Lessons of Tunisia “Leaderless” Revolution

By Dr. Harald Malmgren

Protesters gather in Tunis.
Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali stepped aside after 23 years of rule amid escalating protests.
Credit: http://articles.latimes.com


01/19/2011 – The collapse of the 23+ year reign of Tunisia’s autocratic leadership was the result of a revolt in the streets without apparent political leadership. 21st Century technology enabled discontented citizens to interact and organize, in a kind of spontaneous combustion across the entire country. In spite of government security efforts to impede interaction across Twitter, Facebook, the internet, and cell phones, individual discontent assisted in multiplying and aggregating public demonstrations.

The process was said by some analysts to have been sparked by Wikileaks confirmation of US State Department appraisals that the political leadership was corrupt and operated in mafia style, thus confirming rumors and impressions of ordinary people. Some analysts attributed the sudden, massive revolution as the product of Twitter.

A more comprehensive assessment is that discontent was intensified by food inflation, generating combined food and anti-corruption demonstrations and riots. Demonstrators were enabled to coordinate and reinforce one another through cell phones, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and other digital tools.

This process took the form of what has been described by computer-communication scientists (at Mi2g in the UK) as self-assembling dynamic networks enabled in digital space. Food riots in many dispersed population centers clearly were a powerful accelerant.

This process took the form of what has been described by computer-communication scientists (at Mi2g in the UK) as self-assembling dynamic networks enabled in digital space. Food riots in many dispersed population centers clearly were a powerful accelerant.

The speed and comprehensive effect of this revolution in the streets has already been widely covered throughout the Islamic world in real time, through the functioning of al Jazeera. Warnings have already emanated from politicians and commentators in a number of Islamic countries that the same thing could happen to any other autocratic regime. Within a couple of days of the Tunisian government upheaval, Algeria appears to be suffering outbreaks of unrest, and political figures in Egypt are calling for fundamental change in the post-Mubarak transition. Riots have appeared in Yemen.

At first, this phenomenon of “leaderless revolution” seems primarily to threaten long entrenched autocratic families in Islamic countries. Businesses deeply involved in oil production and trading have become concerned on how this kind of spontaneous upheaval could work its way through to Libya, which does produce oil, primarily for Italy’s ENI, and to royal families in the Persian Gulf area who are related through birth and marriage with Yemen’s leadership.

However, Egypt seems vulnerable to growing sentiment in Egypt that the transition of leadership after Mubarak should not take the form of transfer of power to President Mubarak’s son, but instead should be democratized in a transition to parliamentary government.

The intellectual center of the Islamic world is in Cairo, and Egypt is full of well-educated but jobless youths who want to bring about “modernization” and an end to the dominance of a corrupt and autocratic regime. Upheaval in Egypt would likely have a chain reaction effect in other Islamic countries, and would catch Israel in a new, unbalanced predicament in relations with its neighbors.

But Tunisia has also posed a prototype for revolution from below in other countries — including in European debt-troubled nations suffering under what are perceived as Berlin-imposed austerity budgets and curtailment of national autonomy. Tunisia is a prototype for upheaval in Latin American nations, which have long histories of abrupt revolutions, even though there have been few such incidents in recent years.


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Additional references

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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