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Threatening the power of Arab rulers

This article is over 13 years, 4 months old
Bassem Chit explains how Tunisia shows that real change can be won on the streets
Issue 2235

This is the first time in decades that the Arab world has witnessed an insurrection that brought down a dictator. The revolt started with demands for work, bread and water, but these soon merged with political demands for freedom and liberty.

The slogan for the rebellion became: “Bread, Education and Liberty”.

Across the Arab world, people held solidarity meetings and prepared for action in support of the Tunisian revolution.

The words “Inch-allah I-nna”, roughly translated from Arabic as “Hoping it happens here”, were repeatedly voiced in Arab streets.

In Algeria people made several attempts to protest at the Tunisian embassy, but police forcefully stopped and dispersed them.

Protests took place in Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. Protesters shouted slogans supporting the Tunisian revolution and for bringing down all Arab regimes.

In contrast, the Arab rulers stayed silent. Most media channels and papers in the Arab world blocked any coverage of the revolt.

Ben Ali went on national TV and attacked the protesters as terrorists.

The response from the street was fast—more people joined the rebellion.


On 13 January, the Union Generale des Travailleurs Tunisien (UGTT) called a regional general strike at Sfax, the second largest city in the country.

The strike brought tens of thousands to the city to protest—a sight never seen before. Similar protests happened in Kairouan and Jendouba.

There were rumours of the army beginning to side with protesters and within hours Ben Ali had left the country.

That left Arab rulers and kings shaken.

Many on the Arab left and opposition forces took the opportunity to demand economic and social reforms.

As the speaker of the Tunisian parliament and prime minister declared themselves legitimate leaders of the state, militias were still attacking neighbourhoods and cities around the country.

These militias are affiliated with Ben Ali’s regime and family.

Trade unions and left wing parties called for people to organise local popular defence committees to protect the revolution.

These popular committees were able to limit the activities of the militias and in some cases arrest and prosecute its members.

The revolution has not finished and the battle has only just begun.

The remnants of the old regime are manoeuvring, trying to get control over the popular movement and consolidate their power.

In Tunisia, as in most Arab countries, there are two oppositions.

One is the recognised or “official” opposition, which most Tunisians see as a bunch of collaborators and too close to Ben Ali’s regime. The other opposition are the banned organisations, mostly composed of far-left political parties and radical social democratic parties.

This has been closely engaged in calling and organising the protests.

Many feel the movement could not have developed this far without the involvement of the trade unions.

One activist said, “It set the tempo for the movement. As long as the UGTT called for strikes, people knew that the battle continued.”


Islamists are another factor in Tunisian politics. They were not involved in the uprising, but are trying to capitalise on the power vacuum that resulted after the fall of Ben Ali.

Much of the “official” opposition, including the Islamists, are ready to make concessions with the remnants of Ben Ali’s regime.

Much of the real opposition, however, is calling for the formation of a constituent assembly that can put forward a new constitution for the country. Those in the real opposition think that an election under the current law would only re-establish the old regime and its allies in power.

The balance of power in Tunisia is still unclear.

What is clear is that the Tunisian revolution is highly significant.

For many across the Arab world, it shows things that once seemed impossible can be attained through a mass movement.

It shows that change can be carried out through activity on the streets—not through bureaucratic debates in the parliament or the cabinet.

And it shows that the battle for change still carries hope after decades of oppression and despotism.

Arab rulers know that the economic and political situation across all Middle Eastern countries has much in common with that in Tunisia.

It’s enough to give them sleepless nights.

Bassem Chit is a socialist in Lebanon


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