Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

North African Turmoil: Tunisia's Fragile Post-Revolutionary Order

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

North African Turmoil: Tunisia's Fragile Post-Revolutionary Order

Article excerpt

On June 26, 2015, a lone gunman attacked a beachfront hotel in the Tunisian city of Sousse, exclusively targeting foreign tourists. By the time he was shot to death by the security forces, the 23-year old Seifeddine Rezgui had murdered thirty-eight people, many of them British tourists vacationing in the seaside resort.1 The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) quickly claimed responsibility for the atrocity.

One of the worst in Tunisian history, the attack occurred just over three months after the killing of twenty-two people (including seventeen foreign nationals) at the Bardo National Museum in the capital city of Tunis.2 While both attacks were clearly aimed at Tunisia's tourist industry, a vital source of foreign revenue that had been struggling to regain its footing since the 2010-11 revolution, they also threatened to undermine Tunisia's tenuous democratic system established in the years following the revolution.3

Further endangering this system is the large number of young Tunisians (estimated at several thousand) who have rushed to Syria and Iraq to join the ranks of ISIS. There is much about which to be concerned, given the untested capacity of the country's new political structures to confront such widespread jihadist activity (in addition to the host of other challenges faced). While many Western governments aptly view Tunisia as a bright light in an otherwise bleak regional landscape, it would be misleading to consider post-revolutionary Tunisia a foolproof success story. In order to truly succeed, the government will need to address many lingering economic and political issues as well as inspire the younger generation and reduce the appeal of violent jihadists

The 2011 Revolution and Its Aftermath

The uprising was triggered in December 2010 by the self-immolation of Muhammad Bouazizi, a 26-year-old fruit and vegetable vendor from the minor town of Sidi Bou Zid, who set himself on fire in front of the local government offices in a desperate act of protest. While he was not the first Tunisian to embrace such a desperate act,4 his image reverberated across diverse segments of Tunisian society. Mounting frustration over deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, along with rising resentment against a corrupt regime that seemed out of touch with the lives of ordinary Tunisians unleashed a torrent of anger against the government. Bouazizi was inaccurately presented on social media as an unemployed university graduate, forced to sell produce to support his family. This cyber image resonated with scores of young Tunisians, who, frustrated by their stalled economic progress, identified with this fictional image. Other segments of society sided with the frustrated, educated younger generation. These included the population of peripheral towns like Sidi Bou Zid, which took to the streets after Bouazizi's deed. Spontaneous protests spread across the country, reaching the capital in early January. Initial demands for social justice and improved economic opportunities gave way to unprecedented calls for President Ben Ali to step down. On January 13, 2011, the president delivered a televised address to the nation, in which he claimed that he "understood" the protestors, vowed to address their grievances and pledged not to seek reelection. These statements did little to calm the demonstrators, who returned to the streets of central Tunis the next day. By early evening of January 14, Tunisia's media announced that Ben Ali and his family had fled the country for Saudi Arabia where they received asylum.5

News of Ben Ali's departure shocked the public. Few anticipated such an outcome, and many feared for the country's internal stability. At first, some of Ben Ali's cronies believed that political turmoil in the country had ended with the president's flight, that their own positions were secure, and that Tunisia would maintain its existing political structure. That assumption was quickly proved false by angry protesters who resumed their demonstrations, demanding that the Ben Ali regime be completely dismantled. …

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