospital staff exceeded 50 over the last weekend of December alone.

But the savagery of the virtual civil war that broke out between the people of Tunisia, from unemployed youth, school and university students, trade unionists, artists, intellectuals and even lawyers, against the corrupt cabal around the dictator in all but name, Ben Ali, may as well have not been happening for the first three weeks as far as the TV news schedules of RTE, the BBC or the rest of Western media were concerned. Commentators at Al Jazeera and other Arab language media bitterly pointed out the hypocrisy of a Western media that splashed the Iranian Green movement’s resistance to Ahmedinejad’s stealing of the last elections all over the nightly TV broadcasts, but censored the biggest story in the Arab world for three weeks, until forced to do so as the disturbances reached Tunis and tourist areas. Could this be because the Ben Ali regime is a “friend of the West”? The wall of silence imposed by our “fearlessly independent and even-handed” media speaks volumes.

Meanwhile in the Arab world, from Egypt to Syria, ordinary watchers and bloggers bristled with enthusiasm for what they called the Tunisian Intifada. The experience of being squeezed between corrupt, dictatorial and repressive regimes and rising food prices is common to most people in the region. Even though the Tunisian government closed opposition newspapers and arrested and tortured journalists who dared cover the struggle, coverage still came out through Twitter, although Facebook fell over itself to help the Ben Ali regime (and its CIA backers) by taking down the pages of any journalists or ordinary Tunisians covering the story.

Eventually four weeks of stuggle deposed Ben Ali but with the army now in charge the future remains uncertain. However the Tunisian people have learned that they have the power to overthrow even a long-entrenched dictatorship and so can also do so with a new, less stable regime.