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A region in upheaval

First Tunisia. Now Bahrain? As unrest spreads, here's what you need to know.

Tunisia protests
(Photo by Getty/Illustration by GlobalPost)

Editor's note: This story was updated on Feb. 28 to reflect the latest developments in the region.

First it was Tunisia. Then it was Bahrain, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Albania, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Now it's Libya. Suddenly, civil unrest has erupted in countries, some of which have been under authoritarian rule for decades, all over the Middle East and North Africa.

What happened? Why now? And what does the future hold for this volatile region of the world? Here’s everything you need to know about the leaders, the protesters and the problems in each of the nations that have been gripped by protests over these last few months.


Protesters call on their new government to step down in central Tunis on Jan. 22, 2011.
(Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)

The Leader:

In 1987, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali seized power from Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s only other president since the country's independence from France, in a bloodless coup d’etat. A former minister of interior, Ben Ali and his secular Constitutional Democratic Rally party, or RCD, faced scant opposition in the few elections held during his 23 years in power.

Ben Ali led Tunisia during a time of stability, but critics argue that much of it came at the cost of his citizens’ freedoms. Ben Ali’s secular government crushed Tunisia’s Islamist movement through widespread crackdowns, arrests and torture.

The Gripe:

Tunisia’s seemingly stable economy, with a sizeable middle class, belied the fact that many young people in the country could not find work. Rampant poverty outside of Tunis, combined with rising prices, was a major factor in the Tunisian uprising.

But the revolution, as many in Tunisia call it, had deeper roots. For years, Tunisians lived in fear of Ben Ali’s vast security services — where political prisoners often faced years of torture and isolation. Freedom of the press in Tunisia was virtually non-existent during Ben Ali’s reign.

Tunisians were especially enraged by the fact that Ben Ali’s kleptocratic family, especially the members related to his wife, Leila, amassed millions of dollars through corruption and the granting of political favors in the country’s economy.

The Timing:

On Dec. 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in the small agricultural town of Sidi Bouzid. The 26-year-old fruit vendor was reportedly frustrated after local police seized his wooden cart for not having official permits.

In early January, Bouazizi died from the wounds he suffered. But his death sparked weeks of protests, which then grew into one of the largest anti-government uprisings against an authoritarian regime in the recent history of the Arab world.

The Protests:

The wave of unrest that swept over Tunisia began as small, localized protests. Police forces, acting with almost complete impunity, responded with heavy-handed tactics including beatings and arrests. Over the weeks, unrest gained traction around the country, aided by unrestricted social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter, which broadcasted daily images and video of violent clashes between protesters and police forces.

Protesters eventually began challenging the oppression of Ben Ali’s regime itself. By Jan. 14, with thousands of angry Tunisians on the streets of the capital demanding the ouster of their leader, Ben Ali and several members of his family fled the country.

In the weeks of violence, the United Nations reported that police had killed more than 100 protesters, many with live ammunition.

The Stakes:

Tunisia is now a nation reveling in newfound freedoms. But since Ben Ali’s departure, daily protests have continued to rock Tunisia’s capital. Police have fired tear gas during clashes with anti-government demonstrators several times this week alone. The army still maintains control of Tunisia’s streets, with tanks on the ground and helicopters patrolling the skies. A nightly curfew is still in effect.

Many questions still linger for this nation in transition. Will remnants of Ben Ali's now defunct party continue to dominate in any new government? What place will al-Nahda, the once banned Islamic movement, be granted in the political sphere? And what role will the army accept in the future of Tunisia?

Jon Jensen