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f_0023431_19174 - From Revolution to Transition in Tunisia...

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Fall 2011 The Ambassadors REVIEW 1 From Revolution to Transition in Tunisia Gordon Gray United States Ambassador to Tunisia resident Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s abrupt departure on January 14 set Tunisians upon a new and hopeful path to representative government and greater personal freedom, while setting off a wave of democratic protest across the region. Yet the tumultuous period from mid-December to mid-February—a time of popular uprising, political violence, Ben Ali’s departure, and the early instability of a new government—has been followed by months of deliberately paced and publicly debated transition to a new government enjoying popular legitimacy. In fact, what is most remarkable about the process since Ben Ali’s overthrow is how the people of Tunisia have, in a largely peaceful and orderly manner, set themselves to the immensely complex task of consolidating their democratic transition. Tunisia’s revolution (and the movement that came to be known as the “Arab Spring”) began with the December 17 self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, a young man eking out a living selling fruits and vegetables. Bouazizi’s act struck a nerve. The critical fact so often missed in media accounts of the revolution is just why this one man’s suicide resonated enough to ultimately bring down the Ben Ali regime. While Tunisia’s leaders had long touted the country’s successful economic development, the country’s progress was more uneven than the Ben Ali regime was ever willing to concede publicly. Foreign investment and tourists may have flocked to Tunisia’s coastal regions, but the arid interior had been largely neglected. In these so-called “shadow zones,” residents suffered high levels of unemployment and poverty, while lacking any meaningful voice in government policy. Meanwhile, across the country the corruption of Ben Ali’s family and friends, and the repressive nature of the political system, had further undermined the regime’s legitimacy. Bouazizi’s desperate act was a stark reminder of his neighbors’ common plight, and the same day that his desperate act left him clinging to life in a hospital, protests broke out in Sidi Bouzid. Sidi Bouzid was not alone in its grievances. As the police failed to quell unrest there in late December, protests began to emerge in other neglected provincial towns. With each protest, Tunisians grew bolder. As the new year began, demonstrations spread across the country. Cell phones and social media allowed information to bypass government censors, with Tunisians swapping protest photos and demonstration plans. Injuries and deaths—including Bouazizi’s, when he succumbed to his injuries in early January—only added to the upswell of emotion among the emboldened populace. Ben Ali’s series of televised addresses—at first stern, later pleading—and last-minute promises of reform
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f_0023431_19174 - From Revolution to Transition in Tunisia...

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