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.
What: The Jasmine Revolution
When: 17 December 2010 – 14 January 2011
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 at the public humiliation that he had endured, Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of the local municipality building in his town of Sidi Bouzid.
Bouazizi’s fatal self-immolation 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. This inspired the people in other Arab countries to rise up against their dictators.
On 14 January 2011, Ben Ali stepped down and fled to Saudi Arabia, marking the first time that an Arab dictator had been removed by a popular uprising rather than a coup. According to the United Nations, at least 300 people were killed during the Tunisian uprising, while dozens of protesters, activists and journalists were arrested.
What happened next?
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 Bourguiba, who led the struggle for Tunisian independence from France, and then Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The so-called Jasmine Revolution paved the way for a multi-party democracy in Tunisia. Political prisoners were freed and members of previously banned political parties living in exile were able to return to their homeland.
After the fall of Ben Ali, there were three interim governments before the first democratic elections took place in 2011 for the Constituent Assembly. This led to the formation of Tunisia’s first democratic government in late 2011. Veteran Tunisian politician Moncef Marzouki was appointed as President.
In 2014, Tunisia passed a new Constitution and later in the year the first democratic parliamentary elections since the revolution began were held. The results were announced on 27 October 2014 with the secularist Nidaa Tounes party – founded in 2012 – winning a plurality with 38 per cent of the votes cast. The following month, the first presidential elections were held and Beji Caid Essebsi became President, with 55.68 per cent of the run-off votes.
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. The country’s economic growth, however, remains too poor to overcome the major challenges of unemployment and social inequality.
In May 2017, Tunisia’s current Prime Minister Youssef Chahed declared war on corruption, which was rife during the time of Ben Ali and has remained endemic since. However, a law approved recently grants amnesty to officials accused of corruption under Ben Ali; this has sparked public anger.
Today, Tunisians feel that successive governments have failed to run the country properly and provide solutions to serious economic and social problems.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.