The ‘Tunisami’: some insights into events in the Arab region

Atallah Kuttab

The wave of protests across the Arab region triggered by events in Tunisia has become a ‘Tunisami’. Having denied them for many years, governments are allowing reforms to establish the basic rights of citizens, to ensure their fair and equal treatment and to establish greater opportunity.

Youth (aged 15 to 24 years old), representing more than a third of the total citizens of the Arab region, have been at the eye of this Tunisami. They are frustrated with the lack of opportunity, education systems that do not help them to start a career, and a lack of transparent governance and widespread corruption. While the horizon is narrowing for them, the information revolution has helped them see what their peers around the world are experiencing and therefore the opportunities that they are missing.

Most people in the region had felt that ‘revolt’ was impossible because of the tight security measures imposed by Arab governments. Not only did the recent events cause people to lose their fear of demonstrating but the location and timing of the demonstrations clearly announced the popular mood (Fridays and Sundays had nicknames like day of anger, day of departure, and in memory of those killed and injured). This lack of fear at such a popular level is empowering and has created a dream coming true that no government can easily reverse irrespective of what happens next.

What lies behind the protests?

Traditional ideologies were not the driving force behind what happened. The common factors were asserting integrity, the right to democracy and social justice. This led to a diverse movement that subordinated political tendencies (religious, secular or ethnic) to common human aspirations.

This is truly a popular movement. The absence of leaders makes the movement significantly different from the events in Eastern Europe that led to the collapse of the Berlin wall. In one sense, this is obviously a weakness, but it is also a strength in the sense that the police do not know who to clamp down on. The traditional political establishment, both opposition and government, was clearly behind the curve.

As with other similar events, social networking played a key role in helping connect young people either through the internet or via cell phones. Whenever they were unable to find an appropriate platform, they created their own. Online news of all forms spread like wildfire, and online media helped exposed the brutality of police against citizens. Local media, in which there is complete mistrust, can no longer control information. In Egypt, for the first week, local stations (government and private sector) had regular programmes being broadcast with no reference to what was going on in the streets.

Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab countries all have their differences but they all had the traits that caused the present events. Similar events are therefore likely to happen in other countries and already governments are taking action to stem the Tunisami.

The changes in summary

What changes have already taken place over the last three weeks?

  • Tunisia  Zein AlAbdeen, president for more than 20 years, has left the country and his ruling party has been banned.
  • TahrirSquarearmtiredEgypt  President Housni Mubarak, in post for 30 years, has committed not to run for a sixth term (each term is six years!) when his present term ends in October 2011, and the running of his son, Gamal Mubarak, is no longer on the table. The ruling party in Egypt has been severely bruised and is trying to stay in control but it is doubtful if it will be able to. Two photos from Tahrir Square in Cairo both asking Mubarak to leave. TahrirSquarewifehavingbabyThe first says ‘Please leave my hand is tired.’ The second says ‘Please leave my wife wants to deliver and my new baby does not want to see you.’ (From an unidentified source in Cairo.)
  • Jordan  The ministry of Rifa’i resigned and Bakhit has been charged with forming a new ministry with more favourable policies towards citizens and especially the young.
  • Yemen  President Ali Abdallah Saleh, in reaction to street demonstrations, declared he is dropping his intention to be ruler for life and will not pass the presidency to his son.
  • Algeria President BouTafliqa declared that he will end the state of emergency which has been in place since the 1990s. The state of emergency means that the police can detain anybody for extended periods without stating the reason and without a court hearing.
  • Palestine  Demonstrations in support of the popular movement in Egypt were prohibited. However, Palestinians have challenged the authorities (in both Ramallah and Gaza) and taken to the streets. Implications for the peace process are still to be seen.
  • Syria  A big demonstration, planned for 4 February, did not materialize. The country’s current president, Bashar Assad, inherited the position from his late father, a development made possible by a change to the constitution, since Bashar Assad was at the time below the age stipulated. The ‘dynasty’ of Assad has been ruling Syria since 1969.
  • Libya  Moamar Qaddafi has been in power since 1969 and lining up his family to inherit rule. It’s not clear what is brewing within the country.

Click here for more information on what’s happening in the different countries of the region.

Not a day passes without the governments in the region retreating from entrenched positions which have deprived their citizens of their basic human rights for so many years. The more this happens, the less the region’s peoples will tolerate autocracy and the more likely they are to clash with rulers who plan to stay in power for life.

Implications for other sectors

Given the upheavals, businesses cannot rely on their established relationship with rulers to carry on their business as they always have. For years, they have been making profits without consideration for social justice, community peace and the integrity of citizens (who are ultimately their consumers). Too much focus was put on economic development at the expense of other aspects of life such as education, health and other essential human rights. The current instability is taking everybody by surprise. Corporate social responsibility will need to be taken more seriously in the future. 

Like everyone else, the philanthropy sector has been caught off guard by the Tunisami. It is to be hoped that the various foundations in the region – local ones taking the lead and the international ones guided by them – will invest more in programmes that focus on tackling the root causes of social injustice in order to create community peace in all countries. Although we know the repercussions of the lack of social justice and peace (the subject matter of the last issue of Alliance magazine), rarely in history have we seen the results of such a lack on the scale we are witnessing in the Arab region. While the results are still uncertain, it is refreshing to see the empowerment of people on such a scale. A promising time is ahead of us.  

A role for CSOs

Based on all the above, what can civil society organizations (CSOs; including NGOs, foundations, etc) do? Here are a few suggestions.

  • The actuating principles of this popular uprising are not ideological; they are general principles of democracy, ending corruption and human rights. It is therefore important that CSO investment and programmes focus on, or at least have clear components related to, respect for all human rights stipulated in the UN Convention on Human Rights.
  • There must be programmes encouraging dialogue and tolerance of the new minority, ie entrenched supporters of outgoing regimes. Peaceful resolution of any conflict is paramount – and CSOs in the region have rich experience in this area, which they need to adapt.
  • The young have been the backbone of the uprising; they now need to be organized for effective participation in the future political system. CSOs can invest and manage programmes in this regard.
  • Both the Egyptian and the Tunisian authorities tried to curb the demonstrations by stopping internet connectivity. Google stepped in after Egypt cut off internet access. It devised a way for people to leave voice messages then have their thoughts posted through the Twitter messaging service. The service, Speak2Tweet, is credited with helping Egyptians get around the blackout. CSOs can support community services that will replicate such a service so that it becomes more difficult for governments to stop citizens connecting with each other in future.
  • It is important to support activities that will document what happened so that people are aware of all the positive experiences.
  • CSOs must engage with the private sector and redefine CSR. CSR is not a matter of putting funds into projects supported by rulers’ spouses and family members, as has been the case in many countries in the region. Good governance and transparency in decision making is needed so that CSR becomes more strategic, and not simply an extension of existing ruling systems.
  • Finally, there is a huge gap in philanthropy advisory services in the region that needs to be filled either by non-profit or for-profit entities to guide philanthropy and make it more relevant, accountable and responsive.

Atallah Kuttab is Director General of the Welfare Association, Switzerland/Palestine. Email

This article reflects his personal opinions and not those of any organizations he is associated with.

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