Many years ago, when I first became involved in human rights work, I was told something that has stuck with me and shaped my activism ever since: nobody sees the end of a dictatorship coming. Campaigning for freedom in Burma, Tibet, Zimbabwe or North Korea may seem hopeless and at times will undoubtedly be disheartening, but the struggles for freedom in South Africa, East Timor and the Soviet Union all once seemed the same.
I’ve heard it so many times since and in so many different forms that I’m not even sure who first said it to me. There is even an episode of Ashes to Ashes when Alex Drake tells a member of the ANC that in a few years Nelson Mandela will walk off Roben Island and become South Africa’s first democratically elected President – of course he cannot believe her, so hopeless did his cause appear at the time.
As I write this, approaching midnight on January 14th 2011this mantra is once more being played out. Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali – one of the world’s longest-ruling dictators – is on board a private jet attempting to seek refuge in various countries, having fled Tunisia this afternoon in the wake of unprecedented pro-democracy protests. For 23 years Ben Ali has deprived the Tunisian people of political rights, civil society and religious freedom. His security services have arbitrarily jailed opponents, subjected them to horrendous tortures and broken up political dissent with ruthlessness and impunity. He has brutalised a nation of ten and a half million for his own personal gain. And now he is gone.
What is even more striking than such a well-entrenched dictatorship coming to a close is the sudden and abrupt manner in which in has done so. It was less than one month ago that this wave of protests began. A university graduate- unable to find work in an economy wrecked by governmental corruption and incompetence- took to selling fruit in a public square. Taking exception to his unauthorised trading, police officers beat him and confiscated his cart. On 17th December he returned to the square and set himself on fire in protest. His death led to protests in solidarity…the murder of demonstrators by armed police officers brought more angry citizens out onto the streets…the initial anger over economic mismanagement and heavy handed policing quickly evolved into demands for democracy…and the rest is history in the making.
Of course Tunisia is not ‘out of the woods’ -not by a long shot. Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi has temporarily assumed power but whether he can –or will – oversee a peaceful transition to liberal democracy is a huge question. The next moves by other government members and various opposition groups could all influence the eventual outcome in any number of ways. The future is far from certain.
However, tonight the street protests have given way to street parties – the Tunisian people have toppled a dictator. And already similar protests in neighbouring Algeria are serving to reinforce a message to dictators across the world; even the most well-established regimes can face wholly unexpected and rapidly terminal challenges. The concurrent message to activists is that, wherever you campaign for freedom – and however bleak the outlook may seem- your day will come.