Mohammad Bouazzi is a name that has become well known throughout the Arab world. He committed suicide after government authorities had the audacity to destroy his vegetable cart, which was his livelihood. This act led to the events that prompted President Ben Ali not only to leave his position of power, but his country as well. Ahmed Qureshi is perhaps not so well remembered, in fact only a few know of him in the Arab world, but his name is also connected with events that sparked a popular revolution, and was sung by many at the time.
Qureshi was a student at the University of Khartoum when he was shot by the police, an incident which contributed to the launch of the 1964 October Revolution, which toppled the government of General Ibrahim Abboud, and ended Sudan’s first era of military rule. This revolution was followed by widespread celebrations, as the public had been victorious over authoritarian rule. An atmosphere of optimism prevailed, closing the book on military coups with the return of democracy, thus placing Sudan on the road to pluralism, freedom and stability. However, the dream quickly faded; and the military returned to take control after just a five year experiment with pluralism. Authoritarian rule was reinstated for another 16 years before the Sudanese rose up again in 1985. This time, they overthrew the rule of Officer Jaafar Nimeiri, when the army sided in support of the mass uprising. From then on, the rest of the story is well known.
But does the Tunisian scenario resemble that of the Sudanese?
There may be a large time gap between the death of Qureshi, at the hands of police gunfire, and Bouazzi’s suicide; conditions in 1964 may well have been different from those in 2011, and indeed the Sudanese situation is different to that of the Tunisian one. However, despite all this, there are lessons to be learned for those who wish to reflect and contemplate. Today, many are seeking to reap the fruits of the Tunisians’ sacrifice, and undermine what they achieved with their powerful uprising. Politicians may enter into a spiral of conflicts, disputes and wrangling, thus detracting them from the demands of the people and their genuine concerns. This may lead to a sense of frustration, regarding the change that people sought. Tunisia today is at an important juncture, and is facing a transitional phase. How this phase is handled will determine the outcome of the popular uprising, and the features of government for the coming years.
The uprising was a surprise to many because it was spontaneous, powerful, and caused the regime to collapse quickly, although not entirely. The President has departed but he left behind many leading figures of his regime, who are still holding on to positions of power. Because there is no alternative ready to assume power, the transition phase remains mysterious and critical, especially as the government during this phase is entrusted to oversee elections that will lead to pluralism and democracy. There are many questions on the table regarding arrangements for this phase, how to prepare for elections, the laws which govern the process, and whether the stated length of the transitional period is long enough to bring about the desired transition, and the change that the Tunisian masses desire. We must note here that there are many of those who seek to undermine this change.
Some elements of society are focusing on what is required now, and that is to dissolve the former regime, dismantle its institutions, and hold its members accountable. [According to these elements] the ruling party must also be banned and prevented from participating in the next elections. Some voices believe that the new government, announced the day before yesterday, is just an attempt to replicate the former regime under a new guise. They argue that any election held in this climate, even after six months as the new government has stated, would be distorted. This would not be conducive towards the aspirations of the Tunisians, who took to the streets and forced President Ben Ali to flee. These voices reflect the magnitude of the problem Tunisia faces during this coming phase. They offer a glimpse of the anticipated polarization which could push Tunisia towards a new viscous cycle. As a result, the country would be distracted from its focus on free and fair elections, in order to open the way for a democratic and stable multiparty system.
We saw, years ago, how Iraq was completely engrossed with dismantling the institutions of the former regime, and was preoccupied with dissolving the Baath party. Subsequently, it fell into a spiral of violence and chaos, which influenced the birth of the new system, and disrupted stability in the country for years. Likewise in Sudan, after the second uprising in April 1985, we saw how the political impetus focused on eradicating the remnants of Nimeiri’s regime. After the October revolution in 1964, the scene was dominated by political wrangling, which undermined stability and created an environment in which the military could return.
What Tunisia needs now is not to be preoccupied with dismantling and feuding, but rather to turn over a new leaf and achieve collective reconciliation. It must form a genuine government of national unity, to supervise the process of free and fair elections, thus ensuring a smooth transition to stable democracy, realizing the people’s demand for change, and providing conditions for resolving problems. If people are committing crime, torture, and looting, then bring them to trial, as no-one is above the law. As for talk of excluding parties [from the elections], the people will be able to make up their own minds through the ballot boxes. The Tunisians must not waste their uprising, like the Sudanese have wasted two so far.