When Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire over a month ago to protest the confiscation of his fruit and vegetable cart in the resort city of Sidi Bouzid, almost nobody could have predicted the immense popular uprising that would soon engulf Tunisia. After sustained protests spread across the nation and into the capital of Tunis, Tunisians—from middle class professionals to the urban poor—eventually succeeded in ousting the authoritarian United States-backed regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The success of the uprising—a revolt stemming from massive unemployment, lack of economic opportunity, widespread corruption, and a clampdown on free speech—is an admirable example of solidarity in the face of exorbitant odds and a testament to the power of people to change their governments.
Nonetheless, the future of the provisional government remains unclear. The current coalition government is on the verge of collapse after several interim ministers resigned to protest what they see as continued Ben Ali influence in the newly formed government. As John Esposito, director of Georgetown’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, said, it is entirely possible that forces loyal to Ben Ali, or even the military itself, could take power in this unstable interim period. The reassertion of power by anti-democratic forces would be a devastating setback for the nascent popular movement. Any legitimate government that emerges should include an adequate representation of opposition forces and reflect the popular rejection of Ben Ali’s ruling apparatus.
The Tunisian revolt is likely to have larger ramifications for the Arab world—protests and similar self-immolations have already occurred in Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, and Egypt—countries where United States-backed regimes have maintained control through a strong security apparatus and a crackdown on civil liberties and opposition groups. While these authoritarian regimes are not popular, it remains to be seen whether the Tunisian revolt will have the shockwave effect some are anticipating.
“Governments are certainly nervous,” Esposito said. “Many disaffected people, including youth, are expressing the desire that this be the beginning of a wave of revolts … There could be a lot of disaffection from below, but people learn to survive under these regimes. And then there’s the concern about what the cost will be [to revolt]. It’s hard to predict.”
Although the situation in Tunisia continues to evolve daily, and its final outcome remains uncertain, the Tunisian revolt has inspired hope across the Arab world and has demonstrated that authoritarian regimes do not always prevail over the will of their citizens.