Five years after a Tunisian street vendor ignited the Arab Spring, his city still suffers.
On December 17th 2010, a young street fruit vendor set himself ablaze after being embarrassed by the police who had forbidden him from getting his meagre living. Mohamed Bouazizi died a few days later and wasn’t aware that he kindled the ire of his fellow Tunisians until they overthrew their despotic president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in less than a month. Ben Ali panicked and fled to Saudi Arabia after being denied refugee in France. Saudi Arabia is also where one of the most brutal dictators, Idi Amin of Uganda, lived in political exile until his death in 2003.
Like all other dictators, Ben Ali’s 23 year reign was sustained by the use of an extremely brutal police force. He nevertheless received political praise from the West and had a good reputation in the media. This was not new; many of the dictators around the world were at some point darlings of the West. Western countries did not care because Ben Ali was a "trusted partner" who furthered their interests. Many Western powers were caught by surprise because they didn’t care or at least try to pay attention to Ben Ali’s record and governance. Tunisians celebrated their overwhelming success in overthrowing their totalitarian leader who had wished to remain in power with the help of the patronage system. After the fall of Ben Ali, it was only then that some Western officials acknowledged that their foreign policies were wrong in backing the regime in order to protect Western interests in the Arab world over honoring their obligations to the standards of democracy, human rights, and the will of the people.
The most important question is what happened after this occurred. After the Arab Awakening, European realization and Western applause for the pro-democracy voice and uprisings, the language of clashing with the tyrants returned once again to the wider region, especially in Egypt. Today, it is clear that there is no practical value to the many human rights reports and the independent investigations regarding the heinous violations committed by the regimes attacking democracy. One could argue that democracy is in recession in North Africa. Tunisians feel their revolution was nicked away and the current regime has not improved their lifestyles.
The abhorrent Ben Ali is gone, knocked down by the opening act of the Arab Spring, but it seems the uprising left the state apparatus essentially unchanged. The police forces organized to brutally protect the old regime remain intact. They violently beat youth on the streets in poor neighborhoods as much as ever, and still torture prisoners, political and otherwise. Social movements in the interior are brutishly repressed. The military, which supervised the so-called "democratic transition", continues to make its will known through threats to political parties and the general public. People have had no relief from the bureaucracy that governs much of everyday life and the fate of citizens like Mohamed Bouazizi. There is a deep dissatisfaction with the way in which the revolution has been seemingly "stolen" and this dissatisfaction comes from the part of society that had traditionally been marginalized and that sees its opportunity for political and social inclusion slithering away.
The Tunisian regime’s obsession with fighting security and restoring order is coming at the expense of democratic dispensation. Many politicians in the West were happy when Tunisia declared war on terror. Tunisia adopted the "war on terror" legislation way back in 2003 and was praised by many in the West. The law was criticized by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for its vague definition of terrorism, including everything from "damage to public and private property," to "disturbing public order, peace or international security" and "harming public transportation." The current regime has invoked memories of the past by bringing that old and repressive bill into the political and security scene again. In the name of national security and the war on terror, post-Ben Ali Tunisia is seeing increased securitization of public life even a return to the Ben Ali days in some respects. The West is only too happy to help in reintegration of the North African nation into the global neoliberal system and fighting terrorism.
No doubt some European powers cannot avoid responsibility with regards to working with Ben Ali and now propping up the new brutal regimes in the name of ensuring security and stability. It seems the debate on whether to choose democracy and human rights over security and order is far from being solved. It is clear that some European foreign policies might aim to spread "democracy" they do operate based on the logic of interests and national security. This could be what is at play in Tunisia. It also important to bear in mind that most these newly repressive regimes must be ready to take responsibility for creating socio-political and economic time bombs. Tunisia could get messy again before real governance is in place. The post Arab Spring regime is already crushing people’s hopes and incubating the culture of violence and extremism in the name of creating a stable society.
Are you impressed, have any concerns, or think we can improve this article? Comment below or email us.