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Tunisia's uprising was three years in the making

The revolution that ousted President Zine el Abidine ben Ali was the culmination of tensions between the haves and have-nots in a nation where a brutal regime treated the people like serfs.

January 27, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times
  • Residents from central Tunisian regions protest in front of Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi's office in Tunis.
Residents from central Tunisian regions protest in front of Prime Minister… (Fethi Belaid / AFP / Getty…)

Reporting from Thala, Tunisia — Even in death they would not allow Marwan Jamli a moment's dignity. The same black-clad Interior Ministry troops who shot him in the chest and back a day earlier tear-gassed his grieving family members as they tried to carry his corpse to the cemetery.

The army soldiers watching the Jan. 9 melee in this town near the Algerian border could no longer bear it. They ordered the security forces aside, and allowed his parents to place their elder son in the earth. Some of the soldiers saluted the mourners.

Almost immediately, photographs of the 19-year-old protester's bloodied body began circulating on the Internet, along with amateur video of the killing of as many as a dozen people in Thala and two nearby towns as they protested against the authoritarian rule of President Zine el Abidine ben Ali.

Five days after the funeral, Ben Ali was swept away in an uprising that has sparked anti-government protests in Egypt and elsewhere across the Middle East and raised hopes for an "Arab Spring," like the wave of protests that toppled authoritarian Eastern European countries a generation ago.

But if the revolution stunned much of the world, to Tunisians and close observers it was not entirely a surprise. Tensions had been building for years between a brutal regime that treated its people like serfs and a mostly educated population in tune with the sensibilities and technologies of the 21st century.

"All the ingredients were there for an explosion," said a former Western military official who has spent years in and out of Tunisia. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

The army played the decisive role in Ben Ali's hasty departure, political analysts and insiders say. A powerful labor union also helped tip the balance.

But both the army and the constellation of civil society groups and organizations now shaping Tunisia struggled during four weeks to catch up to a people determined to change the course of their nation.

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The first ripple of the discontent that would eventually topple Ben Ali began in 2008 in a mining region at the country's center.

For years people in Gafsa province had hoped that government plans to reopen mines would bring more jobs to the remote region. But when the project was finally launched, they discovered that most of the jobs were going to outsiders with piston — clout or connections to the government. They held demonstrations and sit-in rallies, setting up a tent city.

Activists and some elements in the country's main labor organization, the General Union of Tunisian Workers, or UGTT, saw an opening in Gafsa and tried to advance the cause of the movement, using video posted to YouTube to publicize the plight of the locals in a campaign that lasted six months. Ben Ali's response was harsh.

In what would be a dress rehearsal for the violence of the last few weeks, Interior Ministry forces responded with tear gas, beatings and arrests.

"They tried to make it national," said Eric Goldstein of the advocacy group Human Rights Watch. "The repression was harsh. People were tortured."

But for both the security forces and civilians, Gafsa would prove to be a dry run for the uprising nearly three years later. Protesters used street demonstrations, sit-ins and wildcat strikes to voice their opposition, while police used tear gas, jailings and — on June 6, 2008 — gunfire to suppress the protests.

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By the time a young street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the town of Sidi Bouzid last month, the nation was primed for change.

Only a couple of weeks earlier, WikiLeaks had begun publishing classified State Department documents detailing the vast corruption in Ben Ali's circle. The only surprise in the documents, several activists said, was in their suggestion that Americans felt the same way about Ben Ali and his entourage as they did.

Bouazizi's death ignited the tinderbox, and not just among the poor young men who bore the brunt of the ensuing violence.

"He didn't kill himself because he was poor," said Khadija Sharif, a women's rights activist and social scientist. "He killed himself because he was humiliated. All the classes felt humiliation."

Just like in 2008, the Interior Ministry responded with tear gas and beatings as demonstrations spread. Activists in Tunis, the capital, and other cities publicized the uprising, this time using Facebook, which counts 1.2 million Tunisian users out of a population of 10 million.

Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab television station, played a key role, broadcasting amateur YouTube videos of protests.

"Tunisians had always felt themselves on the periphery of the Arab world," said Goldstein of Human Rights Watch. "To see themselves on Al Jazeera at the forefront was a real affirmation."

But it was not until the weekend of Jan. 8, when violence engulfed the Thala area, that people even began to consider that the protests might topple the regime.

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