For supporters of change in Africa, January has been a good month. Last week we wrote about the Sudan referendum, a vote to decide whether or not South Sudan will succeed from the north. It had been planned since 2005 and occurred with only sporadic violence. The result speaks for itself-- estimates put the number who voted for separation at 95 per cent. The long run up to Sudan's election demonstrates that even countries like Sudan can put past violence behind them and follow through with the democratic process.
Sometimes change occurs much quicker. On January 14, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the President of Tunisia, declared a state of emergency, dissolved the government and fled the country. He had been in power for 23 years. Before December, Ben Ali was an autocratic ruler who allowed little political freedom.
While Tunisia is wealthier than neighbouring countries, state services, including subsidies for staple foods, have recently faced cuts. Many citizens, especially young people, have been unable to find work. The rising cost of goods, political oppression and unemployment were a powder keg which exploded in mid-December when a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after his fruit and vegetable cart was confiscated by police. Similarly, a protester electrocuted himself because of "hunger and joblessness" on December 22.
Protests continued into January, when Ben Ali's attempts to resolve the problems-- promising jobs and closing schools and universities indefinitely-- were too much like his old tactics to be accepted by the protesters. Tunisians acquiesced to Ben Ali's leadership for over two decades and while change is certain, it remains to be seen what goals the revolution has. Many have called for more political freedoms and an increase of the secularization that Tunisia's first president, Habib Bourguiba, promoted before Ben Ali took power. In such a fragile state there are dangers that Islamists will take control using violence of the type seen when a member of al-Qaida blew up the oldest synagogue in north Africa in 2002.
This is a modern revolution. It's plausible, although difficult to quantify, the role the whistleblower website WikiLeaks played in motivating the protests. Before the leak of thousands of American diplomatic cables, Tunisians had less assurance that Ben Ali was committing as much fraud as he was. (American cables mentioned Tunisia because America and other western countries were sympathetic to Ben Ali for taking a stance against Islamists.)
Social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter have also played a role. Like the Iran protests of 2009, the significance of these websites is often overstated. In his book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, Evgeny Morozov argues that the internet is less helpful than it appears because dictators use it effectively as well. Nevertheless, the information that stoked the fire of Tunisian discontent came in large part from websites. The force of totalitarian state media is diluted by access to foreign news. A revolution of this type wasn't possible 15 years ago, because access to media (social and traditional) was limited.
A much larger question also looms: will the Tunisian revolution spread to other Arab countries? The only other successful Arab revolution since the colonial era was Lebanon's in 2005, but other countries are witnessing signs of change. Protests in Jordan have occurred recently because of high food prices. In Egypt, protesters demonstrated outside the Tunisian embassy calling for more political freedom. While some are comparing Tunisia's neighbour Algeria had protests in December and January over the lack of housing. Tunisia to Iran two years ago, the greatest difference is that Tunisia's government was less autocratic and less willing to use extreme violence.
History has repeatedly shown that dictatorships that appear powerful are actually rotting from the inside. Few predicted the fall of the Soviet Union even months before it happened. Tunisia is such a case. No doubt there are others in the Arab world, making the question not if they will fall, but when, and what will take their place.
. . Gauntlet Editorial Board