Jawar Mohammed

Tunisia vs. Ethiopia: Can the Jasmine Revolution Be Replicated?

By Jawar S. Mohammed*

After a sweeping nonviolent uprising forced Tunisia’s despotic ruler out of office, Ethiopian activists and pundits are speculating a renewed possibility of a similar revolution in Ethiopia. Factors that triggered the Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution”—hike in food price and costs of living, can also be observed in Ethiopia, and are fueling the optimism.  As citizens pray for the Tunis wave to reach Finfinne, the Ethiopian regime is scrambling to erect a levy against it.  Meles Zenawi’s fear of not becoming the next Ben Ali is not without reason. But what are the odds of his nightmare becoming a reality?

The Demise of Ben Ali

A year ago, after listening to my presentation on strategic nonviolent resistance, a Tunisian activist told me that although theoretically sound, it’s impractical to implement a nonviolent resistance in countries such as Tunisia. He gave a laundry list of reasons for his beliefs;

1) The regime will use excessive force to prematurely crush organized resistance,

2) The military and security forces are very loyal to the regime,

3) The regime has co-opted all religious and community leaders,

4) The opposition is too divided, and lacks a charismatic leader

5) The regime has the full backing of the West, which would not stand by and watch its ally collapse

6) The ruling party has an extensive network of over two million members (20% of the total population) that would enable it to sniff out any possible threat.


Does it sound familiar? What a difference a year can make! Civil insurrection has toppled the once invincible Ben Ali, and the cynical activist I met in Washington, D.C. is now among the youth that engineered the revolution.

A ruler remains in power only as long as he has the consent of the people. In democratic countries, such consent is secured through periodic elections. In authoritarian systems, people consent due to fear, hopelessness, and identification with the ruler etc. The citizens’ consent indirectly translates into cooperating with and enabling the system that oppresses them. The objective of a civil resistance, therefore, is to eliminate factors that force citizens to consent to brutal and corrupt rulers. When people refuse to submit to the wishes and demands of their oppressor, the legitimacy of the ruler becomes questionable. The withdrawal of people’s cooperation increases the cost of making citizens conform. With reduced legitimacy and increased cost of control, the regime’s endurance begins to wane. When endurance is shaking, enforcers start feeling doubtful, so away goes their loyalty, and forcing the pillars that hold the power of a dictator to collapse.

The efficiency of a nonviolent movement depends on the choice and sequencing tactics. Gene Sharp identified some 200 methods that are categorized under three main tactics: protest (persuasion), noncooperation, and intervention. Protests serve as a means of raising awareness and creating unity among victims of the system. Noncooperation weakens the system’s ability to enforce its will, while intervention is obstructing the normal activities of the system and eventually crippling it.

What happened in Tunisia is a classic case of successfully executed nonviolent insurrections. Over the last several years, Tunisian citizens used social networks to expose corruption, human rights violations, unemployment, and repression. By the end of 2010, Tunisians have found one unifying issue – the economy, particularly the towering unemployment. The self- immolation of Mohammed Bouaziz—an unemployed young college graduate—protesting confiscation of his produce by police served as a trigger for a revolution ready to engulf the nation.

A heavy-handed attempt to suppress a rally in Bouaziz’s hometown of Sidi Bouzid was exposed by social media and soon enough other towns joined in solidarity. The movement gained momentum as labor activists and lawyers came onboard. The regime’s attack on those professionals backfired – elites from all sectors condemned the act and the middle class joined the movement. The activists employed brilliantly sequenced tactics completely disorienting the system through unpredictable and dispersed eruption of rallies all over the country. This served two purposes: first, although the number of direct participants was relatively small (less than 100,000 on its final days), the sporadic nature of the protests glorified the magnitude of the resistance. Second, the unpredictability of the events made the regime’s coordinated repressive response difficult.

Seeing the futility of repression, Ben Ali attempted appeasement by promising sweeping reforms. He reshuffled his cabinets, vowed to create 300,000 jobs, and grant full freedom of expression. The activists responded by increasing the pressure, calling on him to step down. When everything failed, Ben Ali resorted back to repression and ordered the military to use every means necessary to quash the revolt. However, the chief of army, Gen. Rachid Ammar, refused to order his soldiers to use live ammunition against unarmed protesters. His replacement followed the same suit. Ben Ali realized too late that everyone was sensing a rapid decline of the system’s endurance and his once loyal subordinates began positioning themselves to the new reality. The military leaders and reformist ministers took sides with the protesters forcing Ben Ali to run for his life.

The Danger of a Dominant Party System

Ben Ali failed to detect the looming troubles due in part to the perceived strength of his ruling party. His ruling party had over two million members who wore shirts with the president’s face on it, and swore to die for their beloved leader. His members proved their loyalty by helping Ben Ali win last year’s election with a staggering 89% percent. Interestingly enough, Meles Zenawi’s party boasts over five million members, whom he credits for winning him 99.6% of the parliamentary seats last May. Following the election, Meles attributed his overwhelming ‘victory’ to the dominant party system he had setup. Tunisia exemplifies the unreliability and even danger of grandiose dominant parties. How long a minority dominated ethnic coalition like the EPRDF would last, if met with a powerful strategic civil insurrection like Tunisia remains to be seen.

Opposition Politics: Leadership and a Unifying Agenda Syndrome

Opposition parties both in Ethiopia and Tunisia are highly fragmented and lack a unifying agenda or leader. With a low credibility rating, most citizens have a pessimistic view of the opposition. However, despite ever-growing harassment and repression, as well as the gloomy prospect of capturing state power, Tunisian opposition remained in the country and continued to participate in elections—even when they had no chance of winning. This proved to be important.

While Tunisian opposition political parties did not initiate or plan the civil insurrection, their presence on the ground was indispensable. By publicly defending the revolution, opposition leaders legitimized the youth movement against the regime’s attempt to dismiss it as extremism and hooliganism. When the resistance grew larger, opposition leaders jumped on the opportunity, directing and guiding the movement to achieve a full political change. They also facilitated communication between protesters and reformists within the government. Their role proved instrumental in reducing causality and preventing prolonged instability that could have resulted in the military seizing power to restore order. Quite startling, Islamic parties that were supposed to have the strongest support and thought to pose the main threat to Ben Ali, had a very small role in this revolution and its aftermath. The leaders of those parties were outside the country, and were out of touch with the reality on the ground—least aware, unprepared, and too far to make a direct impact on the political outcome.

The Role of the Military

Behind the success of the Tunisian revolution lies a constructive role played by the military. With no endurance left in Ben Ali, the military had multiple options: to stage a coup d’état and seize power, or to help civilians form a transitional government. They chose the latter. By defying the president’s order to crack down on the resistance, the military helped speed up the collapse of the old regime. Some went as far as setting up a telephone hotline system in order to protect the protesters against attack by Ben Ali’s loyal militias. Furthermore, by cracking down on the old security apparatus, the military prevented a likely coup against the new regime. In the words of General Rachid Ammar, the Tunisian army was acting as the “guarantor of the revolution.”

The odds of the military playing a similar role in Ethiopia are very small. The composition of the military is starkly different with all key command positions held by Meles Zenawi’s ardent loyalists from one ethnic group. In addition, Meles has been successful in instilling fear and insecurity among Tigrean elites (military, political and economic). They widely believe that the downfall of Meles and TPLF would result in a severe retribution against the Tigrean community and businesses. Therefore, Tigrean officers are unlikely to remain neutral or support a revolution against TPLF. In the event that a well-planned and strategically-guided resistance forces Meles to lose control, two possible scenarios may emerge:

a) The Tigrean generals will stand with Meles and crack down on resistance. At that likely event, given the discontent within the military, officers from other nations may side with the resistance resulting in an unpredictable and very violent episode.

b) Tigrean officers will stage a coup and replace Meles with another TPLF leader, hence leadership transition without a regime change. This could result in temporary relief; however, once wounded, authoritarian systems plunge into chronic crisis and do not last long.

Foreign Support

Another interesting lesson from the Jasmine Revolution is the limit of foreign guardianship for authoritarian rulers. Both Ben Ali and Meles Zenawi top the list of Western allies in the war on terror. The despotic rulers and their opponents believe the West will do everything to protect their “Yes Men” from any trouble. Tunisia’s revolutionaries proved the myth wrong. In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama recognized the Tunisian people’s desire to be free. In Tunisia he said, “…the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator.” It is not that the West (especially France) would have refused to help Ben Ali; it is rather the intensity of the resistance that took them off guard. By the time they woke in Paris and Washington, it was too late. Therefore, the United States and France had no option but to stand with the people of Tunisia. They even denied asylum request for their departing buddy.

The fate of Meles Zenawi might not be any different. Argument can be made that the geopolitical importance of Ethiopia is higher than that of Tunisia. Due to the volatile regional situation (Somalia, Yemen, Eritrea, Kenya, and Sudan), the West does not want to see instability in Ethiopia as it could pose grave danger to global security. Yet, past and recent history shows once a dictator loses internal control it is unlikely to be saved by external allies. In fact, my observation of the Obama administration is that while it lacks the stamina to provide practical support for democratic change, it does not stand in the way.

The Economy: Politics of Inflation and Price Caps

Ethiopia is facing more severe economic instability than Tunisia. During the early years of Ben Ali’s rule, Tunisia enjoyed a relatively stable economic growth. But in the last decade, Ben Ali began manipulating the numbers to show a rapid growth in order to hide his authoritarianism (Meles calls this a developmental state). However, as Ben Ali’s extended families and connected friends dominated the economy, little was trickling down for the rest of the country. In the last two years, economic growth plummeted, unemployment rose, and cost of living skyrocketed.

Zenawi gambled even higher. A decade and half experiment with the so called Agricultural Development Led Industrialization (ADLI) with hope of building power base in rural area failed to increase agricultural productivity and reduce food insecurity. During the experiment, urban development and small businesses were completely ignored. When the 2005 election revealed a looming danger coming from urban population and civil servants, the regime began devising economic policies to appease them.  Thus, the current market crisis is the result of a number of decisions made to overcome the impact of the 2005 political crisis.

  • To win back the support of the bureaucracy, Meles made a significant salary increase. For instance, a district administrator who once received 800 birr got a raise to 2000 or more. The number of state employees also increased, as kebele level administrators and cadres began receiving salary. Since printing the birr is the only logical source of such staggering increase, inflation became unavoidable.


  • The sudden explosion of real estate and the construction sector was meant to bring temporary relief to urban unemployment, as well as to showcase rapid economic growth. State owned banks were shelling out loans. Real estate and construction sectors boomed causing the demand for construction materials to spike, hence leading to an acute shortage. The government had to subsidize imports of these materials resulting in a huge trade deficit and shortage of foreign currency. Companies are not able to service their bank loans, nor could they pay state taxes. The speculated fueled demand for real state is nowhere to be seen. The CEO’s are either on the run or have joined the hundreds of political prisoners.

  • To compensate for foreign currency shortage, two steps were taken: devaluating the birr and inviting multinational corporations to grab as much arable land as possible.   The logic is that revenues gained from export of the cash crop would help balance the deficit. The practicality of the land lease policy in reducing trade deficit is yet to be tested. Nevertheless, the market crisis is not waiting for revenue yet to be earned. Prices of basic goods are out of control, as there is also a severe shortage. (Report shows as much as 33% decline in the supply of bulls).  The regime’s intervention by means of placing price caps is not working.. See Dr. Said’s recent analysis.)

The cumulative effects of these policy blunders are prepping Meles Zenawi’s regime for one of the most dangerous crises it has ever faced. So far, every step taken in stabilizing the market has backfired. The regime is in a state of panic as can be seen from its recent amateur policy decisions. Devaluating the birr  by 17% has resulted in 14.5% inflation. The attempt to make merchants take the blame for the price hikes failed to materialize. Then, the regime turned to increasing pensions by 84% and salary by 35%. These measures are likely to exacerbate the situation than stabilize it.

Therefore, had there been an organized movement, Ethiopia’s current economic woes provide a great recipe to kick the 20 year old dictatorship in the groin. Even at the absence of exogenous pressure, given the self-isolating decisions Meles has been taking within his party, internal explosion cannot be ruled out.


Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity

The hike in the global food price presents a grave danger for dictators and a golden opportunity for their oppressed subjects yearning for freedom. Ben Ali is the first causality of the will of the people and Tunisia has shown the way forward. Algerians, Egyptians, and Yeminis have picked up the torch. We will see the results in the coming weeks. Their victory is the result of extensive and careful planning. Activists of those regions spent the last several years preparing for this moment—they built their capacity very well that, when the opportunity presented itself, they grabbed it.  Ethiopians, who have fallen into deeper pessimism over the last years, seem to be waking up as well. I hope Ethiopians at home and abroad are watching and learning a thing or two from Tunisia and the fast-spreading revolution fever up north.

*Jawar S. Mohammed is an independent researcher and a recent graduate of Stanford University. He can be reached at jawarmd@gmail.com; you can also access his articles at www.dhummuugaa.wordpress.com or on OPride – Jawar’s Corner.

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