Until now, the current revolutions in the Arab world were a case of serious politics, momentous politics, the “politics of tall things.” To try and decipher such lofty events, analysts, including myself, have had to rely on large categories. One had to be hopeful despite the many odds, or skeptical against a climate of pervasive bliss, both expressed at DC. In either case, what was at stake was much too large to be really assessed. Events were shrouded by their very size. But something new and genuinely baffling has happened in Tunisia that has caused analysts to cast aside previous assumptions.
After what has been hailed throughout the world as the “Jasmine Revolution,” thousands of Tunisians fled their country. Flotillas sailed towards the Italian Island of Lampedusa, filled with young people seeking access to Europe. Fishermen had to spend the night aboard their boats to prevent them from being stolen by would-be emigrants. I heard of an estimated five thousand already on Sicilian soil.
Judging from television images, these refugees are not hardened members of the former ruling party. These are not officials in flight from retaliation or punishment: their group includes women, and young people. These are economic immigrants who have taken the risk to cross over to Europe in search of employment. These boat-people share the same kind of desperation as the young man whose suicide triggered the insurrection. As he chose to die by fire, they chose to risk everything at sea.
Yet, the street vendor’s sacrifice was immensely consequential. A revolution took place. The future looked rosy. Why would thousands of his brothers be running away from happiness? Why would they become refugees at the risk of drowning? One cannot just speak of an unfortunate timing, of a coincidence. 5,000 passengers cannot just happen to board dozens of boats by accident. Did they forget they had just won? Imagine 5,000 French attackers of the Bastille migrating en masse to Brazil. Imagine victorious Bolsheviks settling in Tyrol. Why bother with a revolution, if you do not wish to stay?
As Albert O. Hirschman would have put it, Tunisians who did not ‘consent’ to live under dictatorship were confronted by two choices; One was “exit.” The other was “voice.” You do not expect the people first to “voice,” and then to “exit.”
Those who fled the revolution “voted with their feet.” They expressed a clear distrust of the realities to come. Why such a distrust? I heard some of the boat-people tell Italian journalists that they were fleeing because of Ben Ali. Did they believe nothing had changed? Did they believe that the revolution was just a game, and that the game was now over? I have no answer to offer. Yet I believe that this baffling exodus should not be explained away. Either one understands this detail, or one does not understand anything about what happened in Tunisia.