January 14 will go in history as the Day of the Tunisian People. The Day of its Revolution. The Day of its victory on the dictator who usurped power and kept it during 23 years. There will be henceforth a time before and a time after January 14. This revolution has a purpose: freedom. The Tunisians said: they did not want bread, but dignity. Still, this will be the case now until a democratic government is elected. A government representing the people of Tunisia, not imposed on them. Without such a solution there will be no end to the conflict. The Revolution is in its very beginning. It might change the political and social landscape for the years to come. This Revolution has nothing similar in the region. It is really a genuine making of a suffering people that happens to be one of the most educated, the most modernised in the region.
We know why violence erupted. The government tried to suggest a link with Islamists and terrorists. But this is bogus. The conflict has nothing to do with Islamism. What we see in Tunisia today is trackable to a sociological pattern related to states emerging from the colonialist stage, which after independence have tested some models of economic and political development and were unable to stay the course, thus failing to produce sustained economic growth with stable and representative political institutions.
In predominantly Muslim countries of the MENA region, ideology has several functions including that of the legitimation of power. It may involve Islam or Islamism or be to some degree secular. This is the case of Tunisia since the independence. But the country has never been a democracy. So, the pattern is the same than others in the same case: a conflictual situation remains lurking in the underneath until through accumulation of little and more important events it becomes unbearable and a simple incident may then spark a riot giving way to the open conflict. This is exactly what happened since the immolation of a young man in Sidi Bouzid.
True, in some authoritarian states the opposition ideology confronted with all kinds of repressive behaviour may easily slide into radicalism and violence. But this did not happen in Tunisia where radical Islamism was really confined in the margin and never grew to become the opposition ideology.
In democratic countries, conflicts are not ruled out; they exist. But they are managed through democratic mechanisms of social and political control. Conspicuous among them is the public debate open to everybody including political and social actors. The themes are often: social unrest, rising prices, inflation, wages, pensions, social insurance, and in some cases, broader issues affecting local economies, such as the dollar and the euro, the recession, etc … This debate has parameters that meet the expectations of the public. When there is a slide towards violence in the streets (as sometimes happens), it remains isolated and rarely goes beyond its scope to engulf entire cities, as we saw in Tunisia. Furthermore, although Europe has produced some of the greatest revolutions in history, “radical” literature calling for violence and armed rebellion against the system remains marginal and rarely has an effect on social movements, because everybody benefits from democracy, even radical dissidents.
In Tunisia, violence is the result of a discussion of the deaf especially in the absence of the political framework for open debate: democracy. First, the deficiency of democracy excludes the debate. Second and subsequently, it seems that the conflict rather than focusing on the legitimate social and political demands as it happens in Western democracies tends on the contrary to affect the very foundation of the political system: its legitimacy. This is the same pattern that happens everywhere in similar cases.
This is a social revolt that turned political because the regime, unable to reform itself, might well have reached its last stage of survival. No prediction is presently possible; yet, we can see that there are limits to what people can endure. In the Western countries, the recession has made victims among the middle class. But although people protest and demonstrate, they are not gunned down like birds.
Nevertheless, the conflict that erupted in Tunisia these days did not oppose the government to political opponents. One may even observe that the opposition has been marginalised, because when people are out, they are out for their lives, not for the opposition purposes. That’s what happened. The political game would have now new rules and parameters. No political party is able to claim legitimacy without the people consent. The opposition and the civil society leaders will have to be more courageous and more aggressive in negotiating the new parameters.
So far, it is true, their influence was extremely limited. The reason is that authoritarian regimes allow an opposition to be active only to a certain degree: as long as it does not threaten the interests of the power elite. Once this opposition becomes too troublesome, it is either brought back to order by some repressive measures targeting its symbols and assets, or outright forbidden, almost always with a masquerade referring to the legislation.
This has been well described in the UNDP report on human development in Arab countries since 2004. There is throughout the MENA region a paradox between freedom and democracy, consisting in erecting “democratic” institutions while emptying them of their substance: this goes from legislations violating basic rights and freedoms, through servile parliaments taking their orders from the executive, NGOs directly or indirectly managed by governments, trade unions defending the interests of employers and government instead of employees, media turning into spokespeople for the rulers, not to mention the legacy of power in “republics” from father to son. Unfortunately, most of these features were those of Ben Ali’s Tunisia.
In ordering the police and the military snipers to shoot unarmed people, Ben Ali made a choice that would reveal to be fatal to him and his party: 1) He thus expressed clearly that he was at war and the enemy was none other than the people. 2) He gave up his chances to stay credible abroad –” his credibility in Tunisia was already eroded –” and caused the USA, Europe and the UN to condemn this disproportionate use of force.
The civil society has to be very cautious not to lose the way to democracy. The fight is just beginning.