Election posters in Tunis. The campaign for the first elections features 81 political parties in a country where more than 90 per cent of the vote used to be awarded to just one. Image Credit: AP

Manama: Tunisians go to the polls on Sunday in the first real test for the emerging democracies in the Arab world. Around four million people will be casting their ballots to elect the 218 representatives who will draft a new constitution and choose who will run the North African country where the chain of events that shook several regimes to the core and changed perceptions about people in the Arab world started.

No one could predict in December last year that an almost insignificant incident would be used to spark uprisings by angry and frustrated people against their oppressive regime, and ultimately, change geopolitics in the Arab world and beyond.

Versions varied about what happened exactly on December 17, 2010 when Fadia Hamdi, a 34-year-old municipality policewoman and Mohammad Bu Azizi, a fruit seller sharply disagreed over the fees for a licence to sell fruit and vegetables at a market in Sidi Bouzid. Tales about a slap and curses were never fully substantiated or denied.

However, everybody agreed that following the altercation, Bu Azizi went to complain to the authorities, but when nobody was willing to listen to his grievance, he bought petrol and set himself alight. His act of despair gave courage to his family and clan — the notion is still strong in the area — as well as to other people in Sidi Bouzid to complain publicly and air their grievances despite the strong tradition imposed by the police not to disturb public order.

Five days later, Hussain, 22, electrocutes himself in the midst of a demonstration over unemployment in Sidi Bouzid. "No to misery, no to unemployment," were reportedly his last words.

The police, as expected, reacted with violence and more people eventually brushed aside years of frustration and grievance and organised rallies to denounce the brutality of the police and the repression of the regime.

Mohammad Ammari, 18, is killed two days later by police during violent demonstrations in Menzel Bouzaiene.

Strong movement

With more deaths and violent reactions, the protest movement quickly spread to other regions in the centre and south of Tunisia, turning into a strong movement calling for justice for the thousands of unemployed graduates and for those who had been deprived of their assets by the greedy and unscrupulous relatives of the then president Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali, and especially, his wife Laila Trabelsi.

By December 25, Sfax, the economic capital, became a hotbed for crucial demonstrations and protests and on December 27, Sousse hitherto a firm supporter of the president witnessed its first demonstration. In Tunis, hundreds of people started the first moves that would culminate in the collapse of the regime.

The regime reaction relied extensively on the partisan media to belittle the protests and to attack the protesters. However, this time, the state did not have the exclusive media coverage of the dramatic events unfolding in the country and Bin Ali's words had no effect after various media highlighted their hollowness.

The Doha-based Al Jazeera broadcaster galvanised protesters and helped give them a sense of direction. Among the Tunisians, and their supporters, popular networking sites, especially Facebook, enabled the crucial sharing of information.

Speeches by Bin Ali in which he appeared uncertain, incoherent and troubled confirmed the weakness of the political establishment, prompting more people to join the swelling wave of protests inexorably moving towards the capital. In the meantime, a clearly shaken Bin Ali tried to save himself and his cohort by receiving Bu Azizi's mother and sister and promising them financial assistance and later by visiting Bu Azizi at the Ben Arous Burns Unit where he was being treated.

But for the people of Tunisia, who had just shaken off 23 years of deep fear, the pledge and the visit only confirmed their understanding the regime was becoming helpless and they exerted further pressure by organising huge rallies in front of the interior ministry.

In a last-ditch attempt to remain at the helm of the country, Bin Ali vowed in a televised speech in Tunisian dialect, his first and last since he assumed power in 1987, not to seek re-election in 2014, to introduce more freedom and to institute widespread reforms. The nation thought it was a case of too little, too late, and vowed more pressure.

Bin Ali eventually left the country on January 14 and flew to Saudi Arabia. The announcement of his departure on Tunisian TV at 6pm local time sparked scenes of jubilation. Tunisia became the first country in the Arab world to chase away its leader and people started dreaming about a better future.

However, the elation and triumph were dampened when prime minister Mohammad Gannouchi appeared on TV to say he had taken over as interim president according to Article 56 of the Constitution.

The article stipulates that when the president of the republic is unable to carry out his functions temporarily, he is to delegate his powers to the prime minister. The people understood that the presidency vacancy was temporary and that Bin Ali who almost everyone thought was gone forever would be back.

However, the constitutional aspect of the transition was rectified the next day by the Constitutional Court, and the Speaker of the Parliament was sworn in as interim president based on Article 57. Bin Ali can no longer be president of Tunisia.

Coming together

The new scenes of celebrations were again dampened after snipers loyal to the former regime reportedly killed more people and gangs started prowling neighbourhoods at night, attacking homes and shops to loot, taking advantage of the absence of the police.

However, Tunisians, initially paralysed after they discovered that there were snipers and violent gangsters in their peaceful country, organised themselves in an unprecedented spontaneous movement of solidarity.

Neighbours, relatives and friends turned into a vigilant watch force to help secure their homes and shops.

On the political front, the new government, a mixture of new faces and the old guard, led by Gannouchi, failed to win the approval of the increasingly sceptical nation and several of its members pulled out, even though the cabinet announced unprecedented reforms, lifted the ban on human rights groups, released political prisoners and pledged press freedom.

As confusion threatened to sink the country and the government faced strong street pressure and formidable challenges, Gannouchi resigned on February 27, ceding the top position to Al Baji Qaed Al Sibsi who turns 85 in November.

Al Sibsi is a veteran politician who held several senior positions, including the foreign minister, under Habib Bourguiba, the country's first president.

Free of all the old guard and Bin Ali loyalists, the government started to move forward amid pledges of strong support from the international community.

Al Sibsi urged Tunisians to be patient and supportive.

"The government does not have a magic wand to resolve all the problems in such a small amount of time," he said, as he called for an end to strikes and sit-ins that rocked the country as the future seemed uncertain.

On March 3, the interim president announced that the country would hold its first genuine elections on July 24 to elect an assembly that would draft the new constitution "a mirror of the people's aspirations and the principles of the revolution."

However, in June, the prime minister said that the elections would be held on October 23, not in July as planned, based on a proposition presented in May by the country's electoral commission.

According to the highly-esteemed panel, more time was needed to organise the vote.

Timeline

  • October 1 Campaigning begins for what is billed as the first free election in the country's history. About 11,000 candidates will contest 218 seats in an assembly which will have the task of drafting a new constitution.
  • December 17, 2010 Mohammad Bu Azizi immolates himself in the central town of Sidi Bouzid in protest against his vegetable cart's confiscation by police. Local residents demonstrate in support.
  • March 9 A Tunisian court rules that president Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali's party be dissolved, triggering street celebrations.
  • March 7 Al Sibsi unveils a new cabinet of technocrats rather than career politicians, none of whom had served in previous governments under Bin Ali. Shortly after the new cabinet was announced the Interior Ministry says that Bin Ali's political police and state security apparatus has been dissolved — a core demand behind the popular uprising.
  • May 8-10 Authorities arrest nearly 200 people after a series of anti-government protests that culminated in a street battle in Tunis. Protesters say they fear the interim administration will renege on its commitment to guide Tunisia towards democracy after decades of autocratic rule.
  • June 8 Elections will be delayed until October 23 from July 24, to ensure they can be "free and transparent", Al Sibsi says.
  • June 20 A Tunisian court sentences Bin Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi, in absentia, to 35 years in jail for theft and for illegally possessing large sums of cash.
  • July 28 Tunisia sentences Bin Ali and his son-in-law to 16 years each in jail, on charges of corruption.
  • August 15 Security forces use tear gas and truncheons to disperse protesters in Tunis demanding the government step down for failing to prosecute supporters of the ousted president.
  • January 4, 2011 A badly burned Bu Azizi succumbs to his injuries. A huge funeral gives momentum to protests against unemployment and repression.
  • January 14 After days of clashes in which dozens are killed, and having made empty promises of reforms and elections, President Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali flees to Saudi Arabia. Prime Minister Mohammad Gannouchi stays on, with parliamentary speaker Fouad Mebazza as interim president.
  • January 17 Gannouchi appoints opposition figures to a new national unity coalition and promises to free political prisoners.
  • January 18 Some opposition figures quit cabinet, demanding removal of former Bin Ali loyalists. Protesters denounce ‘sham'.
  • January 20 After first cabinet meeting, government offers amnesty to all political groups, including banned groups.
  • January 21 After a day of protests against the old guard's presence in the new cabinet, Gannouchi promises to retire as soon as elections are held.
  • February 27 — Prime Minister Gannouchi resigns after violent protests over his ties to Bin Ali, triggering street celebrations in central Tunis. He is replaced by Al Baji Qaed Al Sibsi, a former foreign minister under independence President Habib Bourguiba, according to an announcement by interim President Fouad Mebazza.