Being an analyst of Middle Eastern affairs, one endeavours to avoid the ever-present clichés that collapse the complexities of regional issues into sound bites. However, in thinking through the question of what led to the outbreak of unrest in Tunisia in December 2010 and the broader unrest in the region, I hope I may be forgiven for relying on a cliché as an explanatory tool. For me, this picture* says far more than a thousand words. It shows, in such real, visceral terms, what changed in the months leading up to the fall of Zine al Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 and helps explain why unrest occurred now rather than any other time over the last 20 years.
Specifically, I see this image as showing the difficult to quantify issues of regime detachment and evidence of a redundant mode of regime legitimation. This is not to discount the well-documented importance of demographic changes, removals of food subsidies, changing geo-strategic patterns, and other forces that all contributed to the uprisings across the region. However, these have been relevant issues for the region since the late 1980s. The added factor of social media has also contributed to opposition mobilisation, but the lack of internet penetration in the states that have witnessed the most serious unrest (particularly Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen) counts against this as a catalytic factor in causing the outbreak of unrest.
The increasing detachment of regimes from popular concerns is obviously connected to failing non-coercive means of compliance. However, it is the congruence of these factors alongside the aforementioned issues of demographic changes and the mobilisational tools provided by social media that can fully help to illustrate the network of issues underlying the unrest.
This image shows former President Ben Ali visiting Muhammad Bouazizi after his self-immolation on December 17, 2010. Bouazizi’s story is well documented, but his brief journey after his hospitalisation and tragic death on January 4, 2011 is worth reflection. Moved through several intensive care units, it was only after the regime came under pressure did he finally arrive at the Burn and Trauma Centre in Ben Arous, the sole facility in the country equipped to deal with the scale of his injuries. It is here that Ben Ali is pictured in Bouazizi’s ward on December 27.
Ben Ali’s visit was an effort to show that the regime and Ben Ali himself was responsive to the needs of the people. However, the symbolism of a detached ruler exploiting the helpless figure of someone driven to such a desperate act because of the regime’s own dysfunctionality reaffirmed and solidified the view that not only was this regime out of touch, detached from the needs of society, but mercenary beyond reform.
It is this detachment and the exploitation of Bouazizi’s desperation that lead to what is even more significant about this image, the open show of utter contempt and disgust by those around the President. In particular, the three doctors attending Bouazizi make no effort to hide their repulsion toward Ben Ali. Whilst this may seem a flippant observation, it is an important representation of how the symbolic dynamic of authoritarian rule and legitimation in the Arab world based largely on fear, what Lisa Wedeen captures so well in her outline of the ambiguities of domination, was broken.
No longer would people willingly participate in the ceremony of the cult of leadership backed by the threat of force, a process that enabled Ben Ali, Mubarak, Assad, Saleh, and others to regulate public political behaviour and promote division. This was not a dependence on coercive means of compliance, but the threat of personal and social violence to force participation in modes of regime legitimation, a step ahead of Nazih Ayubi’s ‘fierce state’. What we have seen since December 2010, in simple terms, are these acts making these regimes no longer tolerable.
Understanding the roots of the uprisings in the Arab world in this way, I think, enables one to avoid falling into the trap of viewing events through aforementioned clichés of democracy or not, Islamism or not, and neo-colonialism or not. Admittedly, it is a negative premise, one that views the unrest as trying to remove an intolerable situation rather than reaching for an alternative. But this should not be surprising. The very effectiveness of autocratic rule in the region over the previous 5 decades has decimated opposition movements. Indeed, the uprisings have only reached a small minority in the region, with authoritarian regimes still firmly in place from the Atlantic to the Gulf.
Despite this, the people across the region are finally gaining the chance of gaining some control over their future, and this is truly signficant.
* I thank my colleague Associate Professor Richard Pennell at the University of Melbourne for passing this image on to me.