It’s been ten years this week since 26 year old fruit and vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself in petrol outside the governor’s office in his hometown Sidi Bouzid.
He shouted, “How do you expect me to make a living,” then set himself alight.
Earlier that day, police had insulted Mohamed, beaten him, then confiscated his cart. Without the money to bribe the cops he’d gone to the governor’s office to plead for it back.
He left after being ignored, and returned with a can of petrol.
Mohamed had grown up in poverty in an area of Tunisia left underdeveloped by the regime. Like a lot of people his age, he struggled to find a job. So he scraped a living to provide for the eight family members who depended on him.
It also wasn’t the first time he’d been harassed by the police. “What kind of repression do you imagine it takes for a young man to do this,” his sister Leila later told reporters.
“In Sidi Bouzid, those with no connections and no money for bribes are humiliated and insulted and not allowed to live.”
Mohamed’s act resonated with those who faced the same sort of poverty and unemployment. It also shocked wider layers of society including sections of the middle class.
That same day—17 December—was the day of the first demonstrations of the revolution.
The crowd that gathered turned into the sort of protest rarely seen in Sidi Bouzid. And similar protests spread to other towns and cities in the days that followed.
These were places where the level of unemployment was even higher than the national average of 13 percent.
“The uneven distribution of wealth was an important aspect of the revolution in Tunisia,” Jaouhar Bani, a Tunisian socialist, explained to Socialist Worker. “Regions where people can’t find jobs was one of the issues that pushed the revolution forward.
“It started from the periphery, in areas where there is more lack of opportunity and then went to the cities and the capital.” In fact, demonstrations over unemployment in the Gafsa region of Tunisia in 2008 had given a taste of what was to come.
Workers in the region’s phosphate mines were often the only source of income for their whole families.
So when unemployed people demonstrated, phosphate miners struck with them.
It became a small uprising, but didn’t spread beyond Gafsa and was eventually put down by massive repression.
The 2010 protests did spread—and soon targeted the regime. That was partly because unemployment was so clearly linked to government corruption.
The other reason was the repression of the state. The 23-year dictatorship of Ben Ali had helped keep wages and working conditions low with the help of brutal police repression.
“Everything could be linked to the dictatorship,” said Jaouhar. “The dictatorship maintained the benefits of the majority.
“The people who suffer the repression are the poor. When they fight the police they know they are fighting the same regime that has been repressing them for years.”
As the protests continued, the cops became deadly.
In a series of massacres, armed regime snipers opened fire on demonstrations in Kasserine and Thala in central Tunisia.
But the repression only spurred more action.
Demonstrations spread to the major cities, as well as schools, colleges and universities. Protesters began to call for Ben Ali’s downfall.
Crucially, the uprising pushed Tunisia’s largest trade union, the UGTT, into action.
Like union leaders everywhere, those in charge of the UGTT saw their role as one of mediators between their members and Tunisia’s ruling class.
The UGTT’s leaders were very close to the Ben Ali regime, which relied on them to contain workers’ resistance.
But as the revolution spread, the UGTT came under pressure from its rank and file members. Many had already joined protests and set about organising strikes themselves.
The UGTT called a general strike for 14 January. The day before the strike, Ben Ali made a desperate speech offering concessions that was only met with anger.
On the day of the strike he announced a state of emergency. The army turned against him and, though they arrested some of his family members, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia.
The uprising didn’t end there. Prime minister Mohammed Ghannouchi announced he would take over as interim president. But Tunisians wanted the whole regime gone.
Huge protests took over the streets again and again. And though the UGTT leaders supported the government’s new cabinet, its members kept striking in regions around the country.
By 27 February, they had forced out Ghannouchi and his government too.
The impact of the revolution reverberated around the world.
It smashed apart the ideas the US and its allies had used to justify their wars and interference in the Middle East and North Africa.
They’d said Arabs and Muslims were too conservative, so “democracy” could only come through invasions, and progress through the free market.
But these revolutions for genuine democracy threatened the dictators they relied on to cooperate with US power.
And what happened in Tunisia inspired revolts and uprisings in other Arab countries.
Just days after the fall of Ben Ali, the Egyptian revolution began with huge demonstrations on 25 January. Marchers chanted, “Revolution in Tunis, Revolution in Egypt.” It inspired people in other countries too.
The year 2011 turned out to be one of protests and revolt against austerity and the same free market policies that sparked the Tunisian revolution.
There was a feeling that resistance was possible—and can win. The revolutions that began in Tunisia were the centrepiece.
For socialists it was proof that revolution could become a reality—not seemingly outdated history or abstract theory.
And that there was an alternative to the depressing limitations of parliament and Labour parties that mirrored the right.
It showed that revolution is possible—and that it can change the world.
Mohammed Bani, a Tunisian socialist living in London, flew to Tunis to take part in the revolution on the day of the general strike. This is an extract from his report for Socialist Worker at the time.
‘I landed at 12:30 and went straight to the demo in Avenue Bourguiba. It was humongous. I’ve heard numbers up to 65,000. I’ve never heard of demonstrations in Tunisia of more than a couple of hundred.
It came after shocking pictures and videos circulated on the internet of people shot in the head, brains out and skulls broken after police attacked earlier protests.
That really mobilised people. The fear changed sides.
We were in front of the Ministry of Interior. It was extremely peaceful.
At around 4pm the police suddenly attacked.
A funeral procession for a protester killed the night before was passing by, and the police took it as an excuse to attack everyone.
They used tear gas and I heard shots. People were saying, “This is not tear gas, this is bullets.”
Two hours later people were still battling in the area.
My brother in law was trapped on a rooftop.
He was telling me, “People are falling down, police are beating people.”
Houses belonging to leading figures in the regime were burnt.
Practically every big shopping centre has been burnt, and the police stations.
Like many in Tunis, we set up a district committee to protect our local community from the armed militias.
We made barricades from furniture to block the roads.
We patrolled the area and decided any car moving after curfew was suspicious.
We had two presidents in 55 years—and then two in 24 hours.
Tunis is locked down, but people are already out in the streets elsewhere, not wanting the old gang to stay in power.”