On October 23, 2011, for the first time since independence in 1956, Tunisians were called to the polls in free and transparent elections. They were to choose 217 members of a Constituent Assembly that for a year would play a double role: drafting a new constitution and governing the country.
About 78 nautical miles separate the Tunisian town of al-Huwariyya at the head of the Cap Bon peninsula from Capo Feto at the southwestern tip of Sicily. An Italy-bound voyage between the two points, on the straight line headed roughly northeast-east, takes about 13 hours at an average speed of six knots under sail. A speedboat moving at 30-45 knots would traverse the same distance in about two hours.
Tunisia was the first Arab country to have a pro-democracy uprising in the winter of 2010-2011, and now it is the first to have held an election. Tunisians took to the polls on October 23 to choose a constituent assembly that will be tasked with drafting the country’s first democratic constitution and appointing a new transitional government. The elections were judged free and fair by a record number of domestic and foreign observers, testimony to the seriousness with which the interim government approached the poll. In the eyes of many observers, Tunisia is lighting the way forward where others — notably Egypt — are faltering.
While Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation will undoubtedly remain the iconic image of the 2011 Tunisian revolution, another set of pictures has also stuck in the minds of Tunisians. On the evening of January 14, despite an army curfew, a man staggered across Avenue Habib Bourguiba, shouting, “Ben Ali fled — the Tunisian people is free! The Tunisian people will not die! The Tunisian people is sacred!”
As the waves of protest inspired by Tunisia continue to roll across the Middle East and North Africa, analysts have remained puzzled by the mysterious timing, incredible speed and cross-national snowballing of these uprisings or intifadas. In the six months following the electrifying scenes of thousands occupying Avenue Habib Bourguiba in downtown Tunis, directing the imperative Dégage! (Get out!) at President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian “virus” has spread across the region, unleashing apparently similar moments of resistance and revolution. Yet a “back-door” view of the intifadas reveals wide variations.
Casbah Square in Tunis has the feel of the morning after. Strewn around the plaza are the odd, drooping Tunisian flag and other relics of the mass demonstrations that forced the fall of the ex-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January and then two “interim governments” deemed too closely associated with his regime. There are still a few protests in the Tunisian capital. But they are no longer transformative of the political order. They are small, sectional, partisan — almost routine.
The Tunisian revolution of January 2011 drew upon the participation of nearly every social stratum. Organized labor threw its weight into the struggle early on, in an important sign of the breadth and depth of opposition to the rule of the dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In mid-March, the Sacramento Central Labor Council (AFL-CIO) hosted a delegation of leaders of Tunisia’s powerful labor federation, the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), on a visit to the United States. The Council co-hosted the Tunisians with the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center. Abdellatif Hamrouni is secretary-general of the country’s federation of public works employees and a member of the UGTT general assembly.
Revolution is a weighty word, one as freighted with past disappointments as with hopes for the future. In the Arab world, where the first spontaneous popular revolutions of the twenty-first century have begun, cabals of colonels long expropriated the term to glorify their coups d’état. It is an accomplishment of the groundswells in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011 that no prospective Asad or Qaddafi will get away with stealing the word again. Thanks to Tunisians and Egyptians, everyone has received a crash course in what revolution looks like.
Stability is the least understood and most derided of the trio of strategic interests pursued by the United States in the Middle East since it became the region’s sole superpower. Vexing, because it is patently obvious code for coziness with kings, presidents-for-life and other unsavory autocrats. Perplexing, because it seems to involve only cost, lacking the material benefit of protecting oil deposits or the domestic political profit of backing Israel, the two other members of the troika.
The January 14 departure of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali amidst popular protests was a long overdue demonstration of the possibility for genuine democratization in the Arab world. Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor whose self-immolation set off the protests, tapped a deep vein of anger in Tunisian society at police harassment and the general arbitrariness of the state, but also at severe, endemic economic inequality sharpened now by rising global food prices. It remains to be determined, however, to what degree the toppling of Ben Ali will transform Tunisia into a representative democracy whose citizens enjoy greater economic opportunities. Ben Ali was the head of a system of one-party rule, and that system did not board a private plane along with him and his immediate entourage as they headed into exile.
For the first time in decades, Tunisia is free of one-man rule. The extraordinary events of December 2010 and January 2011 have been nothing less than a political revolution: The consistent pressure of popular fury forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali first to make an unprecedented promise to relinquish power; then pushed him to step down; and finally halted an attempt at unconstitutional transfer of power, setting the stage for elections to be held at an undetermined date in the near to mid-term future.
Is it happenstance or harmonic convergence that the first reports on the Wikileaks cache of State Department cables hit the newsstands alongside stories about the fresh political salience of “American exceptionalism”? Something about the content of the diplomatic missives and, more to the point, the furor over their release in November 2010 seems peculiar to the United States.
What species of envoy but an American, at the early millennial stage of evolution, could wire the following from Madrid?
World Bank and IMF sponsored neoliberal reforms can have different effects on the political and social structure of receiving nations. Reforms may fortify a status quo unfavorable to the poor, or may even make a bad situation considerably worse, or they may undermine the existing economic system, empowering the poor to participate more actively in new market arrangements.
Just as European missionaries were the spiritual handmaidens of nineteenth-century colonialism, so has the International Monetary Fund (IMF) assumed a modern-day mission in support of world trade, finance and investment. The mission aims to convert the benighted heathen in developing countries to the enlightened religion of the free market, whose invisible hand guides self-interest toward the best possible outcome. Once expected to join world Christendom after their conversion, penitent countries today have structural adjustment programs (SAPs) to guide them to their place in the global economy.
A disturbing rumor made the rounds this summer at the Cafe de Paris, the Hotel Africa and the other haunts of Tunisia’s classe politique. Word had it that a constitutional commission was considering legislation allowing the government to revoke the citizenship rights of some political opponents. True or not, the rumor’s existence — and the widespread belief that the government started it — says much about political life on the tenth anniversary of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s “tranquil revolution.”
Nouri Bouzid, Bezness (1992).
What happens when a poor Arab country with a high birth rate, an enormous youth population and endemic unemployment bases a significant part of its development strategy on attracting European tourism? In Nouri Bouzid’s film, Bezness, the Tunisian coastal town of Sousse is the site for just such an experiment, with disastrous consequences for the local population.
“You chase colonialism out the door, it comes back through the sky,” observed the Algerian Press Service several years ago, alluding to the phenomenon of satellite broadcasting that has literally brought European television into the living rooms of North Africa.  More than 95 percent of urban households in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco have televisions, and more than 30 percent have video decks. Parabolic antennas are sprouting like inverted mushrooms on rooftops around the southern Mediterranean (estimates for Algeria alone range between 1.3 and 2.2 million households, or 8 to 17 million viewers). 
The first months after Habib Bourguiba’s overthrow in November 1987 witnessed an ambiguous honeymoon between the new regime and the Islamists. Bourguiba himself was under a form of house arrest in Monastir, his native town. Squares named after his birthday, August 3, 1903, were renamed November 7, the day of the coup. Some of his statues were pulled down, but many streets were still named after him and his grand mausoleum and mosque were well tended in Monastir. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the coupmaker who had worked as minister of interior and prime minister under Bourguiba, presented himself as a man of “renewal” and called for political pluralism and respect for human rights. He opened a dialogue with the opposition forces, socialist and Islamist.
Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco constitute a geocultural entity. They all went through a period of French colonization and they became independent during roughly the same period in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Despite the similarities, though, the three countries engaged in markedly different policies in regard to family law and women’s rights from the time of national independence to the mid-1980s. Tunisia adopted the most far-reaching changes whereas Morocco remained most faithful to the prevailing Islamic legislation and Algeria followed an ambivalent course.