Wednesday, January 5, 2011, two neighbouring countries in North Africa, Algeria and Tunisia, experienced widespread political agitation. In Algiers, the unrest began right in the centre and quickly spread to other important towns such as M’Sila, Boumerdes, Tizi-Ouzou, Annaba, Tipaza ou Tlemcen. Usually violence, very frequent, rests at the level of one locality, rarely two, for purely local reasons (cutting of the water supply, problems over housing, car accidents). In the evening, an official communique listed three dead and 400 injured. For the first time, this movement was verging on the national scale.
In Tunisia, the day was marked by the burial attended by 5000 people of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation on 17 December 2010 provoked demonstrations in Sidi Bouzid, one of the poorest parts of the country. The responses of the exiled opposition in Europe were cautious: ‘there is no possible alternative to the regime for the moment, that will take years’ was the view of the activist, Adel Ghazala, a refugee in Paris. In London, the daughter of the leader Ennadha, Rachid Ghannouchi, the Islamist party that will win the elections less than a year later, spoke of ‘agitators’. Nobody envisaged the fall of the regime.
Three days later, Saturday 8 January, calm reigned in Algeria, the authorities had taken control of the situation. In contrast, in Tunisia, the youth of Tala, a small mountain town near to the Algerian border, attacked a police station which led to four deaths. In the evening the rioting spread to Kasserine, a neighbouring town with a population of nearly 100,000. This rioting did not stop, spreading to the whole country; less than a week later the regime of Président Zineddine Ben Ali fell.
‘Their’ version of events
How can one explain such a different train of developments in two countries ruled by equally authoritarian regimes confronted with social and political explosion? The handling of the crisis by the authorities, the financial and police resources at their disposal and their capacity to impose on national opinion ‘their’ version of events, was markedly different in the two countries.
Tunis reacted slowly to the events: the President had left the country and his subordinates were late in warning him of the gravity of the situation, believing that this was local violence such as Tunisia experienced in 2008 in Redeyef and the following year in Ben Gardane. The decision-making process is long and complicated, the government manages security issues in an opaque manner and then measures take a long time to be carried out by the police divided into several bodies which in theory take orders from the Minister of the Interior. Algiers reacted rapidly, on 8 January the government took the necessary measures while the police has a unified command structure.
The second difference, the Algerian police, 140,000 strong, is well equipped for maintaining order, with water canons and light tanks, the anti-riot police are well trained and very quickly repressed the riots without too much bloodshed. In comparison, in Tunisia the police force is smaller in number (barely 50,000), the specialised units for maintaining order skeletal and their equipment obsolete. In Kasserine on 8 January the police did not have any of the most up to date tear gas to disperse the demonstrators. Ben Ali was controlling the country through a small secret police force that relied upon 4,000 local committees in charge of spying on their neighbours. But this time, the committees did not feed through the intelligence that is indispensable for preventative repression. The populace attacked police stations which then opened fire and killed more than 140 demonstrators.
Algerian financial resources allowed the authorities to make concessions from 8 January onwards: VAT was abolished on a series of primary products, subsidies were given the rioters and the wages of civil servants were dramatically increased. Algeria, a rich petrol country, has the means to buy social peace.
Nothing like that in Tunisia. It was only three days before his fall that Ben Ali promised measures to alleviate economic hardship and announced the immediate creation of 300,000 jobs. But this had no credibility given that average job creation schemes had never gone above 70,000 new posts a year. The promises, late and mean-minded, fell flat.
Above all, the Tunisian regime lost the ‘street opinion’ shortly after the immolation of Mohammed Bouzizi on 17 December. The story that spread quickly within Tunisian opinion was deadly for its credibility. This can be summarised as follows: this young unemployed student who was selling goods on the black market was the victim of a policewoman who slapped him in the face. Humiliated he set fire to himself. This version, concocted by a small groups of lawyers and trade unionists of the UGTT (l’Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens) which had kept a certain autonomy under the dictatorship – won out as the dominant version in public opinion and attracted the support of several important components of Algerian society: firstly, many thousands of qualified people without employment and the innumerable poor who lived off an informal economy once they are made redundant by a company or the state. And finally the traditionalists who were indignant at the spectacle of a woman laying a hand on a man.
After Ben Ali’s fall, it emerged that the policewoman had not slapped Bouazizi. But the Qatar satellite channel Al-Jazeera, followed throughout the country, took this narrative on the basis of reporting by a Tunisian journalist who works clandestinely for the channel through the internet.
The Algerian authorities imposed their version of the riots of the beginning of January 2011: hooligans who were paid by speculators who wanted to turn public attention away from the increase in prices on foodstuffs and accuse the government in their place. No group contradicted this official discourse on the ‘olive and sugar revolution’ and soon opinion turned to other things, notably the political reforms. Al-Jazeera, much less followed in Algeria than Tunisia, had nobody on the ground and covered the event much less
Without giving an explanation, it is necessary to underline the paradox; on the one hand on 5 January in Algeria a movement seemed able to spread for the first time to the whole of the country while in Tunisia the day was marked by the peaceful burial of a victim who became famous in a provincial backwater, while the rest of the country remained calm. To the contemporary historian that is a journalist, the fall of the Algerian regime seemed far more likely than that of Tunisia. But by the beginning of the following week, the balance of forces had been reversed. The Arab spring took off in Tunisia, while Algeria would finish the year in political terms as the country had started it, with the status-quo intact.
This article is part of the Algeria and the Arab Revolutions: Pasts, Presents and Futures partnership, funded by the Universities of Portsmouth and Sussex. Read more about openDemocracy's editorial partnerships programme.