Tunisia's uprising is the first mass movement toppling an established government in the Middle East and North Africa since the Iranian revolution of 1979.
It is the first time ever in history that an Arab dictator has been removed by a popular revolution rather than a coup.
There have been mass movements before in the Arab world, notably the one in Iraq in 1958 which overthrew the British-linked monarchy and installed a left-talking military regime and a period of ferment before the Ba'th party clamped down in 1963; but the nationalist, developmentalist, statist regimes introduced in the 1960s have been long-lived, mostly modifying themselves only by palace coups.
The Tunisian uprising has already had echoes throughout the region. In Egypt, demonstrators chanted that Mubarak should get on a plane, too. In Algeria there have been protests and "copy-cat" self-immolations.
Qaddafi, who has ruled neighbouring Libya since 1969, was quick to criticize the irresponsibility of the Tunisian people. Some observers believe Qaddafi is perhaps the "safest" of local dictators.
But then the most recent book-length study of Tunisia concluded: "it does seem clear... that political change in Tunisia will not come about through some dramatic event that suddenly replaces the existing order..."! (Christopher Alexander, Tunisia: Stability and reform in the modern Maghreb, pp 123-4).
The Tunisian uprising – fuelled by economic and social grievances – is also the first revolt on such a scale against the new world order ushered in by the crash of 2008. It is part of the same struggle as in Greece, Ireland, France – and, of course, here. Its outcome will affect not only the Arab world, but also every country suffering in the crisis.
What are the prospects? Will they be like Iran, where a movement which had included tremendous workers' strikes for secular and democratic demands ended up in an Islamist dictatorship more crushing even than the Shah's? Or will they open the way for a reassertion of the Arab working classes?
Tunisia is more urbanised (66% urbanised in 2000) than Egypt (45%), Syria (55%), and Morocco (56%), though only slightly more so than Algeria (60%) and less so than Iraq (77%).
Its average income per head (on purchasing-power-parity figures) is below the poorest countries of Europe - $9500, as against $11500 for Romania - but above most Arab states other than the oil-rich ones (Syria $4800, Morocco $4900, Egypt $6200, Algeria $7400).
The Tunisian people did not need a Wikileaks cable to tell them that their government was repressive and corrupt. According to one international study, 75% of Tunisians' salaries only last them half the month; the minimum wage is only 130 euros a month. Unemployment in the Sidi Bouzid region is 45%. Unemployment among graduates is 40%.
In 2008, phosphate miners in Gafsa, where unemployment is 30%, were at the centre of an intense struggle, over a six month period. Starting in January, trains between quarries and factories were halted; unemployed youth occupied the regional office of the UGTT union demanding justice; strikes and demonstrations spread, attacking the boss of the phosphate company, who was also regional deputy of the ruling party, the RCD.
Unemployed youth, university students, school students and teachers joined the struggle.
The UGTT leadership was hostile to the actions, threatening to suspend militants who took part. But the rank and file, particularly teachers, carried on being involved. Then the regime cracked down.
Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor who set off the movement of January 2011 by burning himself to death in protest, and his family, were involved in that earlier movement. He was not just an unknown individual, but a respected militant.
The 2008 struggle, like the "jasmine revolution", seems to have been spontaneous, in the sense that no particular organization was central to it. Right now there is no party or group which can claim to be leading the movement.
The UGTT has certainly been a driving force, and although it is weaker (and smaller) than it has been in the past, is still one of the strongest organizations in Tunisian society, with an unbroken, sixty-plus year history. Its decision to oppose the interim government seems to be because of pressure from below.
But although workers have been central to the struggle, this has not, on the whole, it seems, been in the form of strikes. A general strike was called earlier in January in protest at repression. But the fall of Ben Ali was largely due to the movement on the streets, rather than in workplaces.
There have been forms of popular organization. "Citizens' civil defence committees" were formed in some neighbourhoods, particularly to organize resistance to the militias and the police, who were violently policing the curfew immediately after the departure of the president (to whom they remain loyal – unlike the largely conscript army).
But no political movement has yet emerged as any kind of leadership. The main parties are legalistic and bourgeois: opposition leader Najib Chebbi was quick to denounce the UGTT for "irresponsibility" when it resigned from the interim government, and has accepted the ministry for the regions.
There is a Democratic Front (or Forum) for Labour and Liberty (FDTL), which is an associate member of the "Socialist International", and close to the French Socialist Party. The former Communist Party, now called Ettajdid, has the ministry for higher education.
A group called the Communist Workers Party (PCOT) seems to have some weight, though it seems to be Maoist (Hoxhaite, that is, supporting the former dictator of Albania). Its record which includes trying to develop alliances with the Islamist movement Ennahda.
Ennahda seems to have had little or no role in the street demonstrations; there have been, apparently, no religious slogans in the "Jasmine Revolution". This cannot be solely because of repression. Egypt and Algeria have been considerably more repressive towards Islamist parties without driving their slogans out of circulation.
Accounts of Tunisian politics from the 1990s, however, perceived the threat of an Islamist take-over as very real, even imminent. In 1989, Islamist candidates (allowed to compete as "independents" although the Ennahda Party was still not legal) won 17% of the vote. Not a single opposition candidate was elected to the Assembly – the elections were rigged - but it seems that the Islamists' base had at that point dramatically eclipsed the secular left's.
How far it has decreased since then, we do not know.
Tunisia was a French 'Protectorate' – colony – after France seized it from the Ottoman Empire in 1881 and until it won independence in 1956. The colonial period, and the struggle against it, were markedly different from that in neighbouring Algeria.
Algeria, a much bigger country, was was a settler-colony, with a huge population of French colonists. France resisted Algeria's struggle for independence with extreme violence. Perhaps a million people were killed in the war before independence was won in 1962. The resulting regime of the Front Liberation Nationale introduced drastic nationalisations, land reforms (with cooperatives), and a state-centred regime focused on national development and calling itself "socialist"; it was part of a wave of such policies across the Arab world in those years.
Tunisia was not a settler colony; nor was it formally part of France, as Algeria was. Its nationalist movement, led by Habib Bourguiba, was strikingly more moderate and pro-Western, than its Algerian counterpart.
Bourguiba fought the French, of course, and later supported the Algerian nationalist movement, but he was careful not to alienate France too much. Tunisia has maintained, since independence, a very close relationship with its former colonial ruler.
In the 1960s, Bourguiba introduced some "socialist" (that is, state-led and planned) measures, including collective farms; but they were a failure, and Tunisia moved towards so-called economic "openness" ahead of other Arab states. Egypt, which had led the "Arab socialist" fashion, moved to a policy with the same name, "infitah", a bit later, in 1973.
Bourguiba dominated Tunisia after independence, building a deeply authoritarian state. The regime was conservative in economic and foreign policy. On secularism, it was one of the more radical Arab governments of the era. Bourguiba was very concerned to "modernise" the country. He banned the hijab; on one occasion he very publicly drank orange juice during Ramadan, encouraging everyone else to break the fast; and it is still illegal for political parties (such as are legal!) to have religious names.
An important part of the movement Bourguiba built was the trade unions, organised since the 1940s (that is, a decade before independence) into the Union General Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT) – the Tunisian General Union of Labour. One of the union's top leaders, Habib Achour, was a close associate of Bourguiba, and Bourguiba depended in part on the union's support at various times. The Neo-Destour, however, was led mainly by middle class and business interests, so there was always a limit to the labour movement's influence.
One union leader, Ahmed Ben Salah, was driven out of the union itself when the regime shifted to the right in the late fifties, but later re-emerged as chief architect of the "socialist" policy in the sixties. He again fell out favour, however, was arrested, and was forced to flee the country after escaping from prison.
The UGTT was and is a real workers' organisation, but a conservative and cautious one, with a long record of collaboration with both Bourguiba and Ben Ali.
Invited into the new interim government, the UGTT almost immediately resigned its posts and called for a government without members of the old ruling party.
The biggest social battles before this year were in the 1970s and 80s.
There was a growing and militant student movement. Strikes grew in size and militancy. In October 1977, a strike and occupation at a state-owned textile plant in Ksar Hellal (the birthplace of the neo-Destour) escalated into a three-day general uprising. Phosphate miners won a big strike in November.
At the beginning of 1977, the UGTT leadership had signed a "social contract" with the regime. This had drawn sharp criticism from within the unions; and the strike wave through 1977 forced the leadership to change track. In January 1978, the UGTT called the first general strike since independence.
These events revealed
"... the full extent of the government's policy of non-conciliation. While the army, police and militia attacked the workers in the streets, the government moved to decapitate the UGTT, arresting [UGTT leader] Achour and all but two members of the confederation's executive. Predictably the government put the blame for the trouble on communists, Baathists and agitators linked to Libya. For the first time since independence, a curfew was ordered and kept in effect for nearly a month.
"The UGTT newspaper, al-Sha'b, which had been highly critical of government policies before the events, was brought under control when its editor Hassan Hamoudia was arrested; numerous reporters quit in protest and the paper was put under close supervision by the new union leadership." (Nigel Disney, "The Working Class Revolt in Tunisia", MERIP reports May 1978).
The general strike escalated, like the movement the previous October, into a more general revolt. It was savagely repressed. According to non-governmental sources, 200 people were killed (some of them children), 1,000 wounded; over 300 were given jail sentences of up to seven years. The repression became known as "Black Thursday".
In the early eighties, the UGTT and the regime became reconciled. The UGTT signed a deal which traded a wage increase for a promise to refrain from future wage demands and strikes.
Leftist militants opposed the deal. Then, "[i]n 1984-85, [Prime Minister] Mzali waged a fierce campaign that split the union, jailed its leaders, and took over its headquarters. [This] crackdown ended the UGTT's reign as 'the sole political mediator between the government and the nation'." (Alexander, Tunisia, p 50).
By then, wider struggles were escalating. The lifting of subsidies on basic foods in January 1984 had provoked 'food riots'. Turning on the UGTT, the government decided to offer, instead, a "carrot" to the Islamist movement – known then as the Islamic Tendency Movement (MTI), and led by Rachid al-Ghannouchi (no relation to Ben Ali's Prime Minister currently running the interim government).
Ghannouchi has been the dominant figure in Tunisian Islamism. Influenced by the usual suspects of Sunni Arab Islamism – especially the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its two principal figues, Hassan al-Banna and Sayid Qutb – Ghannouchi had concluded from the movement's failure to participate in the 1978 strikes that it needed a more active social orientation.
He took hold of the government's carrot with relish. The MTI supported the UGTT against repression and began seriously to implant itself in student and professional organizations.
The regime quickly realized that the MTI was growing too powerful, and turned to repressing it instead.
The severe crackdown brought the country, by the late summer of 1987, to the brink of civil war. Ghannouchi was arrested for making a speech in an "unlicensed" mosque. Then police uncovered a network of Islamic militants with ties to Iran, and used it as a pretext for trials of leading Islamists, which Bourguiba hoped would lead to executions. When the courts didn't hand down this sentence, the president demanded a retrial...
That was the signal for others in the regime to move against him and replace him by Ben Ali. In November, Ben Ali assembled seven doctors who attested to Bourguiba's inability to govern, and took over as president.
The first period of the new president's rule included some effort at relaxing repression. Ghannouchi, along with thousands of political prisoners, was given an amnesty. A National Pact was formulated, which sixteen political parties and organizations signed.
The system remained highly authoritarian. Debate, in essence, was only allowed within the ruling party, not in society as a whole, and the ruling party, renamed RCD, remained an almost Stalinist machine. Often getting work depended on membership of, or at least the favour of, the party.
The liberalizing phase didn't last long. Ben Ali soon concluded that appeasing the MTI (later renamed Ennahda) didn't work. The regime turned back to wholesale repression.
A civil war such as ravaged Algeria did not take place. In part this was perhaps because Ghannouchi himself is (by Islamist standards) a "moderate" and pragmatic politician.
On the eve of the 1991 Gulf War (when Ben Ali supported the US-led war to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait), Ghannouchi's speeches were becoming more radical, calling for veiling woman, suppressing tourism, shari'a law and a popular uprising. But later Ennahda's policy drifted towards building alliances with other opposition movements, and toning down its demands for "Islamisation" of the country.
Social inequality grew to dizzying levels, and the families of Ben Ali and his wife, Leila (née Trabelsi), known as the 'Queen of Carthage', accumulated huge personal fortunes.
Western governments supported Ben Ali because they saw him as a bulwark against the rising tide of Islamism and because of his continued economic orientation towards Europe and the US.
It would be complacent to dismiss the possibility of an Islamist triumph in Tunisia, which could have terrible repercussions in the region.
In Egypt, most people reckon the still-illegal Muslim Brotherhood would win any fair election. In Algeria, when the Islamist FIS did well in the first round of the 1991-2 general election, the army staged a coup, cancelling the second round and plunging the country into a terrible, extremely bloody civil war in which perhaps 100,000 people were killed. The Islamist movement is still strong in Algeria.
But Tunisia is known as being the most European of North African countries, and government secularism has perhaps been able to run deep. Perhaps in fact the constituency for radical Islamism is much smaller in Tunisia than in some of its neighbours.
There is an opening for secular, democratic, working-class politics in Tunisia such as not been seen in the Arab world for decades. And that too could ripple across the whole region.