A successful jasmine revolution, but what next for Tunisia?

The toppling of Ben Ali will inspire oppressed people everywhere – but takes Tunisia into new territ

On Friday, the western media finally woke up to the "Jasmine Revolution" unfolding in Tunisia. After weeks of light coverage of events there, I was surprised to hear an in-depth report on Tunisia on BBC Radio 4 early on Friday morning. The New York Times despatched a reporter to the capital on Thursday, and the Guardian has been carrying stories on its home page daily. By the end of the week, people in the UK and US understood the gravity of events in Tunisia that Middle East watchers had been following for the past three weeks.

Despite President Ben Ali's best efforts to dissipate the energy in the protest movement, which began with the suicide of a young man frustrated at the Tunisian state for having confiscated the vegetable stall where he earned his livelihood, Tunisians gradually became more agitated, and the protest moved from distant towns and cities to the capital itself at the start of the week. Promises of huge investments in job-creation programmes and urgent democratic reforms were rejected by the nationwide movement, which brought together young and old, people in urban centres, small towns, working people and the middle classes. Despite the threat of lethal force, thousands of Tunisians took to the streets as the movement's potential became clear.

The focus of the uprising moved swiftly beyond jobs and the price of food to the corrupt and repressive regime that has been running the country since 1987. The Ben Ali dictatorship is seen as one of the most repressive anywhere in the world, having ruthlessly silenced opposition politics and the press since the early days of his presidency. Internet access has been widely available for years, but many foreign websites – for example, YouTube – are banned, permanently. The trade-off for Tunisians was the promise of a job and a good education, but widespread corruption, emanating from Ben Ali's own family, had reached so far and wide that ordinary people could feel its effects and the economic trade-off started to slip.

It became clear when the protest reached Tunis that the ultimate aim of the movement was a revolution, not just economic reform. Tunisians chanted anti-Ben Ali slogans and made their aims clear on the streets of the capital. I've watched Tunisia for years and I was astounded and impressed at the audacity of this uprising, considering the strength of the formal (police, secret service) and informal (neighbours, taxi drivers, etc) networks that worked to repress alternative political views and ensure the continuity of the regime. Tunisia, and particularly Tunis, can be intimidating at times, if you know how to spot the secret police agents posted on every corner of the capital, and it must have taken real courage for Tunisians to show their discontent in this way.

The regime was startled by the speed and voracity of events, and scrambled to hold on to power. Ben Ali announced on Thursday night that he would not run for election again in 2014, and after a general strike on Friday morning reduced his plea to just six more months as leader, promising a summer election for his replacement. It was clear, however, that after the 23-year period of his rule, mixing fear with shrewd economic management, impressive progress on women's rights and a moderate brand of Islam, the president would barely survive the weekend, let alone six months. The question became not if Ben Ali would fall, but what would happen after he fell: would there be a leadership vacuum and what would fill it?

Some western observers feared an extreme Islamist element would take advantage of any vacuum, but a close look at Tunisian society should calm such fears – Tunisia is no Algeria. Ben Ali's actions over decades to squash all opposition and free media comment resulted in the near-disappearance of a political class outside the regime itself, so there are no obvious national politicians ready to take over. The Tunisian constitution states that, in the event of a president losing power unexpectedly, the leader of parliament takes over, for a 45-day period, leading to new elections. The current leader of the Tunisian parliament is too old and frail to run the country; instead Prime Minister Ghannouchi, a senior member of the regime, led a palace coup and is now de facto president, his views on the next steps unclear. Ben Ali has sought refuge in Saudi Arabia, apparently having been refused entry to France.

Tunisia is reliant on tourism and foreign investment for prosperity. French, German, British and Russian tourists are being evacuated this weekend by the thousand, and western companies with a significant presence in the Maghreb economic powerhouse will be watching events carefully. If chaos ensues, the economic and social progress will rapidly become undone; Tunisia will lose its prized position as a beacon of economic success in Africa and the Arab world. It is vital that a period of calm now comes about – though early signs point to sporadic looting and violence. The interim government today announced elections in 60 days – Ghannouchi must make his intentions clear to give Tunisians confidence that they haven't swapped one dictator for another.

This scenario might be the best possible outcome of last week's successful uprising. Things might not turn out so benign. The final act of the dictator Ben Ali had its seeds sown many years ago when all opposition and alternative political leadership was squashed, and it's an act that could have long-term, damaging ramifications. The Jasmine Revolution is an inspiration for oppressed people everywhere, but it is taking Tunisia into unknown territory.

Luke Bozier writes on the Middle East and has run projects for the British Council in Tunisia.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.