Keep piling up load on a camel’s back. The stress will be mounting up on the camel’s legs or back but it’s not showing any symptoms of the stress. The master is oblivious to the fact that the came is under stress. The more goods he can sell at the fare the better it is. So he is seeing the gold within reach. He keeps piling more and more boxes (even though it’s tiny load individually) on camel’s back. Suddenly the camel’s back gives in even though the load the master adds is tiny amount in comparison to the rest of the load on camel’s back. Not realizing that the camel is in pain, he starts to beat the camel urging it to get up. The camel somehow manages to stand up. The master now confident that the camel is pretending, adds more and more load. For the second time the camel collapses. The master now even more confident than before he can control the camel starts beating it again while screaming at it to get up. He gets close to camel’s face and raises aiming his cane at the camel’s neck. The camel in desperation to avoid the blow bites the merchant in the leg, the merchant falls down and the load now 4 or 5 feet high comes tumbling down on him. Fatally wounded the merchant wonders if he should have stopped putting the last box on the camel. Such is the power of chaos – you don’t realize that you are inside chaos until it’s too late.
I am sure you already read the events that led to the revolution in Tunisia, the beautiful North African country. Like the Camel’s back outwardly there is no indication that things are coming to a boil and a revolution is about to break. Inside it’s chaos.
Here is the story as narrated in the media – Mohammad Bouazzi, a 24 year old Tunisian fruit seller is slapped by a female municipal employee when went to protest that he was not allowed to sell on the street. Mohammad was university educated but unemployed. To support his siblings at home he was selling fruit on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, a city in Tunisia without license. Authorities are cracking down on unlicensed vendors in the streets. They confiscated the goods he was selling. Mohammad in protest wanted his grievances heard by the municipal official. He said if he official does not come out and meet him, he would commit self-immolation. The official did not appear and frustrated Mohammad set himself ablaze. For the already oppressed citizens of Sidi Bouzid this incident was too much to take. They started protesting and rioting. Authorities tried to crack down, but the protests and unrests spread to neighboring cities. Within a few days, the violence and unrest spread to the rest of the country, people marched on the capital. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali‘s oppressive regime came tumbling down and the president himself fled the country. Neighboring regimes Libya and Egypt are worried if the same thing will happen to them. Angry mobs, in fact, are shouting that Mu‘ammar al-Qaḏḏāfī will be next.
There is more to this story. A nation is a complex system with every individual as a simple (approximately) model but when put together produces a highly nonlinear system. In such a system small local perturbations produce Tsunami or Tornado affects at the global level. This is what you see with the slapping of a fruit vendor (a local event) causing president of the country to be overthrown. For this to happen the system has to be edging towards instability or fractal boundary. Let us go back in time and see what are the initial conditions that caused the system to become unstable. Let us go back to an earlier time in history of Tunisia.
Tunisia is the smallest of the nations situated along the Atlas mountain range. The south of the country is composed of the Sahara desert, with much of the remainder consisting of particularly fertile soil and 1,300 kilometres (810 mi) of coastline. Both played a prominent role in ancient times, first with the famous Phoenician city of Carthage, then as the Roman province of Africa which was known as the “bread basket” of Rome.
Fast forward to modern times. With the proclamation of the Tunisian republic on July 25, 1957, the nationalist leader Habib Bourguiba became its first president and led the modernization of the country.
The country nominally operated as a republic under the authoritarian regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who governed from 1987 to 2011.Tunisia, an export-oriented country in the process of liberalizing and privatizing an economy that has averaged 5% GDP growth since the early 1990s, had suffered corruption benefiting the former president’s family. It’s the concentrated corruption in the presidential family that led to the public unrest nicknamed Jasmine revolution that’s the topic of this blog.
Tunisia has close relations with both the European Union and the Arab world. Tunisia is also a member of the Arab League and the African Union. Tunisia has built favourable relations with the European Union, and with France in particular, through economic cooperation, industry modernization, and privatisation programs.
The president’s family is accused of a lot of specific corruption scandals but the country’s prosperity left enough for the common man to well fed and contented. President Ben Ali did a lot of good and progressive things. He promoted very good education. There were several great universities and education was mandatory till the age of 16 which meant the average education level was pretty high. Women were treated as equals at schools and work place. Educated people could emigrate to Europe to find employment and make very good living. They thanked the President. He also promoted tourism which is a pretty good industry considering the beautiful weather and the beaches. Unlike other Islamic countries Bikinis on the beaches were allowed. All of this encouraged a lot of tourism from Europe and United states.
However, the corruption was rampant. A lot of revenue went into the coffers of the Presidents immediate and extended families. Business investment from outside was not encouraged. Political freedom was totally curtailed. On October 25, 2009, national elections to elect the president and parliament were held in Tunisia in what was described by a Human Rights Watch report as “an atmosphere of repression”.Ben Ali faced three candidates, two of whom said they actually supported the incumbent. No independent observer was allowed to monitor the vote. Zinedine Ben Ali, won a landslide victory, with 89.62%. His opponent, Mohamed Bouchiha, received 5.01%. The candidate who was most critical of the regime, Ahmed Ibrahim, of the Ettajdid party, received only 1.57% after a campaign in which he was not allowed to put posters up or hold any kind of meeting. The president’s party, the CDR, also got the majority of votes for the parliamentary election, 84.59%.
In the mean time, during 2006 United states has been going through unprecedented boom in Real estate. Investing in housing in Miami is a sure thing. If you buy a house in January, you could turn around and sell it in 6 months for a 20 to 30% profit. It’s easy to get loans. No one realized these two facts – corruption and high education in Tunisia and the real estate boom in the US are closely connected and will result in doom for President Ben Ali.
Fast forward to 2008, real estate market in US crashed taking along with it rest of the developed world. UK, France, Ireland, Greece and other European countries were in crisis. Unemployment was at an all time high. Europe tightened it’s grip on immigration especially immigration from North Africa. At the same time world tourism suffered as those that had money to spend started saving for rainy day.
The clamping down on immigration and the reduction in tourism is a double whammy on Tunisian economy. The corruption and oppression continued because the impact of the crisis was not felt in the Presidential circles. But all of a sudden the common man who is now starving started noticing that not everyone is taking their share of the cut in income due to the crisis. Population became unhappy. They are not dumb and uneducated to not notice or understand the corruption. It would have been nice for President Ben Ali if he did not promote education. As it is it’s too late. Politicians and officials started getting more repressive partly they felt nervous and partly because they were drunk with power. The pot was boiling. Now all that’s needed is the straw to break the camel’s back.
That came in the form of the woman who slapped Mohammad Bouazzi. The rest is history. Jasmine revolution was well on it’s way.
Could something have been done to prevent this? When there is too much water pressure behind the dam, someone should be monitoring, make sure the pressure is relieved by letting some water out from time to time. President Ben Ali should have been more cautious in letting corruption go rampant in the first place. At least if he had been observant of how the European crisis is impacting his country, that would have let him take preventive action. He should have shared some of the wealth. Instead he was grooming his son for inheritance and hoarding what little the country was making. A lesson that Mu‘ammar al-Qaḏḏāfī, Hosni Mubarak, and other leaders in middle east need to take note. Don’t repress the people when they are really angry and are in revolting mood. That will add to the pressure. It’s impossible to route out corruption but if you steal livelihood and late a man watch his family starve, they will start a revolution. (It happened to the French Monarchy). The Meek will inherit the earth – may be until they are oppressed again.
What do you think is going to happen to Tunisia now that the pressure in the cooker is let out? Will the Prime Minister give up power? Will Islamic fundamentalists finally be able to get into Tunisian government? Will the neighboring countries face similar fate?