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Part I | Tunisia, the Undoing of a Dictatorship?


Tunisia is in a state of turmoil. Located in North Africa,  recently, the country has been rocked by massive civilian street protests. Having lived under the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali for the past 23 years, the people of Tunisia had had enough and took to the streets. This conflict was brought to a head last year on December 17th, when an unemployed Tunisian youth, attempting to sell vegetables, had his produce confiscated by the government. In order to protest, this young man unfortunately ended up committing suicide by lighting himself on fire. His death became a catalyst for the many Tunisians who have also suffered troubling high unemployment, while living under the restrictions that come with life in a dictatorship. According to AlJazeera English “in the past month, protests have swept across the country over unemployment, food price rises and corruption.” In the face of giant civic demonstrations, on January 14th, Ben Ali ceded power and fled the country.

The international headlines are on fire, and many Western states are urging peace, at the same time calling for democratic principles to be implemented. But, as in many places around the world, the Western “peacemakers” calling for calm have themselves been complicit with the autocratic Ben Ali regime that had been in place for more than two decades. Tunisia is a former French colony, and much to France’s approval, the Ben Ali regime had stifled the influx of North African immigrants heading for Western Europe. Ben Ali had also been a stalwart champion of U.S. anti-terrorism policy – cracking down harshly on “Islamist” groups. The regime’s corruption has been laid bare by Wikileaks in a released U.S. State Department cable that labeled Tunisia a “police state” and characterized the ruling family as being “Sopranoesque.” Some are calling this the first “Wikileaks Revolution.” So essentially, Tunisia under Ben Ali has been the model Western-backed Arab dictatorship. But who is most troubled by the recent developments in Tunisia?

If you are the Saudi Arabian king or Hosni Mubarak, and you’re watching this massive social upheaval in not-too-far-away Tunisia, what thoughts might be running through your head? That’s precisely the sentiment among heads of state in the Arab world today. If this overthrow is successful, it will be largest since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, in which the Western-back Shah was overthrown by the Islamic Republic. Arab leaders are holding their breathe. And among all this chaos, where is the former Tunisian President Ben Ali you might ask? He has sought refuge in none other than Saudi Arabia. France did a 180 on Ben Ali,  and they have refused to grant him asylum, fearing that this may provoke anger among the large Tunisian population that lives in France.

As of Saturday, Fouad Mebazaa – former president of the lower house of the Tunisian parliament has assumed the position of  interim president. Mebazaa has ordered the assembly of a unity government, including space for an opposition – something that had never been done under Ben Ali. Yet, some Tunisians still remain apprehensive of the current government officals who are leading efforts toward a unity government because many of them had been a part of the Ben Ali establishment. It remains to be seen how these events will unfold, but even currently, the uproar has yet to subside, as the the state police continue to clash with protesters. Amid this chaos, looting has been reported, and there are fears that militias could start roaming the streets.

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We as Muslims all pray for peace in this peculiar situation that has taken ahold of Tunisia. Although, some Muslims living in the West may try to limit their exposure to current events overseas (in order to avoid the “depressed ummah syndrome”), political events such as this in Tunisia are critical to pay attention to for many reasons. Although, not all Tunisians are monolithic in their resentment of the Ben Ali government, his ouster is significant because the people have had enough, and many have risked their lives to make a bold statement. Imagine if this starts happening all over the Arab world? Furthermore, since Iraq and Afghanistan have been in the forefront of the minds of many Muslims, it can be easy to overlook other Muslim majority countries, such as Tunisia, that have also been embroiled in oppression – but are on the fringes of international scrutiny, out of sight, out of mind. Hopefully, peace and calm will descend on Tunisia soon, and the outcome will be something that is welcomed by the majority of its people, who have suffered for so long.

Part II: Sudan and the election…


Al Jazeera English. (2011). “Army on Streets Amid Tunisia Unrest.”

Al Jazeera English. (2011). “Tunisia Swears in Interim Leader”. (2011). “Tunisia Primer: What lead to Today’s Upheavel?”

HuffingtonPost. (2011). “Tunisian Revolution News (Latests Updates)”.

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Safia Farole is a second year PhD student in the department of Political Science at UCLA. She studies in the areas of Comparative Politics and Race, Ethnicity and Politics, focusing specifically on the politics of identity, public opinion, and immigration and integration in Western democracies.



  1. Mirza Shahebaz Baig

    January 16, 2011 at 8:44 AM

    Hundreds of prisoners have been released. News of mass arrests of relatives of Bin `Ali. Obviously, the new government/army may lose more control as this crisis unfolds. In other news, Jeffrey Feltman announced that Israel and Saudi Arabia are the only true democracies in the Middle East.

    Mr Ben Ali ruled Tunisia with an iron grip for 23 years; opposition is stifled, and the country is an anomaly among pro-western Arab states for its extensive restrictions on freedom of expression.”” Yes, an anomaly unless you count Morocco, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, UAE, and Yemen

    A group of 20 Israelis was rescued Saturday evening from Tunisia, where a violent uprising has succeeded in overturning the government. The complicated mission was orchestrated by a number of Israeli authorities, including the Foreign Ministry. The tourists were first transferred to a third country, from where are to continue to Israel by plane.” Tourist???

    The Pilot of Bin Ali told the latter: I have good news and bad news. The good news is that we found one country to shelter you. The bad news is that it is Saudi Arabia. — an angry arab.

  2. MuslimAmerican

    January 16, 2011 at 10:44 AM

    Jazak Allah Khair.

    Haven’t had a chance to reflect on the ongoings in Tunisia. This article has provided me some good headstart in understanding the developments in Tunisia.

  3. Salman

    January 16, 2011 at 2:27 PM

    salaam aleikum,

    I would hope that this would be the starting point of a discussion as to how/why other sclerotic American/British backed dictatorships in the region hold their people back from real progress. Some of this is slowly trickling into the media narrative as well:

    Tunisia unrest a wake-up call for the region

    Troubles like these are Brewing all over the Middle East

    Sadly a lot of work still remains to be done to get Muslims to see their problems and solutions through the lens of Islam:

    Why Tunisia’s Revolution is Islam Free

    • Hazara

      January 18, 2011 at 11:39 AM

      Salman, a majority of Tunisians do not want their country to be like the Taliban of Afghanistan, like so many people here do. Drop the fantasy and get over it.

      • ahlam

        January 19, 2011 at 6:22 PM

        you are too obsessed about the taliban.Nobody mentions them except you.

  4. Chris Taus

    January 18, 2011 at 2:43 AM

    “Earlier today in a separate meeting with Foreign Minister Ben Yahia, I expressed our appreciati­on for the tireless efforts of President Ben Ali of Tunisia in advancing the peace process. Now by establishi­ng these new ties with Israel, Tunisia has once again demonstrat­ed its commitment to the peace process. The foreign minister and I also discussed threats against Tunisia. I told him that the United States would take such threats very seriously, and that we are committed to a stable and secure Tunisia (Translati­on: dictatorsh­ip).”


    January 19, 2011 at 5:56 PM

    Good riddance to bad rubbish! Under Ben Ali Tunisia also instituted a hijab ban. A friend of a friend (who is Tunisian) said that she was forced to unveil at the airport before being allowed into her country from abroad for a visit…I see these happenings as being part of the Signs of the Day of Judgement. I believe the time of biting oppression is surely coming to an end to make way for righteous rule soon Insha’Allah.

  6. Salman

    January 22, 2011 at 4:10 PM

    salaam aleikum,

    Sadly this article nails down how/why nothing will ever change in any Arab/Muslim country unless and until the people in those lands (over 25-30% of whom work in the armed forces protecting those dictators) become slaves of Allah (swt) rather than slaves of the dunya and their own fears:

    Viva la Revolution? Lets Not Get Ahead of Ourselves

    • Mantiki

      January 23, 2011 at 3:21 PM

      I agree this is an insightful article Salman.

      But there does seem to be a bandwagon effect occurring even over the last few days in other Arab countries with demonstrations being fueled by further tragic self-immolations. The history of revolutions is littered with examples of how revolutions gain unstoppable momentum (Russia 1917, China 1948?, Phillipines (Aquino), Iran (Khomenei) etc.) Equally there are failures (Hungary 1968, China 1992? and the recent post election protests in Iran).

      Lenin wrote of the necessity for revolutionary leadership to channel and coordinate the energy and emotion of the masses. The weak state of political opposition, the words of caution from religious leaders and those with a stake in maintaining current arrangements act as a dampener may see these protests fizzle. After the fizzle, usually comes the crackdown and mopping up of those with aspirations.


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