To give a run down of what has happened so far, Tunisia is a nation that has been presided over by (ex) autocratic president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali since 1987 (There have been reports of Ben Ali's death, however, these stories carry with them an element of verisimilitude). His rule was the familiar story of the autocrats rise to power, rising through the ranks of government and always being known as a hard man with no time for human rights and such.
He chose many unethical methods to control the people, including (but not restricted to): imprisonment and torture; suppression of dissident media; reported phishing of citizens in an attempt to monitor what was being said on social networks; using the police as an iron fist with which to rule.
This led to greater and greater civil unrest, which came not just from the lack of political freedom but also from the distribution of wealth (the economy is still proving problematic, but that's one of the side effects of such a dramatic change).
After over two decades of such a situation, the fomenting of the people reached a peak, and the events of last December began to unfold. These events were precipitated by unfortunately tragic circumstances. I think it's worth taking a moment to consider the short life of Mohamed Bouazizi, considering that the Middle East would be very different right now if it weren't for him.
Bouazizi lived in a town named Sidi Bouzid, which had high rates of corruption and low rates of employment. He did not come from a wealthy background and had to work from the age of 10 to support his family. He had been working as a street vendor for a number of years, and had been greatly harassed by police for not having a license.
When a policewoman confiscated his wares (and gave him both verbal and physical abuse), so important were they to his livelihood, he went to the local municipality to complain and ask for his property back, threatening self-immolation if they would not see him. After refusal from the authorities to be seen or have his goods back, he returned to set himself on fire in anger at what the authorities had done to him, later dying in hospital.
There have been analogies made with the Czech student protester Jan Palach, who burned himself in political protest in 1968, however, the most salient observation to make would be that Palach's protest was one made in political revolution, whereas Bouazizi's was born of frustration with oppression directly. They may have similar causes, but the important difference is the intent.
This is also one of the major aspects of this revolution, in that due to the suppression of discussion within the country, organised dissent was very difficult to uphold. There were elements, such as the Pirate Party speaking out against freedom of speech restrictions and media blackouts, the rapper El General spoke out about it, there were also opposition parties in existence: the largest opposition party, Mouvement des Démocrates Socialistes (MDS); Parti de l'Unité Populaire, among others, both in parliament and banned by Ben Ali.
There was however little cohesion between these groups prior to the revolution, due to Ben Ali's methods of marginalising dissent. This meant that when Bouazizi committed his public act of self-immolation, it lead to widespread rioting, rather than acts of revolution.
The rioting eventually led to Mr Ben Ali stepping down as President in December, and eventually to the incumbent government, the RCD being removed at the end of January this year. The current government is encountering issues, due to the continuing sense of unrest which is the aftermath of any revolution, the date of new elections under intense discussion at the moment.
This has, as we have see, been a true peoples revolution, it was born of anger and indignation, and sparked by anger and indignation. Now, why is this so important? Essentially, this show of righteousness and popular justice has spread (through various media) throughout the Middle East, and a number of other countries have followed suit. This shows the power of popular political action, and the effect it can have; the people do have a voice, and if they are to use it, it will be heard. It also shows that you cannot hold power over people that do not wish to have it held over them, and that a democratic approach is not only necessary but innate in the minds of the people.
This revolution highlights the fact that human rights atrocities and restrictions on freedom do not just occur in war torn and poor countries, it can be relatively civilised and wealthy nations. Our preconceptions on what constitutes a corrupt or oppressed state should be widened and the support of the developed world should go to these people to ensure that we do not have the classic case of revolution followed by corruption followed by revolution etc (for more on this see my earlier post on Madagascar: here) given the right help from the west (unlike it's previous kind of support discussed in this very good discussion of the nature of the struggle) this can be managed.
If a sense of democracy and freedom of speech are built into this new structure, then it is possible we may see a dramatic change in the region, and if this can serve as an example to how a nation which has been through such turmoil should be rebuilt, then maybe we can see growth and stability in other senses. One of the main issues with Tunisia for much of the time since it gained independence has been the economy. The likelihood is that if the freedom and fairness is in place, then a free and fair economy can be built, and the resources and sources of income can lead to fairly distributed economic growth in the nation. This again would serve as a model for nations with similar issues.
Could this a turning point in the politics of revolution? It's too early to tell yet, but what is certain is that given the right support, these people will have the means to build a better future. We can only hope that the rest of the world takes notice and does their duty.