On this day in 2011, Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stepped down after the Jasmine Revolution broke out in the country, giving birth to what became known as the Arab Spring.
Post-revolution Tunisia’s transition to democracy has been seen as relatively smooth and peaceful, by the standards of the region anyway, with the Tunisian media now enjoying greater freedom than ever before.
Since 2011, the country has lived through two presidents and eight consecutive governments. Tunisia’s economic growth, however, remains too poor to overcome challenges of high unemployment rates, poverty and social inequality.
Today, Tunisians feel that successive governments have failed to run the country and provide solutions to economic and social bottlenecks, while continuing to face security threats posed by Daesh. Tunisia’s local elections scheduled for March 2017 have also “hit a roadblock” and will not be held in time, due to the parliament’s delay in adopting an electoral law necessary to hold the country’s first municipal and regional polls since the 2011 uprising.
First Elected President: Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi
Beji Caid Essebsi came to office in December 2014 after winning the first free presidential election since the uprising. Essebsi was a long-serving speaker of parliament under Ben Ali’s rule, and critics consider his rule a sort of return of the ousted political establishment.
The next presidential elections are due to be held in 2019.
First Prime Minister in new government: Yousef Chahed
Youssef Chahed took office in August 2016, becoming Tunisia’s seventh prime minister since 2011. His unity government includes a broad coalition of secular, Islamist and leftist parties, in addition to independents and trade union allies.
Chahed’s key challenges lie in boosting the country’s struggling economy and tackling high unemployment rates.
Profile: The Jasmine Revolution
The Jasmine Revolution: Birth of the Arab Spring
On 17 December 2010, Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street vendor, had his fresh produce cart confiscated by a policewoman who insulted and slapped him when he protested. Local officials later refused to hear his complaint. Frustrated and ashamed of the public humiliation he endured, Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of the local municipality building in his town of Sidi Bouzid.
Bouazizi’s act and following death took the lid off simmering anger about government corruption, social equalities, unemployment and political repression. Protests began in Sidi Bouzid that same day before spreading across Tunisia, eventually leading to the ouster of then-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled the country for 23 years, and inspiring other Arab countries to rise up against their dictators. On 14 January 2011, Ben Ali stepped down and fled to Saudi Arabia.
The Jasmine Revolution paved the way for a multi-party democracy.
Habib Bourguiba led the struggle for Tunisian independence from France, which was achieved in 1956. Prime Minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali succeeded Bourguiba in 1987 after having doctors declare Bourguiba medically unfit to rule. Between 1956 and 2011, Tunisia operated as a de facto one-party state, with politics dominated by the secular Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) under former Presidents Habib Bourgiba and then Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.
After the fall of Ben Ali, there were three interim governments before the first democratic elections took place in 2011 for the Constituent Assembly, leading to the formation of Tunisia’s first democratic government in late 2011. Veteran Tunisian politician Moncef Marzouki was appointed as president.
First Parliamentary Elections
In 2014, Tunisia passed a new constitution. In October of the same year, the first democratic parliamentary elections were held since the revolution began. Results were announced on 27 October 2014 with the secularist Nidaa Tounes party – founded in 2012 – winning a plurality with 38% of the vote.
First Presidential Elections
In November 2014, the first presidential elections were held. Beji Caid Essebsi won the election, with 55.68% of the run-off vote.
Toppled dictator: Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ruled Tunisia for 23 years before stepping down in January 2011 and fleeing to Saudi Arabia with his immediate family amid a wave of protests that sparked what became known as the “Arab Spring”.
Ben Ali was born in 1936, near the city of Sousse, and was, in his youth, part of the resistance to French colonial rule, for which he was imprisoned. After completing his education in France and the US, he served in the military and the diplomatic service in Poland before becoming Tunisia’s interior minister in 1986. A year later, he became the prime minister and later launched a coup against Tunisia’s first post-independence leader, President Habib Bourguiba, becoming president himself.
As president, Ben Ali was recognised for delivering stability and economic growth and for having a progressive stance on women’s rights. However, high youth unemployment levels increased under his rule and he was widely criticised for suppressing political freedoms. Ben Ali promised transition towards democracy, but he was elected twice unopposed and the constitution was changed twice so he could continue to serve. Even after multi-party presidential elections were introduced in 1999, Ben Ali still won huge majorities and elections were deemed unfair.
People killed during the period of protests
According to the United Nations, at least 300 people were killed during the Tunisian uprising.
During the protests, dozens of protesters, activists, and journalists were arrested. On 20 January 2011, the new interim government announced that all political prisoners would be freed. It also recognised all previously banned parties, with the exception of Hizb ut-Tahrir and a few other parties.
Types of weapons/tools of oppression used during protests
Uprisings saw police, armed security forces and snipers crackdown on protesters using rubber and live bullets, tear gas canisters, and water cannons that were used to try to disperse the crowds.
Refugees and displaced persons
No refugees. Members of banned political parties in exile were able to come back to Tunisia after being banned during the time of Ben Ali.
Timeline of events
- 17 December 2010 – Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street vendor, sets himself on fire in front of a local municipal office in the central town of Sidi Bouzid after police confiscate his wares. Protests begin in Sidi Bouzid that same day, before spreading across the country.
- 20 December 2010 – Tunisian development minister travels to Sidi Bouzid to announce a new $10 million employment programme in an attempt to end the protests, but to no avail.
- 24 December 2010 – As protests spread to other cities in the Sidi Bouzid governorate, security forces and police use live bullets leading to the killing of Mohammed Amari, the first fatality of the revolution.
- 27 December 2010 – The protests continue to spread across the country and 1,000 demonstrators come out in the capital city of Tunis.
- 28 December 2010 – In his first official reaction to the protests, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali condemns in a televised address the “use of violence in the streets by a minority of extremists”, and warned that protests are “unacceptable” and will have a negative impact on Tunisian economy. He also said that the law will be applied “in all firmness” to punish the protesters.
- The demonstrations continue to grow and lawyers hold a rally of their own outside the government’s palace in the Tunisian capital.
- 2 January 2011 – “Anonymous” announces Operation Tunisia in solidarity with the protestors by attacking a number of Tunisian government websites.
- 3 January 2011 – Clashes between protesters and security forces intensify as police use rubber bullets and fire tear gas canisters on peaceful demonstrators. The protesters attack local offices of the ruling party in response.
- 7 January 2011 – Tunisian authorities arrest a group of bloggers, journalists and activists.
- 13 January 2011 – Ben Ali pledges major reforms and announces that he will not run for re-election in 2014. He promises more freedoms and investigations into the killings of protesters during demonstrations.
- 14 January 2011 – Ben Ali declares a state of emergency and fires the country’s government amid violent clashes between security forces and protesters. Ben Ali flees with his immediate family to Saudi Arabia, and Mohammed Ghannouchi, the prime minister, announces that he will be assuming the role of interim president.
- 15 January 2011 – Tunisia’s constitutional court rules that Fouad Mebazaa, the speaker of parliament, will be interim president, not Ghannouchi, who is then tasked with forming a new coalition government.
- 17 January 2011 – A new unity government is announced and is then criticised by opposition leaders in exile for favouring members of the old guard.
- 18 January 2011 – Demonstrators take to the streets to protest line-up of the new government, while other opposition ministers threaten to quit. As a result, Ghannouchi and Mebazaa resign from Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally party (RCD).
- 19 January 2011 – Prosecutors in Tunisia open an inquiry into the assets of Ben Ali and his extended family.
- 20 January 2011 – The central committee of RCD is dissolved as all ministers in the interim government quit the party, though they remain in their cabinet posts. The interim government announces that all banned parties will be legalised and all political prisoners will be released.
- 21 January 2011 – This was the first day of a three-day period of national mourning.
- 23 January 2011 – Protests take place on the final day of mourning, and protesters march towards the capital city demanding the resignation of Ghannouchi and other former RCD ministers who remained in the interim government.
- 26 January 2011 – Tunisia asks Interpol to help arrest Ben Ali.
- 20 February 2011 – Protests demand the formation of a constituent assembly.
- 27 Feb 2011 – Ghannouchi announces his resignation amid further clashes between police and protesters and Mebazaa names the former government minister Beji Caid-Essebsi as Ghannouchi’s replacement.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.