Outside In: What the Movement for Black Lives can learn from Tunisia’s revolution

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Originally published on Waging Nonviolence

In December 2010, in the small town of Sidi Bouzid in the North African country of Tunisia, a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire and ultimately took his own life as a last resort to protest police harassment and ongoing oppression under decades of dictatorship.

This act of desperation brought to the surface years of latent popular frustration at Tunisia’s authoritarian regime and repression of even the most basic human rights. It led to nationwide demonstrations that resulted in the first of several Arab Spring movements, which toppled dictators and brought about a transition to democracy in Tunisia.

Ten years later, in the city of Minneapolis, George Floyd was killed at the hands of American police. This act of aggression brought to the surface years of latent popular frustration at America’s long-standing systemic racism and the senseless killings of black people. It has led to nationwide demonstrations and unprecedented statements, from major corporations and public figures to small grassroots NGOs.

Bouazizi’s death was the tipping point that sparked Tunisia’s revolution (and movements in many neighboring countries). Will Floyd’s death be a revolutionary tipping point in America?

Parallels with the Arab Spring

We can’t help but see at least three major parallels between the current fight for racial justice in the United States, and the fight for democracy across the Arab world 10 years ago.

  • Widespread, unprecedented, national indignation: “Enough is enough.” Both movements were made up of people sick and tired of witnessing longstanding systems of injustice. This sparked actions not only in the capital city directed at the national government, but across states and towns and aimed at local symbols of authority as well. The deaths of Bouazizi and Floyd are both seen as blatant examples of the unjust suffering that results from obvious oppression. And the fact that public officials got away with similar crimes in the past deepens public frustration with government impunity and public resolve to combat the system.
  • A violent response to peaceful resistance: The more protesters are attacked, the more powerful the mobilization in response. Trump’s statement, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” was in fact a great way to garner more sympathy with the movement. Every time Tunisian protesters in the early days (mostly students) were suppressed with rubber bullets and more, supporters became more determined and observers on the fence were converted to the cause. Vandalism and looting can dilute the impact of some actions of civil resistance, but violent suppression of nonviolent resisters can ultimately do far more to damage the authority of people in power.
  • Live international coverage and solidarity: For both movements, social media has helped immediately broadcast injustices and the popular response to them. The diaspora of Tunisians around the globe also helped support the revolution, calling for international attention and response and advocating for allied governments to pressure Ben Ali out of power. The current situation in the United States has attracted sympathy from around the world, particularly in Europe (where protesters vandalized the statue of King Leopold II of Belgium, who was responsible for the genocide in the Congo). With demonstrations taking place in so many cities, people in other countries are being inspired to combat symbols of racism in their own context, and can leverage international diplomacy as another tool.

Lessons from Tunisia

Even with these parallels, we are still far from seeing headlines like: “How George Floyd Sparked a new American Revolution” or “The arrest that led to the rebirth of America.” But based on lessons learned from Tunisia’s revolution, we think these factors might further catalyst the Movement for Black Lives in America:

  • Growth of the movement’s base of supporters and the varying of its tactics. The most successful movements keep moving — they may often protest, but they also continually diversify their tactics (rather than become predictable, and thus an easier target for opponents). Street demonstrations are important but of course are not the only tool in the toolbox. Tunisian activists engaged in boycotts, international pressure campaigns, and more in a short time to escalate the need for change.
  • Continued violent and/or disproportionate response from public authorities: Times of crisis reveal leaders’ true colors. The more aggressive the response on clearly peaceful and law-abiding protesters, the more public opinion will ultimately stand with the movement.
  • Support from key influencers and new, unlikely coalitions: It is true that social media helps play a catalytic role to draw attention to movements, but sustained change from a wide variety of influential actors is key. Many civic institutions quietly resisted Ben Ali’s authoritarianism in Tunisia for decades, but the Arab Spring movement was successful when a wide variety of unlikely allies came together through demonstrations — secular human rights groups alongside religious networks, labor unions, student groups, artists and more.
  • Major defections: Early in Tunisia’s movement, the army and national guard defected away from dictator Ben Ali and stood in support of the popular uprising (in part because the regime devalued the army and instead favored the budgets of and resources for the police). This was a critical institutional defection that helped bolster the side of the people. Similarly, early evidence suggests that high-profile defections (like James Mattis’ statement) could be key to turn the tide in today’s movement.

Learning from the past

Of course, there is no way to predict the future, but we can always learn from the past. Movements across borders have learned from each other and adapted each other’s strategies and tactics in powerful ways (CANVAS, Rhize and ICNC are just a few of many organizations who help international movements share lessons with each other today). Because in the end, the struggles for justice are universal — for an end to racism, for accountable public institutions, for societies that respect basic democratic values and human rights.

So let’s use this moment to accelerate the sharing of lessons between activists across countries.

As Americans, let’s remember to avoid double standards when observing and supporting democratic movements in other countries compared to our own.

And as international allies of the American struggle for racial justice, let’s show our solidarity not only with statements but also with practical, tactical, and strategic lessons that might help this movement to fully capitalize on the current moment.

The seeds of today’s dissent go back to a long and bloody history of colonialism and white supremacy in the United States. Yet just maybe, by doubling down on international exchange and solidarity and learning lessons from historical and international movements, we can help make sure that George Floyd’s death — like Mohamed Bouazizi’s — truly was not in vain.

Topics:
Adnen Ben Hadj Yahia & Nada Zohdy

Adnen Ben Hadj Yahia is a Tunisian activist and entrepreneur who co-founded and leads Tunisia’s first social innovation hub, El Space. He has more than 5 years experience working at the intersection of business impact and sustainability, in the private and NGO sectors. Adnen has a strong track record of projects in Tunisia, USA and Italy, supporting youth to create their own businesses and social initiatives.


Nada Zohdy is Director of the Open Gov Hub, a meeting place in Washington, D.C. that supports a network of 50 organizations working together to open up governments and empower citizens around the world. Nada has been following social movements for the last decade, first supporting activists in the Middle East before, during and after the Arab Spring. Until recently, she was also chair of the board of Rhize, a nonprofit that trains, coaches and connects social movements around the world.

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