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At 11:30 in the morning on December 17, 2010, a Tunis vegetable seller named Mohamed Bouazizi protested the police confiscation of his pushcart by dousing himself in oil and setting himself on fire. News of his suicide immediately went viral. Within two weeks Tunisia was paralyzed with protests, with thousands of people filling the streets and squares of the country to demand government action against unemployment, poverty, and repression. After the new year the protests intensified, and the middle classes and police began to turn against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s longtime dictator (r. 1987-2011). On January 14 the military stepped in, dissolved the government, and gave Ben Ali a one-way ticket to Saudi Arabia (promised land of every crooked Sunni warlord and terrorist with a little money left). So, at that point, we had a typical Arab Spring revolution: longtime (US-backed) strongman removed by a popular revolution, army holding “temporary” power, “for the good of the people”. But unlike the other failed Arab Spring states, Tunisia has succeeded.
Tunisia is unusual among its peer nations in the Middle East. First off, it’s got no oil. That might seem like a negative, and to some degree it has been: Tunisia’s government and ruling class isn’t fantastically wealthy, and the country hasn’t seen the kind of ridiculous infrastructure booms that have defied gravity and common sense in, say, Saudi Arabia. However, without the ability to print petrobucks, Tunisia has had to focus on creating a real economy by developing its human capital. The first of the country’s two dictators, Habib Bourguiba (r. 1957-1987), saw universal education and women’s rights as the two pillars of post-colonial economic success, and made both a reality. As a result of his policies (continued by Ben Ali) Tunisia has one of the best-educated populations in Africa and the Middle East. The government spends an astounding 6.2% of GDP on education, more than Germany, Canada, and Australia. With free quality college educations given to students who pass government exams, almost sixty percent of young Tunisians have a bachelor’s degree. (This has translated into decent economic growth for a country with such limited resources. Tunisia grew above 4% per year for most of the 2000s.)
So Tunisia’s population is young, well-educated, and relatively liberal. This meant that international observers (i.e. the West) had high hopes for the country after Ben Ali was kicked out. And things have overall gone well. The army handed over power to a government which has held free and fair elections. Now, unlike fellow Arab Spring countries Libya, Syria, and Egypt, Tunisia is governed by a secular, democratically-elected administration. Its new constitution, adopted last January, is perhaps the most liberal in the Middle East (although still controversial as a result of compromise with Islamist party Ennahda), protecting freedom of worship, forgoing references to Islamic law, and declaring the equality of men and women, even mandating female representation in Parliament. To underscore that liberal victory, last fall Tunisians gave new secular party Nidaa Tounes (Tunisia’s Call) a 38% plurality in parliament and elected president the party leader, French-educated lawyer Béji Caïd Essebsi.
This is all very exciting. If Tunisia can prove that an Arab state can succeed as a liberal democracy, it will stand as a direct challenge to jihadist groups across the Middle East. Its very existence is a threat to groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra who argue that democracy is a Western imposition, that Islam is naturally illiberal, that Arabs will not support a democratic regime. And those groups understand that. In March, ISIS posted a video in which a masked Tunisian jihadist vowed: “We are coming to conquer back Tunisia… I swear you will not be at ease now with the Islamic State a few kilometres from you just across the border.” Suicide bombings, once unknown in the country, are starting to pop up. There is an armed Islamist rebellion in the western mountains. Most visibly to Westerners, in March the world-famous Bardo Museum in Tunis was stormed by terrorists who murdered twenty-two foreign tourists.
And as high-profile as the violence has been, Tunisia faces an even bigger threat: the economy is in the tank. They’re expecting to eke out three percent growth this year, but job growth has lagged significantly. That highly-educated young populace has an unemployment rate of 34%, and you can only hang out in dusty cafes so long before jihad starts to seem like a reasonable option: Tunisia is the single biggest source of fighters for the Islamic State, and most of those are unemployed middle-class kids. Protests and strikes are becoming more common. If the economy does not improve soon, we may see another revolution. This time it’ll be less liberal.
Obama, to his credit, has done well by Tunisia. He’s offered military support, sending over supplies, vehicles, and designating the country a major non-NATO ally. There has been economic support, too, including more than a half-billion dollars in aid since the revolution. But the U.S. and its European allies must do more to support the regime. Tunisia is a test case in the Muslim world. Its success would be the West’s greatest weapon against Islamic terrorism.
In other news, Jerry Seinfeld attempts to make the Internet explode, Obama’s drinking in the morning again, even the racism is bigger in Texas, that horrifying Burger King mascot has only just begun, high-profile asshole Recep Erdoganloses big in Turkey, and for Caitlyn Jenner, the real battle still lies ahead.
- Graeme Wood, “The Lost Man”for California Sunday.
Graeme Wood is killing it this year. The weird, twisting story of Australia’s most famous unsolved murder. On December 1, 1948, a mysterious body is found on an Adelaide beach…
- Matt Taibbi, “Why Baltimore Blew Up”in Rolling Stone.
I know I’ve been sending out a lot of Baltimore stuff recently, but this is an important piece that talks about the broad failures of Broken Windows policing and the scars it leaves in urban communities.
- Maciej Cegłowski, “Ta’izz”for Idle Words.
I’ve been following this guy for a while. Travel writing at its best. This latest dispatch is from Ta’izz, Yemen, and it is just fantastic.
- Andrew Roberts, “Why We’d Be Better Off if Napoleon Never Lost at Waterloo”for SmithsonianMagazine.
Self-explanatory. We’re almost at the bicentennial of one of the biggest battles in world history, and this is a fun look at Napoleon the ruler, and what could have been. I love me some counterfactuals.
- David Tong, “Einstein and relativity: Part I”in Plus Magazine.
Ever wonder what exactly Einstein was doing? I did until I read this. The story of the theory of relativity.
- The Pixies play “Greens and Blues”at Boston Calling the other weekend.
…and I was there! What a f-ing show.
- Black Star lays waste to “Fix Up”live on Colbert.
Kudos to Mr. Mike Mitchell for reminding me of this. Maybe my favorite hip-hop performance ever.
- Lord Huron does “Meet Me in the Woods Tonight”for Electric Lady Studios.
I haven’t really liked these guys much, but this song is killer.