BOOK REVIEW: The Arab Spring: Why Tunisia was an Anomaly

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African strongmen used to be toppled by coups, usually bloody and violent ones, some killed or typically offered safe passage to a friendly regime from where the strong men would reminisce and hallucinate about the good old days, with naïve hopes of staging a comeback.

But in 2010-11, three African strong men, who ruled the Northern Arabic part of African were dethroned, not by coups, but by a chain of events starts by a single act of a proletariat self-immolating himself setting off an uprising whose reverberations are still felt seven years later. An uprising who effects continue to rattle and altering the trajectory of the affected countries, often for worse, except for one country: Tunisia.  

On December 17, 2010, shortly after 11.30 a.m. Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire, in the city Sidi Bouzid (300KM south of Tunis, the country’s capital), after an altercation with a Municipality official, who slapped him for hawking groceries without a license. He would die 18 years later but his suicide was not in vain.

This would start what came to be known as the Arab Spring, following the spontaneous revolution that gripped North Africa and the Middle-East, and with it, three of the most notorious African dictators were uprooted from power, and for the Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, it was a sad ending as his life was fetched by a bullet in a trench.

Why would Tunisia be a nucleus for the revolution?

Why did Tunisia of the many affected countries end up with a more desirable, less violent outcome?

Libya is still unstable, with infiltration from ISIS, scenes of chaos still evident and the recent images of Africans from Sub-Sahara Africa being treated violently as they are sold as slaves have not helped improve the image of the country. Egypt escaped a dictator only for the Muslim Brotherhood to take over and turn worse than what Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-old regime.  

These are the key questions in Safwan M. Masri’s book: Tunisia: An ArabAnomalyy (Columbia University Press, 2017) tries to answer. The book was launched last week at the Columbia Global Centre in Nairobi’s Westlands area.

Digging on Tunisia’s unique history of progressive reform and the unique geographical location that has spared the country some of the complex geopolitical nightmares her neighbours have suffered, Masri delivers an interesting account that proves the final outcome of the uprising; that is Tunisia transitioning into a more democratic, transparent country was not an accident.TUNISIA 2

Prof Masri in conversation with Kevin Mwachiro who moderated the event at the Columbia Global Centers, Nairobi. Photo: Kaleidoscope/Eddah Mbaya

Delivering a lecture on the book, he said that Tunisia was way ahead of her time, giving non-Muslims equal rights as far back as 1857, heralding the freeing of slaves in the United States of America. Tunisia created her constitution in 1861 way ahead of many countries in the post-Ottoman-Empire. Tunisia established the first secular constitution in the Arab world.

Following the French occupation during colonization, Tunisia adopted the best aspects of the French education and marrying them with traditional madrassas. Tunisia’s first President Habib Bourguiba was the first to give Tunisian women many rights that they enjoy to date, the best anywhere in the Arab world. He abolished polygamy, gave women rights to liquidation and access to contraceptives.

“Bourguiba struck a balance between secularism and religiosity,” Masri observed. And by planting this seed, it is no surprise that in 2014, Tunisia allowed atheist to exist without being charged with apostasy. Education and bilingualism did play a role in making Tunisia a unique Arab country,

“Now, there is talk to decriminalize homosexuality,” Masri said.

Thus to Masri, it is not an accident that Tunisia’s revolution delivered far better results than many revolutions tend to. Tunisians have also been lucky that the country’s military is always on the side of the people. While in Egypt, for instance, the country is notoriously pro-state. It is the reason Egypt now looks like a failed state.

From his research and investigations, Masri established that the revolution may have been termed as Arab Spring, but there was nothing Arabic or Pan-Arabic about it. The conditions were local, despite the common themes like poverty across the countries. But the conditions were not necessarily regional.

This is especially true because the Spring had different outcomes in each country. The author warns about the confusion the terming of the revolution as Arab Spring creates.

“Some of the countries in the Arab League of Nation do not even speak Arab as their language,” he said.

In his 378-page book, he breaks down these ideas gathered from historians and other professionals who know and understand Tunisia, the book analyses the role of religion, history and education in shaping Tunisia to be one of the more open, liberal Islamic country in an era where extremism and radicalism have become the norm in some parts of the Middle-East. He wonders if Tunisia can serve as a model to other Arab and African countries.

Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, sparked the fire that lit the revolution, immediately forcing the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia. His Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi assumed the presidency. In the same month, President of the Chamber of Deputies Fouad Mebezaa was named ‘careteker’ president and Ghannouchi returned to the premier position.

Protesters began to call for the abolishment of the ruling party RCD and this forced Ghannouchi to reshuffle the government removing all RCD members apart from himself.

Early 2011, Ghannouchi resigned and President Mebezaa named Beji Essebsi as the Prime Minister. And in March, RCD was liquidated and banned from participating in future elections. In the course of 2011, elections would be held and a new party, Ennahda won a plurality of seats in parliament and Hamadi Jebali became the president while Moncef Marzouk became the Prime Minister.

In 2013, four groups of organizations met and agreed on the way forward for the formation of the new constitution that was approved by the National Constituent Assembly in 2014 setting pace for the current relative peace and stability. The quartet of organizations was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2015.

The book is a recommended for non-fiction buffs who like to learn a  bit of history and geopolitics and how to conduct a ‘perfect’ revolution.


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Book: Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly

Price: Hardcover-$35.

Amazon: e-Textbook-$19

Amazon new and used (from $13-22)




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