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Revolution in Tunisia, and the Spark that Lit a Prairie Fire

2011 January 14
by rahul

Mohammed Bouazizi just brought down a dictator. He was seemingly nobody special; a 26-year-old man living in a small town named Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia.  He had a degree in computer science, but like so many young people in the Arab world, he could not find a job. So he worked as a fruit and vegetable vendor, trying to make ends meet.

But Tunisia was an extremely authoritarian and corrupt police state, and the police came and confiscated his wares, saying he didn’t have the right permit (a common gambit to extract a bribe). According to some reports, a policeman spit on him.

This was the last straw for a young man who had been subjected to too many indignities in his short life. He doused himself with gasoline and set himself ablaze. He lingered for two weeks in hospital with horrible burns, then died on January 5.

The dynamics of living under oppression are circuitous and opaque, often even to those who live under it. Most of the time, people get ground down into a weary, cynical passivity, accepting injustice and cruelty as their normal mode of existence. Then, something happens, who knows what–things like it happened innumerable times before and nobody did anything–and suddenly everything is different. The first Palestinian intifada was started by a traffic accident.

Mohammed Bouazizi’s body became the spark that lit a prairie fire.

That was on December 17. His self-immolation set off massive protests in Sidi Bouzid, spreading to all of Tunisia, against unemployment, high food and fuel prices, corruption, and repression.

Another unemployed young man of Sidi Bouzid, Lahseen Naji, climbed a high-voltage electric pole, shouted “No for misery, no for unemployment” to a crowd, then electrocuted himself. Alaa’ Hidouri did the same. Ramzi al-Abboudi, under a crushing burden of debt obtained through the country’s microcredit program, also committed suicide.

As the protests spread, of course, the government cracked down. At least 35, perhaps 50 or more, people have been killed while protesting. But, amid numerous reports of growing police sympathy with the protesters, the repressive apparatus failed.

Today, January 14, less than a month after Bouazizi’s act,  Zine el-Abidine ben Ali (named after the fourth Shi’a Imam, the son of Husayn ibn ‘Ali), the corrupt and repressive ruler of Tunisia for the last 23 years, fled in ignominy. News is streaming in every second, but the reports right now are that he went to Malta, on his way to Paris, and that the Prime Minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, is the interim president while the politics of the revolution sorts itself out.

It’s interesting that the far-more hyped and widely covered Green Revolution in Iran failed, without ever having a real chance; even the forlorn “Saffron Revolution” in Burma, triggered by the protests of Buddhist monks, got far more attention in the West.

My guess is that the primary reason for the preliminary success of the Tunisian revolt is that Tunisia was a classic neopatrimonial state. Roughly speaking, a neopatrimonial state is one where outwardly there are the normal forms–a bureaucracy, government officials chosen by merit, perhaps even elections (Ben Ali was “re-elected” for a fifth term with an “89%” majority in 2009), but in reality the state is treated like the private property of the ruler, perhaps along with his extended family and a handful of cronies. The category was originally developed in the 1960’s by scholars trying to understand the growing phenomenon of personalistic rule in Africa (Mobutu of Zaire being an epitome).

It’s long been a commonplace to scholars of revolution that neopatrimonial states are by far the most vulnerable to it (see Richard Snyder’s article  Explaining Transitions from Neopatrimonial Dictatorships or Jeff Goodwin’s excellent book No Other Way Out: States and Revolutionary Movements, 1945-1991).

The Wikileaks cables from Tunisia strongly give the impression that Tunisia was run as the personal fiefdom of Ben Ali, his family, and (most importantly in terms of public opinion) the family of his wife, Leila Trabelsi.  Although Tunisia ranks only moderately low on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (65th out of 180 in 2009), it has been slipping in recent years, and in any case, those rankings aren’t the most reliable thing. In 2008, U.S. ambassador Robert Godec wrote,

According to Transparency International’s annual survey and Embassy contacts’ observations, corruption in Tunisia is getting worse. Whether it’s cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali’s family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants.

Another cable, with heavy redaction, relates a little anecdote:

XXXXXXXXXXXX likened corruption to a dangerous cancer that is spreading in Tunisia, spurred on by the corrupt practices of President Ben Ali and his extended family. When Pol/EconCouns responded by noting that most tales of corruption that we hear concern “The Family” rather than the President himself, XXXXXXXXXXXX recounted an incident in which Ben Ali himself was involved. XXXXXXXXXXXX Ben Ali came off as “very uneducated” in the meeting, failing to grasp some of the key points XXXXXXXXXXXX about the virtues XXXXXXXXXXXX Ben Ali abruptly told him that he wanted a 50-50 stake in the enterprise. Fearful of responding in the negative, XXXXXXXXXXXX said he “played dumb,” pretending not to understand the President’s proposition.

Calouste Gulbenkian, the Armenian oil entrepreneur, was known as “Mr. Five Percent,” for retaining 5% ownership of any oil deals he brokered; Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan used to called “Mr. Ten Percent” because supposedly 10% of any transaction in his domain ended up in his hands. I guess Ben Ali was “Mr. 50 Percent.”

But its his extended family and in-laws that are the main problem:

Seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage, and many of these relations are reported to have made the most of their lineage. Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Ben Ali, and her extended family — the Trabelsis — provoke the greatest ire from Tunisians. Along with the numerous allegations of Trabelsi corruption are often barbs about their lack of education, low social status, and conspicuous consumption. While some of the complaints about the Trabelsi clan seem to emanate from a disdain for their nouveau riche inclinations, Tunisians also argue that the Trabelsis strong arm tactics and flagrant abuse of the system make them easy to hate. Leila’s brother Belhassen Trabelsi is the most notorious family member and is rumored to have been involved in a wide-range of corrupt schemes from the recent Banque de Tunisie board shakeup (Ref B) to property expropriation and extortion of bribes. Leaving the question of their progenitor aside, Belhassen Trabelsi’s holdings are extensive and include an airline, several hotels, one of Tunisia’s two private radio stations, car assembly plants, Ford distribution, a real estate development company, and the list goes on. (See Ref K for a more extensive list of his holdings.) Yet, Belhassen is only one of Leila’s ten known siblings, each with their own children. Among this large extended family, Leila’s brother Moncef and nephew Imed are also particularly important economic actors.

This is a very convincing picture of a neopatrimonial state, with a very narrow base of support. When the primary way to get ahead in business is to be related to the head of state, there is very little incentive for those who are not so related to submit to the authority of the state.

Despite its massive corruption (168 out of 180 on the same scale), Iran is not like this. Though the last election clearly had some fraud in the vote count, previously there were elections with more or less honest counts, kept from being truly democratic primarily by the restrictive criteria placed on candidates by the Guardians’ Council. One of the principal sources of corruption, the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guard), is a broad-based organization with powerful internal ideological solidarity. The other, the “bazaris,” is a long-standing class of merchants that is somewhat well-differentiated and has traditionally been a strong political player. Together, they make a much broader base of support than in Tunisia, even if you leave out Islam–a factor that, if anything, went against Ben Ali’s secularizing regime.

Burma’s government is certainly not as stable as Iran’s, but power and pecuniary considerations are shared broadly by the military power structure, again a broad organization with a very specific ideology and solidarity. The military showed serious strains during the Saffron Revolution, but in the end for a variety of reasons Burma can muster far more violence to put down an uprising than Tunisia could. Violence usually works.

Though it’s far too early to have any sense of what will happen in Tunisia, there is much cause for hope. Michael Bratton and Nicholas van de Walle, in their informative book Democratic Experiments in Africa: Regime Transitions in Comparative Perspective, divide African governments into six types, and try to relate those types to the kind of power transitions they have. They find that neopatrimonial regimes are the most likely to have democratic transitions. The reason is that elites trying to deal with popular uprisings that cannot be repressed usually try to re-shuffle power, and broker some sort of deal whereby the popular movement supports some elite faction or grouping against others. This usually works. In a sufficiently concentrated neopatrimonial regime, however, there are no plausible alternative elites, so the prospects of the movement’s really changing things instead of re-shuffling things are much greater. Let’s hope that’s the case here.

Without any doubt, the tyrants of the Arab world (most of them, like Ben Ali, allies of the United States) are quaking in their jackboots. Most of them are not likely to be nearly as vulnerable as the dictator of Tunisia, but if they are smart they will grant their people something now before everything is taken from them later.

9 Responses
  1. masoud permalink
    January 27, 2011

    I’ve been an avid follower of your blog for years. Happy to see you return to the scene. I think you are significantly mistaken about the Iranian elections, though. While it is logically impossible to prove definitively that there was no fraud, no evidence of fraud has ever been produced by the ‘Green Movement’. Cyrus Safdari is a pretty good resource on Iran in general:

    That last link is about Iran’s official report on the election fraud claims, and while you may roll your eyes at it’s credibility, it’s important to note that none of that report’s specific claims(and it’s a detailed report) have been challenged by Mousavi or Karroubi, nor has any evidence of fraud materialized after the report was issued.

    The single most comprehensive document summarizing and rebutting common myths about Iran’s 2009 presidential elections that i have seen is here:



  2. January 27, 2011

    Thanks, Masoud. I do roll my eyes at official reports by the Iranian government. Or at Israel’s exoneration of the IDF in their act of piracy against the Mavi Marmara.

    At the time of the election, there was analysis that I thought was compelling that suggested the probability that there wasn’t fraud was ridiculously small. I am also at a loss to understand why there would have been such a large protest movement had there been no fraud. This is different from saying I think Ahmadinejad would have lost the election. Of that, I am fairly unsure.

    I’ll look at the other link if I get time.

  3. masoud permalink
    January 27, 2011


    Thanks for the prompt response. I know the report you are talking about. It’s Chatham House’s ‘preliminary report’ on the elections, authored by Ali Ansari and a couple of his grad students. You mentioned it in your ‘Green Revolution Part 2’ post. It’s probably the single largest source of misinformation on the subject. Ali Ansari initially promised to follow it up with a more rigorous contribution, but a year and a half later all we have from him is silence.

    PressTv has it’s share of critics, some well earned, but it does frequently feature spirited exchanges. The debate below features Dr. Ansari walking out on a discussion of his own report.

    I wouldn’t take the ‘regime’s word’ for something like this either, but the fact remains that the GC report contains many claims that ‘opposition candidates’ could have easily falsified something which they failed to do. In fact some of the formal complaints they’ve made in letters to the GC(eg. that the election result should be overuled because Ahamdinejad, in the course of his campaign and during the debates made claims against Mousavi, Rafsanjani, and Khomeini where were ‘harmful to their reputations ‘ and ‘have yet to be proved in a court of law’ and as such were themselves ‘criminal acts punishable by the law’) invalidate their claims of voter fraud in and of themselves.

    The Green protest movement would be no harder to explain in the absence of massive fraud than the Tea Party is to explain in the absence of Obama’s secret Muslimness. As to what would have happened and who would have won ‘had there been no fraud’ there have been ongoing polls to this effect since before the elections, both by internal and external actors, and none of the results have been at odds with the official election results.
    (vdieos on that page are quite long, though informative).
    I don’t want to badger you anymore than that during your first month back, so I’ll call it a day here.

    In any case, I do hope you get a chance to look at the links i’ve posted sooner rather than later(or at all). I think the Green-narrative has gotten out of hand, and is unfortunately allowing some US based groups hold American Foreign Policy, not mention peace activist groups, hostage.

    • January 28, 2011

      Still without wading through those reports, two thoughts:

      1. The Tea Party is understandable because of the massive, organized effort to create an alternative reality. The Orange revolution in the Ukraine, although it clearly involved two sides both of which had legitimate claims, gained strength from the various “democracy-promotion” programs in operation in the Ukraine at the time. I see no evidence of such a thing in Iran. The Greens there are people who don’t like living under their current government and find it oppressive, and the election was the spark that lit the tinder there. Presumably, the brutal reaction of the state didn’t help either.

      2. There is no direct line between the fraudulence of the election and what the United States should do. The right-wing groups that hold hostage any attempts by Obama to lighten up are certainly helped by the election fraud narrative, but at this point you can debunk it all you want, it won’t make any difference to them. Reality almost never does. Also, as I have argued repeatedly, significant U.S. military action is extremely unlikely. The cackling over the supposed effects of Stuxnet just seems to reinforce that.

      • masoud permalink
        January 28, 2011

        I actually don’t see much difference at all between the Orange and the Green movements at all.

        Did you mean to say that you see no evidence of US ‘democracy promotion’ in Iran, or that you just don’t think it had any effect on the election protests?

        It’s been common knowledge that the US has set massive budgets to deliver just this kind of ‘aid’ to Iranian civil society for years. In any case if your trying to determine whether or not the vote fraud was legitimate and you go about that by trying to determine how you like the opposition or how much support the US gave them, I would humbly submit you are doing things backwards. I’ll agree that most of the Green Protesters thought that the election was rigged, but they were taking their cue from Candidates who assured them this was the case, and these protests abated partly, and I would argue largely, as a result of those very same candidates to offer any evidence of this, despite their tens of thousands of ballot box monitors.

        ‘You won’t convince the Right, so what’s the point’ is as effective an argument in this case as it would be on any other political issue. I think that the Left should be more informed. The ‘traditional’ right wing groups you refer to are only one of the groups making hay of election-fraud allegations for their own purposes. I was referring to Iranian constituencies in the US The National Iranian American Council, formerly a somewhat reasonable group, is insisting that Obama prioritize ‘Human Rights Issues’ in any discussions with the IRI, as are a constellation of self-styled ‘Iran Experts’, from Trita Parsi and Hamid Dabashi to Shirin Ebadi, who is more often then not campaigning for sanctions against the IRI these days.

        I don’t think war between the US and Iran is imminent, but this will become more and more likely as the US pulls out of Iraq and Afghansitan, and Israel’s strategic position becomes more fraught with risk, it will become an increasingly plausible course of action. The US certainly isn’t backing down and most recently seems to be styling the MEK terror group as it’s Iranian Chalabi’s. Besides, promoting a realistic view of the world is never a bad never a bad thing.

        In any case, the only point I was trying to get across is that there is no evidence of any ballot box fraud, and no reasonable explanation about how such a fraud could take place without leaving behind tons of evidence for the opposition candidates to find.

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