Hivos International

The ‘Jasmine Revolution’: The Fall of the Arab Berlin Wall?

Article by Kawa Hassan

The dramatic and quick fall of the former president of Tunisia Ben Ali was a political Tsunami and a shock and awe. Could this unprecedented and unthinkable revolution have impacts-albeit in the long run- across the Arab Middle East?

This region never witnessed a real popular revolution that brought down a dictatorship. The independence movements - so called revolutions - were in fact military coups initiated by ‘free officers’. Saddam Hussein was removed by an external power.

The “Jasmine Revolution” is first and foremost a demographic revolution without seemingly a leader: almost 50% of Tunisians are highly educated youth beneath 30 years without (sufficient) employment opportunities. They are the foot soldiers of this popular protest. This is a middle class-and not mass- revolution which was mainly led by the major trade union. Civil society organisations and opposition political parties played a minor role in this revolt. Paradoxically, both Ben Ali and his predecessor Bourqiba paved the way for this unexpected revolution by laying the foundations of a secular state and investing in high education, health care and improving women’s rights. But the middle class rose up when authoritarian rule and rampant corruption and cronyism blocked the upward mobility of highly educated youth. The role of the army was decisive in this revolt by choosing not to shoot on protestors and ‘advising’ Ben Ali that the game was over.

Will this revolt have a domino-effect across Arab Middle East? It is always difficult-if not impossible- to predict revolutions and tipping point that ignites them. Few analysts before 17 December 2010 would have dared to predict the “Jasmine Revolution”. Clearly countries across the region are different in terms of historical and socio-economic developments. For instance Egypt is not Tunisia: the army is much stronger and will use brutal force to clamp down on protests, the society and middle class is much less developed, and there is some space for Tanfis (breathing) and voicing dissent.

But there are common indicators: authoritarianism, failure of post-colonial states to deliver on socio-economic developments, rampant corruption and cronyism, and an army of highly educated youth without sufficient employment opportunities.

It is early days to predict how events will unfold. But what is certain is that Tunisia-and with it the entire region- is at a historical crossroads: if it succeeds in securing a successful transition to democracy, 14-1 (the day of the fall of Ben Ali) will enter history books as the day that symbolized the fall of the Arab Berlin Wall. If it fails, it will probably only strengthen the voices-in the region and beyond- that change is impossible since chaos is the alternative and as such it is wiser to stick to status quo (no matter how authoritarian and corrupt).

* Kawa Hassan is Knowledge Officer at Hivos, where he coordinates Knowledge Programme Civil Society in West Asia (

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