It is unlikely that any international affairs expert could have predicted that the striking of a college educated cart vendor in a small southern Tunisian town by a female enforcement officer would precipitate political upheaval and revolution in at least seven North African and Middle East nations. Since then, governments in Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Bahrain, Oman and Yemen have all undergone their own popular revolutions leading to the resignation of many of their longstanding, autocratic leaders.
No one will ever know if it was the humiliation of having been chastised by a woman in authority or the overwhelming sense of frustration and desperation about his meagre economic opportunities that prompted Mohamed Bouazizi to set himself ablaze and to denounce his government for its corruption, the self-enrichment of Tunisia’s ruling family or its general indifference to the plight of Tunisians.
This single desperate act provoked a wave of demonstrations throughout the country, but especially in Tunis where historical grievances with the government spilled out onto the streets. The protesters were mobilized with the help of the ubiquitous cell phone (and its messaging capabilities) and other forms of social media that connected young people and enabled them to organize their demonstrations quickly and to avoid direct confrontations with authorities.
Having just returned from nine days in Tunis and a number of different cities and towns south of the capital, there are a number of observations that I would make about the developments in Tunisia and their consequence for Canada.
First, the speed of the resignation of Ben Ali, who had ruled Tunisia with an iron fist for 23 years, demonstrates how today’s youth have developed aspirations that cannot be controlled by their political leaders. Moreover, dictators can no longer count on the loyalty of the public or, especially, their militaries, so all traditional controls by governments over their citizens are obsolete.
Second, the desire among the young for democratic reform has permeated the population due to the widespread availability of traditional news sources (such as Al Jazeera) and new media. The images being broadcast into every home and café throughout Tunisia have shown young people what is possible and enabled them to create virtual discussion groups. In every public space that we visited, regardless of the size of the town or village, the ubiquitous TV provided a constant updating of the events taking place in Tunisia and around the world.
Third, images of the protestors demonstrate that women are active participants of the changes taking place in Tunisia. Despite the longstanding tradition of women playing a largely invisible role in most Muslim countries, the presence of women at the head of the demonstrations suggests that, at this point, the revolution is largely driven by secular values and non-violent protest and not by fundamentalist religious passions. Time will tell if the role of women will be sustained and whether the eventual resolution to the political situation will result in a more secular society, but for now this revolution is being led by young, idealistic and non-violent people.
Finally, it is clear that, at this point in time, Tunisia does not have the institutional mechanisms to move to a fully democratic state. For example, Tunisia has had no experience with democratic elections so it will need to develop a system of political parties, to establish an independent media and an honest electoral system, and to devise a peaceful way of transitioning to a new government without bloodshed or retributions.
Until recently, Canada had a global reputation for “good governance.” As a major player in the global governance movement, Canada was an early leader in the progressive governance movement inspired by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Moreover, for more than a decade CIDA offered a well-regarded governance program that was an inspiration to a number of countries including the ANC in South Africa and to the new leadership in the Ukraine in the early days of their democratic development.
Since the Harper government wound down our work in this area, Canadians will likely have to watch the developments taking place in North Africa from the sidelines unless the government recognizes that governance is a Canadian “strong suit.” Failing to take advantage of our expertise would be a pity since we are one of the few countries in the world with legitimacy in the area of democracy building.
At this juncture, Tunisians have only created the preconditions for a move to a democratic state. There are many points along the way where Canada’s trustworthy experience would be of great value. Given the large number of Tunisians who now call Canada home, it seems obvious that we should be helping Tunisia build the democratic institutions that will ultimately determined the success of the Jasmine Revolution.
David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa (firstname.lastname@example.org).