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The unexpected awakening of Tunisia: the Jasmine Revolution


What was the chain of events which sparked the Tunisian revolution in December 2011, leading to protests and riots in the following months before overthrowing the incumbent government?

Did food play a major role, fuelling an upset population disgruntled after years of pseudo democracy?

Tunisia’s food and agricultural policies have been focused on the decrease of poverty through consumer price subsidies and programmes. However, these methods have been highly questioned in the light of globalisation and trade liberalisation. Indeed, the industrialisation process undertaken by the country concentrated on the development of tourism-based activities and industrial production, while the agricultural sector was considered primarily as a source of raw materials.

The backdrop

The outbreaks in Tunisia took many by surprise although signs of instability could have been detected, particularly in rural parts of the country. The spatial polarisation generated by the increasing globalisation of the country led to the development of coastal areas at the expense of the country’s interior, as well as increasing inequalities between urban and rural populations.

Questionable structural adjustment policies in the agricultural framework left weakening land rights, a result of the privatisation of the state farms, cut in farm subsidies and privatisation of food marketing networks.

Since the late 1980s, rural protests have taken place, triggered by farmers’ mounting indebtedness and the threats to expropriation. What started as a demand for increased access to resources quickly snowballed to include numerous additional requests such as improved working conditions and enhanced remuneration. These promptly turned into the questioning of state ownership of agricultural land, the legitimacy of farmers’ union leaders (who were alleged to have been corrupted by the government) and contestation of water user’s associations. They also requested free access to water for both household and farming purposes.

Furthermore, the diminished attention given to agriculture contributed to the loss of food security in Tunisia and increased dependency on food imports for grains and animal feed. The fact that food issues took a political turn was a novelty in this conflict, with people using the slogan 'Bread and water without dictatorship'.

Tunisia’s president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ruled the country for 23 years. While technically a democracy, the system received significant criticism, with some opposition parties banned based on their religion. One exception to this was the Ennahda Party, which bore religious tendencies.

Fearing that the Ennahda Party’s growing popularity may threaten his government’s rule, Ben Ali attempted to discredit them and introduced more repressive policies. At this time, Ben Ali manipulated the law to remain the ruler of Tunisia. He continued to be repeatedly re-elected, each time winning by a significant proportion of the vote.

After the financial crisis in 2008, the country encountered high rates of unemployment, especially among its youth. Kasserine, in Tunisia’s west, was one of the first governates to challenge the regime. Faced with 22% unemployment, including a large portion of recent graduates.

In 2010, Ben Ali’s extended family corruption was exposed by WikiLeaks, increasing the population’s resentment towards them. This eventually led to the flight of Ben Ali’s family to Saudi Arabia in the early months of 2011.

The escalation pathway

The global food crisis of 2007-8 was accompanied by soaring food prices, notably staples. Furthermore, in 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) ascertained that prices for agricultural commodities and food products reached a record high1. In Tunisia, this phenomenon resulted in cuts in food subsidies supporting low-income groups in the population. With such a background, it is not surprising that the anger of the population quickly intensified.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t a call for democracy which triggered the uprising but a call for employment. On 17 December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, working as a street vendor in the city of Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire after the seizure of his cart and goods and reportedly degrading treatment. The event, relayed on social media, galvanized the population, leading quickly to protests and riots, starting from the interior of the country and reaching the capital, Tunis, on 11 January 2011. A video of Mohamed's mother protesting at the same place where he died was shared on social media, and inflamed the public’s indignation.

Three days later, the minister of development and international cooperation went to Sidi Bouzid and revealed the allocation of $10million for an employment programme. He acknowledged the demands of the protesters but called for dialogue and not violence to solve the issue. Not impressed, the population considered his words as empty promises, as in 2008.

On 22 December, another unemployed youth killed himself in the same city, leading the revolt to the regional scale. Violence in neighbouring cities burst and a special militia, separated from the army and police forces, fired on protesters who tried to burn police cars and buildings.

Five days later, the protest reached the capital, Tunis, when 1,000 people gathered in solidarity, demanding jobs for the people living in impoverished areas. The next day, police prevented a gathering in the town of Gafsa, and the president condemned the violent acts, committed according to him by a handful of extremists that required punishment and produced a negative impact on the economy.

At the beginning of January, 95% of the country's lawyers organised a strike to condemn the arrests of protesters and demand an end to police violence. They were soon joined by teachers.

Three days later, many bloggers, activists and reporters were arrested in an attempt to contain the outburst.

The event

On 9 January 2011, there was another protest in the city of Talah, in the centre-west of the country. Police used water canon to deter the protesters, without success and then opened fire, killing six people between 17 and 30 years old. In the rural area of Kasserine, reportedly 14 more people were killed. The movement quickly spread to Menzel Bouzaiane, Regueb, Talah and Meknassi, Ben Aoune, causing more casualties amongst the protesters.

The official statement declared 14 deaths and a general blackout of the press had started. The same day, a minor incident occurred in France, at the Tunisian consulate in Paris, where an explosion damaged the offices without causing any casualties.

According to Human Rights Watch, at least 21 people were killed between 8-12 January 2011 in Kasserine and Talah in what seemed deliberate killing by a militia independent from the army.

Early intervention

Government and corruption

The political system initiated by Ben Ali in 1987 was far from democratic. He used violence, fear of unemployment and questionable methods to stay in power for 23 years. Moreover, the levels of corruption witnessed by Tunisia were incredibly high, affecting every level of the political system and benefiting a portion of the population who took advantage of the situation by enriching itself through fraudulent business.

Although Europe played a significant role in the process of industrialisation undergone by the country by becoming one of the major economic partners of Tunisia, this did not affect the levels of corruption pervading the Tunisian government, especially regarding agricultural policy.

Agriculture and food policies

The gradual loss of food security and sovereignty by the country left Tunisia subject to the global fluctuations of the market. One of the major sticking point is about land ownership. First confiscated by the French colonists, these became state’s property after independence. Now people are trying to regain their property using old titles.

One possible solution is to give owner’s rights to farmers. Especially in a context where food security is reconsidered with increased focus on local production, at the national and household level. If people have full rights on the land, they might be more resilient to food variations (availability and prices) and this may appease farmers’ anger.

Due to the difficulties encountered by the Tunisian’s population, food subsidies seem a good solution to alleviate household’s budget dedicated to food. In 2003, food subsidies only covered durum wheat, bread wheat, cooking oils, milk and sugar and represented only 6% of the national budget. In 1985, they represented 10% of the budget. Maybe a less drastic reduction may have helped more the population, especially during though years like 2007 or 2008, increasing their resilience and helping prevent the events of 2011.

Moreover, if the administration of water had been given fully to the inhabitants without letting this sector being corrupted might prevent the events’ escalation. A shared management of water, based on a democratic and fair policy is common practice in countries where water is a precious resource because the persons who manage it know its value.

Finally, the share of agriculture in the economy of the country probably has not reached its full potential. As it has been said, agriculture was considered as a mean to support the development of other sectors such as industry. If the agricultural sector had also benefitted with modernisation policies whilst still employing inhabitants from the rural regions, maybe the country could have taken advantage of the relationship between the two sectors which would have led to a more developed and integrated agriculture.

Key themes

Government, corruption, poverty, inflation, unemployment, suicide.


  1. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2011/01/2011191414183128.html.
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jan/16/tunisia-protests-suicide-algeria-arab.
  3. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/tunisia/11480587/Tunisia-since-the-Arab-Spring-timeline.html.
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/dec/28/tunisia-ben-ali.
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  9. Elloumi, M., 2013. Trois ans après : retour sur les origines rurales de la révolution tunisienne. Confluences Méditerranée. [online] Available at https://www.cairn.info/revue-confluences-mediterranee-2013-4-page-193.htm.
  10. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/02/2011215123229922898.html.


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