Riots and demonstrations swept through the central and southern towns of Tunisia between December 2010 and January 2011.
Arab Spring began in Tunisia when a fruit vendor set himself on fire in protest in front of the Sidi Bouzid government building because police had seized his goods. The fruit vendor’s self-immolation touched off a wave of demonstrations which the police tried to stop by the use of weapons.
Twenty-five people were killed on the weekend of 8-9 January. The violent crackdown implemented by the police sparked a series of protests throughout the country.
On 10 January, lawyers, trade unionists, students and unemployed people took to the streets to protest throughout the country. On the same day, in a televised speech to the nation, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali promised to create 300,000 new jobs and to improve living standards. However, he did not express compassion for the victims of the clashes; on the contrary he condemned the protests and stigmatized the acts against the security forces as acts of terrorism. The unions declared a general strike and the uprising continued despite that the repression was getting tougher.
Protests and clashes continued to spread all over the country and the number of the victims rose. On 13 January, for the first time after 23 years in power, Ben Ali gave a speech in Tunisian Arabic, in an attempt to show he felt close to his people, using a completely different tone: “Fahimtkum” (“I have understood you”), condemned the use of weapons in the repression and promised to arrest and punish those responsible for the violent crackdown; he acknowledged he had made mistakes because he was ill-advised and ill-informed about the real conditions of the country; he promised freedom of the press and expression, and no more blocking of the Internet websites. He announced that early elections would be held over the following six months and that he would not candidate himself for president in 2014. However, despite promises, on the same evening, protests were met with violent repression by the security forces, once again.
On January 14, at the end of an extraordinary day which had seen the declaration of a state of emergency, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi announced in a television address that Ben Ali had officially resigned and that he would temporarily assume the leadership of the country supported by a Cabinet made up of six people. The leadership of Tunisia changed hands for the second time in less than a day, after 18 hours, in fact. Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled the country and, Fouad Mebazaa, president of the lower house of the parliament, was sworn in as chief of state.
On 23 October 2011, an election for a Constituent Assembly was held in Tunisia. The moderate Islamist Ennahda party was officially declared winner of the country’s landmark post-Arab Spring vote, with the Congress Party for the Republic (CPR) coming in second place. The election results came as a shock to the West, where many commentators warned that the Arab Spring was turning into Islamist autumn, but also Tunisians were concerned (especially the Tunisian women) who, although respectful of religion, had been accustomed to an open society, to some separation between politics and religion and to women’s relevant role in society.
The years that followed the election in 2011 were marked by the assassination of the opposition leaders Belaid and Brahmi. Then came the turning point. While the Salafist groups rode the wave of popular disappointment for the transition mired in violence and turmoil, Ennahda opened to the opposition. Ennahda said it was open to a unity government with Nidaa Tounes to improve stability until the parliamentary elections on 26 October. The secular party Nidaa Tounes – ‘Call of Tunisia’, founded in 2012 by former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi – won 86 out of the 217 parliamentary seats (39 percent), while the moderate Islamist party Ennahda – received only 32 percent of the total vote, amounting to 69 parliamentary seats. (M.B.)