Education International
Education International

Tunisia: the spark that set the Arab world ablaze

published 30 March 2011 updated 12 April 2011

On 17 December 2010, a young vegetable seller named Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself alive in protest at police harassment in a small poverty-stricken town in Tunisia. Within a month the regime of President Ben Ali had fallen, sending shock waves across the entire Arab region.

Bouazizi’s gesture of despair became a symbol for revolt by young people ready to fight to wrest back their right to freedom and justice which was eroded over 23 years of Ben Ali’s dictatorship. It triggered spontaneous gatherings of young people, trade unionists and opposition groups.

The city of Sidi Bouzid has secondary school completion rates of 95 per cent, yet 50 per cent of school-leavers are unemployed. Despite the authorities’ crackdown, the movement spread to other towns in the region where the memory of the violently-repressed Gafsa miners’ rebellion in 2008 was still fresh in locals’ minds. This time, however, images of the clashes were posted by young people across social networking sites and picked up by the Al-Jazeera news service. Nothing could stem the uprising.

"It was a spontaneous movement that we decided to support early on," said teacher union activist, Attia Atmouni. "Everyone identified with Bouazizi," added another teacher, Moncef Salhi.

Army defends the crowds

On 8-9 January, the police fired live rounds in Kasserine, killing and injuring dozens. An explosion of fury spread like wildfire across the country despite the tight security clampdown. The initial demands for social reform shifted to a political rallying call, "Ben Ali out!” By refusing to open fire on the demonstrators, opting to fraternise with the crowds, the army tipped the balance of power. Ben Ali deployed his militia to the streets for a final round of terror, to no avail. He resigned and fled the country on 14 January. The UN reports that 219 people were killed in the people’s revolution.

The success of the uprising owes much to mass cyber-activism of Tunisian youth. Despite mainstream media having long been gagged and Internet censorship being heightened during the revolt, 1.5 million Tunisian users swapped proxy addresses to surf to banned sites, share information, and organise using Facebook.

Trade unions’ crucial role

The role played by trade unions was another critical factor. With 350,000 members representing 64 per cent of the workforce through 7,000 local branches, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) was instrumental in harnessing popular anger, including through rotating strikes in towns and cities. Its activities were given international profile by support from EI and the ITUC and national unions.

At a time of political transition set against a backdrop of serious social and economic hurdles, trade unions have a key role in building democratic values of social justice in the new Tunisia. The tragic circumstances of Bouazizi’s death have culminated in a wave of uprisings across the region. Within a month of Ben Ali fleeing Tunisia, the people overthrew Egypt’s President Mubarak, and from Yemen to Bahrain, through Morocco, Algeria and Libya, there appears to be no stopping an increasingly educated youth who have been denied access to opportunities from a future of organising against unemployment, corruption and a lack of freedom.

By Natacha David, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 37, April 2011.