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.

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Recess confidential: Labour's liquid party

Sniffing out the best stories from Westminster, including Showsec, soames, and Smith-side splits.

If you are celebrating in a brewery, don’t ask Labour to provide the drinks. Because of the party’s continuing failure to secure a security contractor for its Liverpool conference, it is still uncertain whether the gathering will take place at all. Since boycotting G4S, the usual supplier, over its links with Israeli prisons, Labour has struggled to find an alternative. Of the five firms approached, only one – Showsec – offered its services. But the company’s non-union-recognition policy is inhibiting an agreement. The GMB, the firm’s antagonist, has threatened to picket the conference if Showsec is awarded the contract. In lieu of a breakthrough, sources suggest two alternatives: the police (at a cost of £59.65 per constable per hour), or the suspension of the G4S boycott. “We’ll soon find out which the Corbynites dislike the least,” an MP jested. Another feared that the Tories’ attack lines will write themselves: “How can Labour be trusted with national security if it can’t organise its own?”

Farewell, then, to Respect. The left-wing party founded in 2004 and joined by George Galloway after his expulsion from Labour has officially deregistered itself.

“We support Corbyn’s Labour Party,” the former MP explained, urging his 522,000 Facebook followers to sign up. “The Labour Party does not belong to one man,” replied Jess Phillips MP, who also pointed out in the same tweet that Respect had “massively failed”. Galloway, who won 1.4 per cent of the vote in this year’s London mayoral election, insists that he is not seeking to return to Labour. But he would surely be welcomed by Jeremy Corbyn’s director of communications, Seumas Milne, whom he once described as his “closest friend”. “We have spoken almost daily for 30 years,” Galloway boasted.

After Young Labour’s national committee voted to endorse Corbyn, its members were aggrieved to learn that they would not be permitted to promote his candidacy unless Owen Smith was given equal treatment. The leader’s supporters curse more “dirty tricks” from the Smith-sympathetic party machine.

Word reaches your mole of a Smith-side split between the ex-shadow cabinet ministers Lisa Nandy and Lucy Powell. The former is said to be encouraging the challenger’s left-wing platform, while the latter believes that he should make a more centrist pitch. If, as expected, Smith is beaten by Corbyn, it’s not only the divisions between the leader and his opponents that will be worth watching.

Nicholas Soames, the Tory grandee, has been slimming down – so much so, that he was congratulated by Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, on his weight loss. “Soon I’ll be able to give you my old suits!” Soames told the similarly rotund Watson. 

Kevin Maguire is away

I'm a mole, innit.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser