The protests in Tunisia kicked off on December 18, 2010.
See the whole Middle East/Aftican Revolution/Protest Series.
It makes sense to start with Tunisia because this is where all the protests kicked off. Before I get to the story of Tunisian revolution, I do want to talk about the country because I'm sure a good number of Americans had never even heard of this country before the revolution made front-page news.
Tunisia's official name is the Tunisian Republic. Geographically, it is the northernmost country in Africa. Libya and Algeria, two other countries with ongoing protests, border it. The capital city is Tunis. The population is 10.4 million+. 98% of the national population is Arab and the main language spoken is Tunisian Arabic.
Tunisia's most recent president was Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (Ben Ali is his surname) from 1987 to 2011. In terms of it's relation to American history, Tunisia is where the Allied Forces of World War II first worked together in an alliance to win a battle. That was in the 1940s.
In terms of Tunisian independence, France had invaded Tunisia back in 1869, and setup colonies. Between them and the Italians, there were lots of Europeans in Tunisia. A man name Habib Bourguiba is credited with leading the Independence Tunisia gained from France in 1957. He was president until 1987 when he was first declared unfit to rule by doctors then ousted by Ben Ali in a bloodless coup.
The Tunisia under Ben Ali was one where people routinely had to pay out bribes to start a business, own a home, even marry. For the culture of that country, peoples' aversion to humiliation was put at odds with doing what they had to in order to survive under an oppressive regime.
This revolution has been called the Jasmine Revolution, but it is also called the Sidi Bouzid revolution, named for where it began.
The main causes cited as the reason for the protests include: high unemployment, food inflation, corruption, lack of freedom of speech, lack of political freedom, and poor living conditions. But on to the history of the revolution.
On December 17, 2010 a young man named Tarek el-Tayyib Mohamed Ben Bouazizi (surname Bouazizi) killed himself. He was a young man, not yet 27, born just under a year after my older brother who turns 28 this month. The stories told of what happened are the stuff of legend. The version I know is that he was a fruit vendor, doing what he could to make enough money to feed his family.
In Tunisia, you couldn't just decide one day to be a vendor. You needed a permit. They had people with the job of going around and checking permits. Those without a permit were shut down. A police woman confiscated his cart and shut him down in the city of Sidi Bouzid on December 17th. He tried to complain to the authorities, but was not granted an audience. Within an hour, he was back at the local municipality headquarters, where he doused himself in flammable liquid and set himself on fire.
This sparked a protest by his family, to which the police responded not very peacefully. The next day, there were riots in Sidi Bouzid, which were unreported but were spread through Facebook and YouTube. The young man Bouazizi was in the hospital and died January 4, 2011.
Protests spread to other cities, mostly over unemployment. These early protests had violent clashes between police and protesters. By mid-January, the protests had spread across the country and economic lines. By the end of January, people were openly and regularly defying curfews. The protests grew from decrying mistreatment to calling for the ouster of the President, his family, and all associated government and parliament officials.
The President Ben Ali finally fled the country on January 14. 2011. His assets had been frozen and countries around the world spoke out about embracing the Tunisian peoples' right to freedom and formation of a government for and by the people. It has been a bumpy road so far, as expected in a new democracy. There have been protests against the interim leader, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi because he is associated with the previous president, and part of the president's political party.
The government was reshuffled. Ghannouchi resigned after removing all party members from the coalition government setup to conduct government business and setup an election within 60 days. The new prime minister is Beji Caid el Sibsi. They left the president appointed by Ghannouchi in place to oversee the constitutional development. That man is Yadh Ben Achour.
As of right now, the plan is to hold elections for a Constitutional Assembly on July 24, 2011. That means those elected will be responsible for drafting/editing a new constitution for Tunisia under President Achour. National elections will presumably be held at some point after that. Also, INTERPOL is looking to locate Ben Ali and six of his relatives ad arrest them. The word is that he fled to Saudi Arabia, so hopefully they'll find him there.
Most of the information provided in this post can be found through wikipedia.org, cnn.com, and nytimes.com.