Ben Ali Is Out – Now What?

Ben Ali, Tunisia’s long time dictator is now out of the picture. Following weeks of unrest in the country, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled yesterday to Saudi Arabia, leaving in his wake jubilant protesters. During the weeks that preceded, Ben Ali’s long-standing regime had been suffering under the weight of protests. Anger over unemployment, corruption and a state stifled by authoritarianism boiled over, but largely out of the mainstream media’s eye. Media reports about Tunisia were few and far between, while cyberspace – Twitter and Facebook, in particular – was animated with discussions about Tunisia, both inside and outside the country.

Now that the regime has been toppled, major news organizations are catching up. Though, based on some tweets published yesterday, not quite fast enough:

Media is ablaze with theories about the broader implications of the Jasmine Revolution, and two aspects in particular are being intensely debated: to what extent did social media play a role in toppling the dictator, and will this influence events in other non-democratic Arab states?

The best, most balanced analysis of the role of social media in ousting Ben Ali I’ve read so far comes from Zeynep Tufekci, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. She writes:

To say that social-media was a key part of the revolution does not necessarily mean that people used GPS-enabled phones to coordinate demonstrations; that is simplistic and misses the point in which social media shapes the environment in general. What it means is that the people acted in a world where they had more means of expressing themselves to each other and the world, being more assured that their plight would not be buried by the deep pit of censorship, and a little more confidence that their extended families, their neighbors, their fellow citizens were similarly fed up, as poignantly expressed by the slogan taken up by the protestors: “Yezzi Fock! Enough!”

Indeed, rather than celebrating the Jasmine Revolution as a Twitter Revolution or a Wikileaks Revolution (the latter being a real stretch, in my opinion), I think the best analysis of social media’s role in Tunisia’s extraordinary events is one that gives most of the credit to the population, while acknowledging that social media acted as a catalyst (Tufekci notes that 20% of Tunisians have a Facebook account, which remained uncensored throughout the crisis.)

Regarding the possibility of a “domino effect” in the region, it seems much too early to tell whether we will witness other regimes being toppled by spontaneous people’s revolutions. The environment in which Ben Ali was toppled is rather unique across the Arab world: a generally well-educated population, strong economic growth (about 5% annually), a brutally repressive media and political environment, yet relatively progressive on social matters. There aren’t many other countries facing these circumstances. Furthermore, unlike places like Egypt, for instance, Tunisian opposition parties are small and have little experience – for 23 years, Ben Ali quashed political opposition and ensured that it exerted very little power. In fact, opposition parties played a marginal role in ousting Ben Ali. Would things play out differently in a country where opposition parties and politicians lead the way? Would a genuinely popular uprising – like the one in Tunisia – have the same effect? Ahmed Maher, leader of the April 6th youth movement in Egypt, is quoted in the Los Angeles Times:

“I believe we can do here what happened in Tunisia. But activists need to gather large numbers of people without any interference from opposition politicians with their own agendas.”

Another interesting point made in the Los Angeles Times article is that in many places, repression isn’t as total as it was in Tunisia, and allowing for some degree of dissent through opposition parties and media outlets actually allows authoritarian regimes to keep their hold. In 2009, Tunisia was ranked 164th out of 178 in the World Press Freedom index produced by Reporters Without Borders. This complete lack of independence in media also underscores the importance of social media tools in spreading messages and acting as a mobilizing platform.

There are reports that demonstrations are taking place in Cairo and in Amman, and across the Arab world. But beyond this initial triumphant phase, I think it’s far too early to say whether the Jasmine Revolution will sweep over the Arab world.

In fact, it’s far too soon to draw any firm conclusions from what happened in Tunisia. After 23 years of being in power, Ben Ali’s regime fell in a few short weeks. Even earlier in the week, as he promised 300,000 jobs and not to run in upcoming elections, it still seemed unlikely that he would leave power so suddenly. And following yesterday’s jubilation, the mood is souring in Tunisia. Reuters reports that “dozens of inmates were killed in mass escapes from two prisons, gangs of men fired weapons randomly from speeding cars in the capital and clouds of black smoke hung over the city from torched buildings.” Reporting from the capital Tunis, CNN’s Ben Wedeman notes that “the feel is very much that of a military takeover. It’s hard to catch a whiff of what is being called the Jasmine Revolution.”

People are understandably elated that Ben Ali left power. However, what happens next is very critical for the country. Already, in the last 24 hours, there have been two interim presidents, and constitutional questions are arising regarding how a transition will work in practice. Furthermore, I think it’s important to keep in mind that while Ben Ali is gone, regime loyalists are not. Unemployment and corruption will not be eliminated overnight, and Tunisia’s problems have yet to be resolved.

Continue to follow UN Dispatch for updates and analysis of the events unfolding in Tunisia.