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About the Author
David McMurray is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Oregon State University. His publications include In and Out of Morocco: Migration and Smuggling in a Frontier Boomtown.
Amanda Ufheil-Somers is Assistant Editor, Middle East Report, and a member of the editorial committee of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP).
<P>David McMurray is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Oregon State University. His publications include In and Out of Morocco: Migration and Smuggling in a Frontier Boomtown.</P><P>Amanda Ufheil-Somers is Assistant Editor, Middle East Report, and a member of the editorial committee of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP).<BR></P>
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The Arab Revolts
Dispatches on Militant Democracy in the Middle East
By David McMurray, Amanda Ufheil-Somers
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 Middle East Research and Information Project
All rights reserved.
TUNISIA'S WALL HAS FALLEN
For the first time in decades, Tunisia is free of one-man rule. The extraordinary events of December 2010 and January 2011 were nothing less than a political revolution: The consistent pressure of popular fury forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali first to make an unprecedented promise to relinquish power; then pushed him to step down; and finally halted an attempt at unconstitutional transfer of power, setting the stage for a transition to electoral democracy.
In the early months of 2011, the nature of this political transition was still in question. Three days after Ben Ali's January 14 departure to exile in Saudi Arabia, the caretaker head of government Mohammed al-Ghannouchi announced a "national unity" cabinet composed heavily of members of the long-time ruling party, the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Democratique (RCD), who initially retained the ministries of interior, defense, foreign affairs, and finance. Opposition parties classified as "legal" under Ben Ali also acquired posts. The announcement came after a night of gunfights reported around the presidential palace, opposition party headquarters, and major banks, as well as drive-by shootings elsewhere in the capital of Tunis. The Guardian, citing human rights activists, attributed the attacks to militias made up of security men loyal to Ben Ali, while Ghannouchi said on state television that "the coming days will show who is behind them."
Much more consequential were the protesters outside the presidential palace and the Casbah Square on January 17 voicing their anger at reports that RCD members would be part of the interim cabinet. The protests were dispersed with water cannons, but popped back up when the cabinet was named. Several opposition members of the interim cabinet, three of them affiliated with the countrywide labor federation, the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), promptly resigned their posts amidst the renewed "RCD out!" demonstrations. Ghannouchi and others tried to quell the unrest by announcing their own resignations from the RCD, though not from the interim government; that event came three weeks later after larger demonstrations and the deaths of several protesters at the hands of the police. Despite the unrest, the original and remarkable achievement of Tunisian demonstrators prevailed: Ben Ali would not be back.
"Bread, Water, Yes; Ben Ali, No"
The fast-paced and utterly unexpected fall of Tunisia's dictator originated in what at first looked like a jacquerie of hungry, disenfranchised youths. Quickly, however, and spontaneously, the protests became overtly political as well as economic. They were certainly not the result of top-down manipulation by a specific party pursuing a ready-made political agenda, as the regime tried to pretend.
On December 17, 2010 Mohammed Bouazizi, a twenty-six-year old street vendor from the town of Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire after police confiscated his merchandise, telling him he did not have a permit to sell his goods. The desperate gesture of this underemployed university graduate immediately sparked protests throughout the country. Anger at the status quo ignited within Tunisians of all generations, social classes, professional categories, and ideological sensibilities, despite the forceful police crackdowns, which likely killed some two hundred people. (The UN said on January 19 it could confirm some hundred deaths, including forty-two in a prison fire that claimed the lives of many protesters, but this number was almost certainly too low.) The uprising began as a movement against unemployment and high prices, particularly for food, but it rapidly transformed into a revolution demanding civil liberties and the ouster of the man who had long suppressed them. "Bread, water, yes; Ben Ali, no," the crowds chanted.
Accustomed to setting his own schedule, Ben Ali was compelled by the protests to address the people three times in one month. He first attempted, on December 28, to pass off the unrest in the usual manner of autocrats as the work of "extremists." On January 11, chastened, he pledged to create three hundred thousand jobs, hoping to calm the streets with state largesse. Two days later, he finally acknowledged the political nature of the protests, telling the country he would not run for reelection in 2014, freeing all protesters who had been arrested and lifting restrictions on the media. The unanimous verdict of the Tunisian people was: too little, too late. In the early afternoon of January 14, Prime Minister Ghannouchi announced that the president was temporarily unable to perform his functions and that he would take over until new elections could be organized. Opposition figures, however, immediately pointed to the breach of Article 57 of the constitution, according to which the speaker of Parliament, and not the prime minister, assumes the presidential role in cases of vacancy at the top. On the morning of January 15, the Constitutional Court, Tunisia's highest authority on such matters, declared that "the post of president is definitively vacant," leading Ghannouchi to give way to Fouad Mebazaa, the parliamentary speaker, who promised to hold elections within the constitutionally prescribed period of forty-five to sixty days. The opposition forces vociferously objected, and successfully lobbied to delay the elections for eight months to allow more time for logistical arrangements and campaigning.
The Tunisian events, though surprising to most everyone, were not a random outburst of frustration. Rather, they represented the logical consequence of an unsustainable formula for fake political and economic stability, the very formula that many Western policymakers lauded as the "Tunisian miracle." While dramatic, the self-immolation of Bouazizi (who later died of his burn wounds) was only the trigger rather than the cause of the protests, whose roots were much deeper and older.
Ben Ali's international backers often portrayed his rule as beneficent. In April 2008, on an official visit to Tunis, French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared that "some people are way too harsh with Tunisia, which is developing openness and tolerance in many respects." "The space for liberties is progressing," he continued. Sarkozy was echoing the sentiments of his predecessor Jacques Chirac, who had argued when visiting Tunisia in December 2003 that "the first of human rights is the right to eat.... From this point of view, one has to acknowledge that Tunisia is in advance of other countries." Starting in the late 1990s, meanwhile, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, European countries and the United States singled out Tunisia for systematic praise as a model of economic reform in North Africa. In 2008, for example, the World Bank called Tunisia a "top regional reformer" in the domain of easing access to credit and the Bank's country profile marveled that the Mediterranean nation had doubled its exports of goods and services over the preceding decade. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, president of the IMF, stated in November 2008 that the "Tunisian economy is going well" and that Tunisia is a "good example for emerging countries." On both the political and economic counts, however, the reality was much darker.
Following his 1987 coup, which removed the long-time "president-for-life" Habib Bourguiba, Ben Ali methodically stamped out the few political and civil liberties that Tunisians had managed to attain. He was a master of staging demonstration elections that returned him to power with more than 90 percent of the vote. After two such sham electoral victories in 1994 and 1999, he amended the constitution in 2004, eliminating the three-term limit on the presidential mandate, so that he could run again in 2009. The RCD won every legislative election in this period in a landslide. Through the party apparatus, the regime carefully tracked the activities of labor unions, student associations, women's rights groups and media outlets, as well as dictated the content of cultural events. The program of state surveillance manifested itself at three levels: First, political activists were subject to severe repression and intimidation at the hands of the police. Tunisia was among the most heavily policed states in the world, with over one hundred thousand policemen in uniform in a country of 10.4 million. Torture of political prisoners was repeatedly documented and denounced by domestic and foreign human rights organizations. Second, the president's party established a very complex and pervasive regime of monitoring of ordinary citizens, described by the French political economist Béatrice Hibou as a "control grid" (dispositif de quadrillage). A Tunisian citizen had to take care not to incur the local RCD watchdog's wrath in order to conduct her ordinary life undisturbed. Officials might otherwise interfere with her enrollment at a university, her exams, her wedding or her desire to open a restaurant or shop, buy property, give birth in a hospital, obtain a passport or even buy a cellular phone. Third, and due to the intrusive state measures, paranoia spread among the populace. After twenty-three years of internalizing fear, Tunisians became their own censors.
Repression, however, was not the only factor accounting for the resilience of the regime. Rather, the longevity of the authoritarian system had come about through a combination of coercion and consent, what Hibou, in her book La Force de l'obéissance (2006), called a "security pact." By the terms of this tacit deal, in exchange for relatively easy access to credit and consumer goods, the Tunisian people were expected to acquiesce to the lack of civil and political liberties. Credit and consumption, indeed, were a large part of the "Tunisian miracle." The regime had compromised the old productive base of the economy by adopting the usual IMF and World Bank recommendations to sell off and downsize public-sector industries and agricultural cooperatives. In its place grew a more contingent economy of textile enterprises and call centers operated by foreign investors, who offered short-term and low-paying jobs, and tourist resorts on the country's sun-splashed beaches. Tourism and call centers, where Tunisians record the orders of Western consumers, were two of the main exports in the World Bank's accounting. The promise of credit, which as elsewhere was to have aided Tunisians in starting small businesses, proved ephemeral, in part due to rampant corruption: Persons with connections in high places took the most lucrative opportunities for themselves. Under Bourguiba there was a strong and dynamic middle class, highly educated and entrepreneurial. The corruption and bad governance of Ben Ali's reign contributed to the increasing pauperization of this middle class and the dramatic rise of unemployment, especially among university graduates. Forty-six percent of youth with university degrees, like Bouazizi, had no jobs commensurate with their education. The avarice of the president and his wife's relatives gradually alienated Tunisian and foreign investors, who were tired of paying a tithe to the reigning family, and preferred relocating to the more transparent Gulf countries. The so-called economic success story of Tunisia became a nightmare for the Tunisian people.
When the protests erupted in mid-December 2010, press coverage referred to them primarily as social movements, a "revolt against misery and corruption" or, as the satellite channel Europe 1 put it, a "revolt of the youth." The protesters' motives were assumed to be limited to economic frustration and despair of social advancement. Initially, commentators insisted as well that the demonstrations were disorganized, almost random, lacking in structure and direction. Most important, the movement was alleged to be unsustainable: In the absence of leadership from formal opposition forces, many analysts argued that it could not succeed. As late as January 11, French journalist Christophe Ayad described an "alternative" to Ben Ali's regime as "difficult" to envision, explaining that "all the opposition formations, no matter how respectable, are anemic (exsangues)." Earlier, on January 6, the reporter Marie Kostrz defined the Tunisian opposition as completely "disconnected from reality" and assured her audience that the "political void created by Ben Ali leaves no illusions for Tunisians: No one argues that the regime will collapse in a week or in a month." Her article quoted an analysis by the political scientist Vincent Geisser, who claimed that "change won't be radical, and will come from inside" the regime.
These observers were perhaps comparing the protests of 2010-2011 to the unrest in Tunisia's western hinterlands in 2008. That January, violent protests took place in the town of Redayef, a town of twenty-six thousand located near the mining basin of Gafsa. The workers of this economically abandoned area took to the streets to express their anger at the fraudulent results of a hiring competition launched by the state-owned phosphate company. Most of the eighty-one positions opened by the company were given to workers with friends in high places, and not, as per an agreement between the company and the labor federation, to sons of workers who had died or been injured in work accidents and other inhabitants of the region. Despite its intensity and determination, which spread to the neighboring towns of Metlaoui and Moulares, and included a large number of women and unemployed graduates, the movement remained essentially about advocating the rights of mine workers of the Gafsa area. It did not translate into a wider mobilization demanding the comprehensive rights of the Tunisian people. Most Tunisians, again, chose the option of the "pact of obedience." On December 17, 2010, all that began to change.
The events of December and January were propelled by an organic convergence of various currents of discontent. Successively joining the unemployed graduates who started the movement were students, lawyers, bloggers, artists, hackers, housewives, children, doctors, professors, and shopkeepers-each group harboring specific grievances and using its own symbolic vocabulary, but all united in overall purpose. These divergent clusters of protest coalesced into a movement of civil resistance with stunning speed, adapting along the way to the regime's tactics of repression.
The transformation of Tunisia's "First Family," as the US ambassador in Tunis called them in cables revealed by Wikileaks, into an extraordinarily predatory power is the key to understanding why the "security pact" identified by Hibou dissolved so rapidly and with such seeming ease after twenty-three years. The middle class and the professional bourgeoisie (among them, the lawyers, professors, and doctors who joined the protests) stopped accepting the pact as it became clear that one side was no longer honoring it. It may be argued that, in contrast to such countries as Syria, where the Asads and their relatives are also steeped in corruption, the reigning clans of Tunisia got so greedy that they lost their ability to redistribute even a small portion of the booty among the upper reaches of society. They neglected to keep the complicity of the bourgeoisie in place. Beyond the cross-class dimension, four aspects of the popular uprising were particularly critical.
Excerpted from The Arab Revolts by David McMurray, Amanda Ufheil-Somers. Copyright © 2013 Middle East Research and Information Project. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents<P>Introduction</P><P>I. Tunisia<BR>1. Tunisia's Wall Has Fallen Nadia Marzouki<BR>2. Tunisia's Post-Ben Ali Challenge: A Primer Amy Aisen Kallander<BR>3. Authoritarianism and Civil Society in Tunisia: Back from the Democratic Brink Christopher Alexander<BR>4. Structural Adjustment and Rural Poverty in Tunisia Stephen King<BR>5. The Making of North Africa's Intifadas Laryssa Chomiak and John P. Entelis<BR>6. Beyond Ghannouchi: Social Change and Islamism in Tunisia Francesco Cavatorta and Rikke Hostrup Haugbolle</P><P>II. Egypt<BR>7. The Praxis of the Egyptian Revolution Mona El-Ghobashy<BR>8. Worlds Apart: An Egyptian Village and the International Tourism Industry Timothy Mitchell<BR>9. Strikes in Egypt Spread from Center of Gravity Joel Beinin and Hossam El-Hamalawy<BR>10. Striking Back at Egyptian Workers Hesham Sallam<BR>11. Sightings of the Egyptian Deep State Issandr El Amrani<BR>12. Egypt’s Generals and Transnational Capital Shana Marshall and Joshua Stacher</P><P>III. Yemen<BR>13. No Exit: Yemen's Existential Crisis Sheila Carapico<BR>14. The Economic Dimension of Yemeni Unity Sheila Carapico<BR>15. Cracks in the Yemeni System Sarah Phillips<BR>16. The Snake with a Thousand Heads: The Southern Cause in Yemen Susanne Dahlgren<BR>17. Tawakkul Karman as Cause and Effect Stacey Philbrick Yadav</P><P>IV. Syria<BR>18. Asad’s Lost Chances Carsten Wieland<BR>19. The Resilience of the Syrian Regime Bassam Haddad<BR>20. The Evolution of Kurdish Politics in Syria Christian Sinclair and Sirwan Kajjo<BR>21. Dramas of the Authoritarian State Donatella Della Ratta<BR>22. Beyond the Fall of the Syrian Regime Peter Harling and Sarah Birke</P><P>V: Bahrain<BR>23. A Revolution Paused in Bahrain Cortni Kerr and Toby Jones<BR>24. Bahrain's Crisis Worsens Joe Stork<BR>25. The Battle Over Family Law in Bahrain Sandy Russell Jones<BR>26. Bahrain's Sunni Awakening Justin Gengler<BR>27. In the Kingdom of Teargas Gregg Carlstrom</P>
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"This is easily the best volume on the Arab uprisings yet published. The material is very strong and accessibly written, providing rich background on the political and economic contexts in the region prior to the uprisings as well as after the events of 2011 unfolded, based on substantive knowledge....Ideal for students, policymakers, and general readers."