How the Arab Spring Started

Tunisia, the Birthplace of the Arab Spring

Protest against the return of Tunisian terrorists from hotbeds of tension
Protest against the return of Tunisian terrorists from hotbeds of tension. Chedly Ben Ibrahim / Contributor / Getty Images

The Arab Spring started in Tunisia in late 2010, when a self-immolation of a street vendor in a provincial town of Sidi Bouzid sparked mass anti-government protests. Unable to control the crowds, president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee the country in January 2011 after 23 years in power. Over the next months, Ben Ali’s downfall inspired similar uprisings across the Middle East.

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The Reasons for the Tunisian Uprising

The shocking self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17, 2010, was the fuse the lit the fire in Tunisia. According to most accounts, Bouazizi, a struggling street vendor, set himself on fire after a local official confiscated his vegetable cart and humiliated him in the public. It’s not entirely clear whether Bouazizi was targeted because he refused to pay bribes to the police, but the death of a struggling young man from a poor family struck a chord with thousands of other Tunisians who began to pour into streets in the coming weeks.

Public outrage over the events in Sidi Bouzid gave expression to deeper discontent over the corruption and police repression under the authoritarian regime of Ben Ali and his clan. Considered in Western political circles as a model of liberal economic reform in the Arab world, Tunisia suffered from high youth unemployment, inequality, and outrageous nepotism on the part of Ben Ali and his wife, the vilified Leila al-Trabulsi.

Parliamentary elections and Western support masked a dictatorial regime which held a tight grip on the freedom of expression and the civil society while running the country like a personal fiefdom of the ruling family and its associates in the business and political circles.

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What Was the Role of the Military?

Tunisian military played a key role in forcing Ben Ali’s departure before mass bloodshed could take place. By early January tens of thousands called for regime’s downfall on the streets of the capital Tunis and other major cities, with daily clashes with the police dragging the country into a spiral of violence. Barricaded in his palace, Ben Ali asked the military to step in and suppress the unrest.

In that crucial moment, Tunisia’s top generals decided Ben Ali lost control of the country, and – unlike in Syria a few months later – rejected the president’s request, effectively sealing his fate. Rather than wait for an actual military coup, or for the crowds to storm the presidential palace, Ben Ali and his wife promptly packed their bags and fled the country on January 14, 2011.

The army swiftly handed over power to an interim administration which prepared first free and fair elections in decades. Unlike in Egypt, the Tunisian military as an institution is relatively weak, and Ben Ali deliberately favored the police force over the army. Less tainted with the regime’s corruption, the army enjoyed a high measure of public trust, and its intervention against Ben Ali cemented its role as an impartial guardian of the public order.

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Was the Uprising in Tunisia Organized by Islamists?

The Islamists played a marginal role in the initial stages of the Tunisian uprising, despite emerging as a major political force after Ben Ali’s fall. The protests that started in December were spearheaded by trade unions, small groups of pro-democracy activists, and thousands of regular citizens.

While many Islamists took part in the protests individually, the Al Nahda (Renaissance) Party – Tunisia’s main Islamist party banned by Ben Ali – had no role in the actual organization of the protests. There were no Islamist slogans heard on the streets. In fact, there was little ideological content to the protests which simply called for an end to Ben Ali’s abuse of power and corruption.

However, the Islamists from Al Nahda moved to the foreground in the coming months, as Tunisia moved from a “revolutionary” phase to a transition to a democratic political order. Unlike the secular opposition, Al Nahda maintained a grassroots network of support among Tunisians from different walks of life and won 41% of parliamentary seats in 2011 elections.

Go to Current Situation in the Middle East / Tunisia

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Manfreda, Primoz. "How the Arab Spring Started." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Manfreda, Primoz. (2020, August 27). How the Arab Spring Started. Retrieved from Manfreda, Primoz. "How the Arab Spring Started." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).