Saturday, January 15, 2011

The spark that lit the fire in Tunisia

The sudden toppling of the brutal and kleptocratic regime of former Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was a highlight of last week. The Guardian described how it began:
The man who set off the chain of events that has shattered Tunisia's carefully constructed facade of stability is Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old living in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid, who had a university degree but no work. To earn some money he took to selling fruit and vegetables in the street without a licence. When the authorities stopped him and confiscated his produce, he was so angry that he set himself on fire and died. 
Ten days of demonstrations in Sidi Bouzid followed, then spread to the capital, Tunis, 160 miles away, and grew from there.

Within four weeks of Bouazizi's fiery suicide, it was game over for Ben Ali and he fled to Saudi Arabia.

  The sequence of events reminded me of "Sparks and Prairie Fires: A Theory of Unanticipated Political Revolution" an elegant and insightful paper by Timur Kuran, now at Duke University, that I read with pleasure twenty years ago.
  Here's the paper's abstract:

A feature shared by certain major revolutions is that they were not anticipated. Here is an explanation, which hinges on the observation that people who come to dislike their government are apt to hide their desire for change as long as the opposition seems weak. Because of this preference falsification, a government that appears unshakeable might see its support crumble following a slight surge in the opposition's apparent size, caused by events insignificant in and of themselves. Unlikely though the revolution may have appeared in foresight, it will in hindsight appear inevitable because its occurrence exposes a panoply of previously hidden conflicts. 

In this particular case, private dissatisfaction with Ben Ali's regime was no secret, but it could not find a proper public expression. Kuran's paper neatly shows how a 'bandwagon effect' develops and a revolt can snowball from an initially small demonstration in a provincial town to mass demonstrations in the capital that can topple governments.


Postscript: As a brief follow-up, the Guardian reported today (17 Jan.) on a series of further fiery suicides in other countries by people no doubt hoping to spark another successful revolt. As a comment to the original post points out, rising prices -- particularly for food -- is playing a role in sharply rising discontent.
   These political gasoline-fueled suicides bring to mind the powerful 1979 novel by Polish novelist Tadeusz Konwicki, A Minor Apocalypse, about a man wandering through Warsaw with a can of gasoline on the last day of his life, preparing to set himself on fire in front of Party headquarters.

1 comment:

  1. There has been much reported on the blogs that the one of the tipping points was inflation, which appears a general trend around the world already if not a severe underlying threat. this inflation is directly related to the masses of liquidity (debt) injected into markets by central banks in the US, Japan, Europe, China etc. this has gone unreported in the mainstream press, where the focus is the dictatorial natre of the tunisian regime.

    this appears a common trend as the press report political developments and the rise of democracy, but fail to shine a light on hugely significant issues in the economic sphere (see Iraq, the fall of the USSR and the rise of Boris Yeltsin). the end of aparthied in South Africa was just one example, when political developments were praised in the mainstream while, behind the scenes, the financial elite were ensuring that emancipation for the poor black population of the country was not carried through in the economic sense. all attention went to the creation of the South African constitution while bankers and financiers ensured economic laws and regulations ensured a status quo (Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine provides a superb narrative for these events).

    The hope should be that in building a new country, the Tunisian people can recognise the economic noose around their neck.