Tunisia, a pleasant jolt.

Today morning, I asked a friend of mine:
"Did you read about Tunisia?"
The reply:
"Who is she?"

I was a bit relieved. At least I knew that it is the name of a country. To be honest, that was all that I knew till last week. But, in last couple of days, the puzzles (ya plural) that Tunisia poses is nearly filling my thoughts.

President of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was ruling the country for 23 years under an on-paper-democratic, but in-practice-dictatorial regime, has stepped down and sought asylum in Soudi Arabia on Jan 14, 2011 following a popular uprising. Ya you heard that right. "Popular Uprising"; not an electoral sweep, not an internal military coup, not an imperialist military invasion. Indeed puzzling to me.

Tunisia : The Context

Tunisia is a country with 10.5 million people, which is less than the population of Mumbai, and nearly one-third that of Kerala. It is the northern most country in Africa and has a long coastline facing Mediterranean. The similarity with Kerala only starts there. Economics and human condition are even more strikingly similar to those of Kerala.

Economy and Human Condition

Tunisia has a literacy rate of 74.3%, population growth rate of 0.98% per annum and a life expectancy of 75.78 years at birth1. Public education expenditure is around 7% of GDP. It has a Human Development Index of 0.683. (Kerala has 0.814, India has 0.519.)

It has a pretty strong economy with per-capita GDP being one of the highest among African and Middle Eastern countries. Contribution from agricultural, industrial and service sectors to the GDP are 11.6%, 25.7% and 62.8% respectively which strikes a close match with the corresponding figures for Kerala (17.2%, 19%, and 63.8%). Percentage of people below poverty line is 7.4 (Kerala has 10%). Unemployment rate 14.1% (Kerala has 9.4%).

Basic education training is mandatory for children between 6 and 16 years of age. Apart from Arabic, which is the official language of instruction, French and English are taught from third year of school studies. The gross enrollment ratio at tertiary level (higher education) is 31% with gender parity index of 1.5.2

History and Governance

Traces of civilisation are estimated to have started from as far back as 5000 BC in Tunisia. It has faced conquests by Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, Turks and finally by the French. Tunisia achieved independence from France in 1957 after a movement led by Habib Bourguiba, who later became the first Tunisian President. In 1987, doctors declared Bourguiba unfit to rule and, in a bloodless coup, then Prime Minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali assumed the presidency.

Religion - Post Independence

More than 99% of the population is Muslim. Islam is the constitutionally declared state religion and only a Muslim can be the President of Tunisia. On the other hand, the constitution gives every individual right to practice her religion and this religious freedom is widely exercised. There is sizable population of Christians and Jews.

Tunisia's policies on religion have lot of surprises to offer. The Tunisian legal system is based on the French civil code and on Islamic law. Their Code of Personal Status is considered one of the most progressive civil codes in the Middle East and the Muslim world. Polygamy and unilateral divorce is outlawed. Women hold more than 20% of seats in both chambers of parliament. Tunisian government has restricted the wearing of Islamic headscarves (hijab) in government offices and it discourages women from wearing them on public streets and public gatherings. There were reports that the Tunisian police harassed men with "Islamic" appearance (such as those with beards), detained them, and sometimes compelled men to shave their beards off.3

It is not just the present uprising that is puzzling in Tunisia, and hence was the plural in the opening remark!

Human Rights - Post Independence

In 53 years of independence Tunisia witnessed only two presidents, Bourguiba and Ben Ali, both of whom had lots to speak about democracy, liberalism and even socialism, but had hardly anything to do with it. Both the presidents represented the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD party) which was called the Socialist Destourian Party during Bourguiba's time. The present membership of RCD is 2 million (1 in every 5 Tunisians are members of RCD.) Independent Tunisia was regarded as one of the most oppressive regimes in the Arab world4. In the Economist's 2010 Democracy Index Tunisia is classified as an authoritarian regime ranking 144 out of 167 countries studied5. In 2008, in terms of freedom of the press, Tunisia was ranked 164 out of 1786.

Is it a leader-less, theory-less revolution?

It is quite difficult to answer that sitting back here in India. Nor is it easy to follow the entire array of news articles on the issue. Guardian has 137 articles under the Section: News > World News >Tunisia. There are reports of active participation from the bar association and trade union activists in the protests. But it looks to me more like a spontaneous outrage, a leader-less, theory-less revolution.

The protests began in December 2010 after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a government building. Mohamed Bouazizi was a 26 year old Computer Science graduate who took to street vending to earn a living and was outraged when the police confiscated his small wheelbarrow of fruit because he did not have a vendor's permit7. Reading from the post Jan 14 confusion regarding the caretaker government, and resignation of 4 ministers, it seems that there is no single organisation that can claim the leadership of the rebellion, or take up the task of steering the all deserving revolution to a stable new government.

Wikileaks, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube have played their part too. An estimated 18% of the Tunisian population is on Facebook. Youtube is blocked in Tunisia, but Al-Jazeera was heavily quoting Facebook pages and Youtube videos in their reporting.8

Is this the template for 21st century rebellions? Is it the most desirable? We have to wait and watch. Already people are airing fears of whether the revolution will help Tunisia make a new beginning9. There is a frightening absence of alternate ideas and leadership for future of Tunisia. Are we saving the child from the dragon's mouth and leaving her under its feet? I would like to believe not. At least, I hope the regime change would give enough breathing space for the thinkers and activists of Tunisia to regroup, come forward and lead it at least to a liberal democracy.

In Solidarity

When I started reading on Tunisia, I was puzzled on how such a rebellion could ever happen. Now I'm wondering where it is next. Algeria, Libya, Pakistan?10 Let's raise our fists in solidarity with the people of Tunisia and with all those oppressed masses who will rise to rebellion in the days to come.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the progressive Pakistani poet would have been delighted to see his words taking form in Tunisia.

Jab Zulm-o-Sitam ke Koh-e-garaan
Ruii ki Tarah Urd Jain Gay
(When the enormous mountains of tyranny
blow away like cotton. )
~ Hum Dekhenge, Faiz Ahmed Faiz11

But I would rather reserve that poetry for the day when sisters and brothers of Pakistan rise up in revolt. For now, I would end up with the words from Sadri Khiari, a Tunisian activist exiled in France since early 2003.

There is no oppression without resistance. There is only time stretching more or less slowly before unexpected -- or out of sight -- the collective heroism of a people arises.12

Nasser Nouri's photostream at Flickr.