Editor’s Note: This piece was originally posted at IntlLawGrrls on January 15, 2010.
These protests began after Mohamed Bou’aziz, an unemployed university graduate in the town of Sidi Bouzid, attempted to burn himself to death on December 17 when the produce he sold on the street to earn a living was confiscated. (He later died of his injuries.)
How could Bou’aziz know what the implications of his desperate act would be in just one month’s time? His sacrifice inspired huge demonstrations that spread across the North African country, organized in part through resourceful use of Twitter and Facebook. These were met with brutality by the security forces, a grim reality that simply provoked more protest. Unarmed demonstrators were regularly teargassed. Many were arrested. As many as 70-80 people were shot or beaten to death. But the protesters marched on.
This largely peaceful, democratic revolution (on the side of the opposition at least) was not led by or inspired by the fundamentalist movements that have tried to claim the oppositional space in many Arab and North African contexts in recent years. It was instead, by all accounts, a largely secular appeal for real political reform and for social justice. As reflected in today’s front page of the Paris daily Liberation, women, many unveiled, were increasingly visible in the protest marches.
One can hope that today’s initial victory of North African people power will serve as an example of what is possible in other countries in the region. This is what Noam Chomsky has called the threat of a good example. One dictator brought down by popular revolt – no dictator is safe now.
Hope is a powerful, incandescent force. Hope in the political realm has been a rare commodity of late in this part of the world. Bou’aziz’s revolution may have brought that back. But, just as the power of hope should not be underestimated, neither should the danger of hopes unfulfilled.
It is unclear exactly what the future holds for Tunisia now.
Mohammed al-Ghannouchi, the Prime Minister who has also been in power since 1999, has taken over as President since the departure of ousted President Ben Ali, whom Saudi Arabia "’welcomed.’" A state of emergency was declared, with soldiers guarding public buildings, tanks on the streets of Tunis, and prohibitions on public meetings.