By Vivienne Walt ~ TUNIS 

No bomb exploded announcing the start of the Jasmine Revolution, and in the end, there was no iconic figure — no Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel — to declare its stunning victory. Instead, the fuse for the Arab world’s first successful popular uprising was lit when a small-town Tunisian policewoman slapped a fruit seller. A trivial incident, but this is 2011. And so, what happened next went viral, unleashing the seething frustrations of a generation of Tunisians raised under a sclerotic dictatorship — and rocking all of North Africa.

When the police officer slapped computer-science graduate Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, in the town of Sidi Bouzid, ordering him to pack up his street cart, the young man snapped. Unable to find any work as a computer technician, Bouazizi sold fruit to support his seven siblings, and the slap was one humiliation too many. He marched to the governor’s office and demanded an appointment, threatening to set himself alight if the official did not meet him. Turned away, Bouazizi carried out his macabre threat on Dec. 17.

With his death 18 days later, millions of angry young Tunisians had a martyr. Their frustration had been mounting in recent years as the unwritten compact their parents’ generation had made with President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali — economic opportunity in exchange for political freedoms — had come undone. Youth unemployment, as well as inflation, had soared, and the regime had grown ever more corrupt. Bouazizi’s suicide “was the drop of water which made the whole cup overflow,” says Tunisia’s wildly popular rapper El Général, whose enraged lyrics prompted the government to ban YouTube in a futile attempt to quell the protests. “Our parents are too busy trying to feed our families,” he says. “But we youth had nothing to fear.”

The four-week revolt leaped from town to town until it engulfed Tunis. El Général’s song “Rais Elbled” (“President of the Republic”) became the protesters’ anthem, with thousands in the streets belting out its angry lyrics: “Mr. President, your people are dying.” The Jasmine Revolution, named for the national flower, needed no leaders to rally the protesters or organize the demonstrations. Instead, the revolt was refueled by a steady stream of anonymous text messages, Twitter and Facebook updates. Documents posted on WikiLeaks, in which U.S. diplomats cataloged the corruption at the highest levels of government, deepened the rage. Mobile-phone videos posted online documented the government’s brutal response, including the police beatings and the shooting of some of the 100 or so protesters who died.

By the time I landed in Tunis on Jan. 14, the protests had reached the doorstep of Ben Ali for the first time in his 23 years in power. I walked into the evacuated heart of the capital under choking clouds of tear gas. Avenue Habib Bourguiba, modeled on Paris’ Champs-Elysées, was cordoned off by tanks and armored trucks. The detritus of the revolt crunched under my feet. There were bottle shards and bits of clay from smashed flowerpots, used by protesters as ordnance, and hundreds of shoes, abandoned as folks fled the police assault on the latest demonstration. Despite the show of strength, however, Ben Ali was already mortally weakened. Just the evening before, he had appeared on state television and offered to give up power in 2014, when the next presidential election is due.

But his 10.5 million subjects already sensed that liberation was at hand. “The next morning we had our usual staff meeting, and everyone said, ‘We need to speak out, no matter what,'” recalls Noureddine Boutan,

director of Tunisia’s biggest music station, Mosaïque FM, which had never previously dared to criticize the President. “We went on air and said, ‘The dictatorship is over.'” And so it was. Within hours, Ben Ali had fled the country, leaving behind a nation in turmoil.

THE NERVOUS NEIGHBORS

Whatever happens next, Tunisia is already the stuff of history. Revolution is rare in the Arab world, which has for the most part remained untouched by democratic movements and economic change. Its authoritarian leaders, many of whom have been around at least as long as Ben Ali, have employed military force or oppressive policing to keep change at bay. A succession of damning regionwide reports by the U.N. Development Programme, compiled by Arab scholars and intellectuals, show a region seemingly mired in darkness: population levels are soaring just as education standards and economic opportunities are diminishing. But while frustration has continued to grow in Arab streets, there has been no equivalent of the “people power” revolutions that have overthrown dictators in places from the Philippines and Indonesia through Eastern Europe and Latin America — or for that matter, the proliferation of multiparty elections that have occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. On Jan. 13, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an unusually frank speech in Doha, Qatar, warned that the foundations of the Arab world were “sinking into the sand.”

Then Ben Ali sank.

The Jasmine Revolution unfolded on live television before an Arab audience — THANK YOU AL- JAZEERA, read one banner at one demonstration — that could hardly have failed to grasp its significance. Bouazizi’s martyrdom inspired several copycat immolations in Algeria and at least one each in Mauritania and Egypt. In Algeria, where protests by jobless youths predated those in Tunisia, there were attempts to replicate the Jasmine Revolution’s use of social networks and YouTube. Arab commentators wondered which tyrant might follow Ben Ali into exile in Saudi Arabia: Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi? Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak?

Some of Ben Ali’s erstwhile peers were plainly rattled. The rulers of Jordan, Egypt and Yemen announced measures to bring down prices of food and fuel, apparently to quell disquiet among their populations. Others lashed out. In a TV address, Gaddafi portrayed Tunisia’s revolutionaries as impetuous and impatient youths who had brought chaos upon themselves. “Tunisia now lives in fear,” he said, betraying his own anxiety. “Families could be … slaughtered in their bedroom or citizens in the street as if it were the Bolshevik or American Revolution.” In Sudan, the authorities jailed opposition figures who talked of launching their own Tunisia-inspired protests. The unsubtle message: Revolution is dangerous. Don’t try this at home.

Since the Jasmine Revolution had been leaderless, chaos was its inevitable aftermath. Ben Ali’s chosen successor as President lasted a single day, and the one installed after him couldn’t keep his “national unity” Cabinet united for even a week. Gun battles between the military and die-hard Ben Ali loyalists continued sporadically, and Islamists demanded a say in government. Relieved to be rid of their past, Tunisians were not yet sure of their future.

THE LITTLE DICTATORSHIP THAT COULD

Political uncertainty is a new experience for most Tunisians. Ben Ali’s regime was nothing if not predictable. And for a long time, it had also seemed progressive. Ben Ali had been a model dictator. For the first two decades of his rule, he built up Tunisia’s education system, protected women’s rights and stamped out Islamic radicalism. Unlike many other Arab countries, Tunisia has compulsory free education until age 16, and more than one-third of high school graduates attend a university. To Western eyes, Tunisians seemed freer, more liberal than their neighbors. Few women wore veils, for instance.

Since Tunisia lacked the oil riches of so many other Arab states, Ben Ali promoted tourism instead: Europeans flocked to Tunisia’s Mediterranean beaches (where there was no taboo on bikinis) and Carthaginian and Roman ruins. Tunisia’s small population meant it was not hard to keep the economy

growing 5% a year, much faster than the rate of any of its neighbors. Tunisia’s per capita income of about $8,000 is one of the highest in North Africa.

In exchange for all this, the dictator expected his people not to mind very much that he suppressed any opposition and muzzled the media — or that his family got a disproportionate share of the economic pie. Compared with the dire poverty in much of Africa, it seemed a fair deal. If his subjects didn’t protest, neither did his allies in the West. France was relieved that he kept the economy ticking, since it meant that fewer Tunisians would try to sneak into French territory. The U.S. was pleased to have a staunch anti- Islamist running things in Tunis while al-Qaeda’s North African franchise made inroads in Algeria and Morocco.

When I last visited Tunisia, in 2007, to describe its success for TIME, then — Minister of Development and International Cooperation Mohamed Nouri Jouini told me he had returned home from Oregon after Ben Ali’s bloodless coup in 1987 convinced him that Tunisia would boom. It did. About 80% of people in Tunisia own their homes — about the same rate as in Europe. Microsoft, Pfizer, L’Oréal and other multinational companies set up large Tunisian operations, lured in part by the country’s favored trading status with the European Union, a short boat ride away. In a 2007 ranking of 131 countries by the World Bank and World Economic Forum, Tunisia was seen as having the best economic prospects in Africa and the third best in the Arab world. I asked Jouini if he worried that Tunisians would grow weary of their political restrictions and one day challenge the system, but he dismissed the question, saying, “People are conscious of [the government’s] achievements and want to keep them.”

But when the global economy slowed in 2008, those achievements began to shrink in the eyes of Tunisians. The job market quickly dried up. Ben Ali’s education policies were producing tens of thousands of qualified young men and women every year, but now many faced the prospect of long unemployment. About 25% of youths in Tunisia are believed to be unemployed, roughly the same proportion as in neighboring Algeria. But unlike Algeria — and Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries — Tunisia has no huge natural resources to cushion a severe downturn. And unlike China, it is too small to diversify at high speed, and its main earners, such as tourism and olive-oil exports, are ill suited to create high-paying jobs.

Faced with dismal prospects, previous generations would have left for Europe, joining the millions of Tunisian migrants already there. But the E.U. has drastically tightened its immigration laws, and its labor market now includes millions of Poles, Romanians and other Eastern Europeans who will do low-paying jobs that were once the domain of North Africans. “With the closure of European borders, the youth felt trapped,” says Moncef Marzouki, an opposition leader who returned to Tunis on Jan. 18 after many years of exile in Paris. Without that escape route, he says, young Tunisians “had no choice. They had to fight.”

And they used the one weapon they understood much better than the regime: the Internet. With nothing but time on their hands, many unemployed Tunisians — smart, multilingual and wired — were already spending hours a day on Facebook and other social networks. They had long since figured out ways to evade the government’s crude firewalls. After Bouazizi set himself alight, they put their online skills to use. “We were downloading all sorts of videos about Ben Ali’s regime from YouTube, via proxies, and putting them on Facebook,” says Rima Aloulou, 26, an unemployed civil engineer. “After two or three days, the government would shut it down. We did it again. It was like a war,” she says. The young cyberactivists easily made state television and radio stations irrelevant — and were able for the first time in 23 years to undermine the regime’s propaganda. “The youth didn’t buy the lies, like our generation,” says Mounir Khélifa, an English professor at the University of Tunis. When Ben Ali announced on television on Jan. 13 that the police were no longer shooting live bullets at demonstrators, Khélifa was inclined to believe him. But his son, 26, persuaded him otherwise, saying, “Dad, wake up. The information is out there.”

BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE

Anger quickly focused on the very things that in better times Tunisians were prepared to overlook. The greed and corruption of the First Family were now intolerable. Protesters lambasted Ben Ali’s second wife Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser who accumulated vast wealth as First Lady and bestowed lavish gifts

on her numerous relatives; she has 10 siblings. About half of Tunisia’s businesses — including a bank, hotels, a property-development firm and the two biggest newspaper companies — are in the names of the extended family. The distributorships of Porsche, Volkswagen, Kia and Alfa Romeo cars all belonged to Ben Ali’s son-in-law Sakher El Materi. His lavish lifestyle was the subject of a 2009 diplomatic cable, acquired by WikiLeaks, in which the then — U.S. ambassador, Robert Godec, warned State Department officials that the ruling family’s excesses could lead to the regime’s collapse. Godec described a sumptuous dinner at El Materi’s home, where the young tycoon pressed the ambassador to help him acquire the McDonald’s franchise for Tunisia and where the ice cream and frozen yogurt had been flown in from St.- Tropez, France, on his host’s private plane. The household pets included a caged tiger named Pasha, which reminded Godec of Uday Hussein’s caged lion in Baghdad.

Such details fanned the protesters’ fury, and the First Family’s assets bore the brunt of their wrath: their homes in the seaside suburb La Marsa, close to Hannibal’s ancient city of Carthage, were looted. After the dictator fled, many Tunisians flocked to La Marsa to see how his family had lived, filing through the grand houses in evident wonderment. I walked into a sprawling two-story mansion with a panoramic sea view, whose airy living room opened onto a large pool deck with an outdoor shower and a mosaic fresco of frolicking dolphins. An elevator led to a Jacuzzi and several bedrooms upstairs. The resident of this idyllic place was Adel Trabelsi, whose schoolteacher’s salary was probably about $300 a month but for whom money was no object because he is the nephew of the erstwhile First Lady. The house was burned by protesters on Jan. 14; now incredulous locals were snapping photographs of themselves amid the wreckage. Across Tunis, luxury cars once sold by El Materi had been smashed and burned.

Ben Ali and his family face indefinite exile; some members of the First Family are believed to have fled to Paris, where they are huddled in a hotel near Disneyland. Might they be joined by the First Families of other North African dictatorships? Like Ben Ali’s Tunisia, Algeria and Libya have aging tyrants in Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Gaddafi, as well as a growing population of young unemployed. But while Tunisia might inspire hope in the hearts of the oppressed, it will also likely steel the resolve of the oppressors. “The Tunisian thing is going to remind people that things are possible,” says Fouad Hikmat of the International Crisis Group, when asked if a similar uprising could break out in Sudan. “But if anything like this moves people onto the street, the government will try to block it with force.”

Deployed for years as U.N. peacekeepers in Africa, Tunisian soldiers opted not to side with their President against the people. The army’s chief of staff, General Rachid Ammar, reportedly refused Ben Ali’s order to fire on protesters — the Presidential Guard and security police had no such compunction — and has become a hero to many Tunisians. The youth in Morocco and Algeria who have demonstrated in recent weeks against rising food and fuel prices might not be able to count on similar restraint from the military forces there.

And Tunisia may not seem worth emulating if the chaos that has followed Ben Ali’s departure continues. Islamists, long shut out by the dictator, have thronged the streets, demanding that their banned party be allowed to join the coalition government. Protesters are also raging against the continued presence of Ben Ali’s acolytes in the government. Three trade-union leaders who joined the Cabinet have since resigned. If political upheaval continues, there are fears that the military may take over, a narrative depressingly familiar in the Arab world.

For the moment, however, Tunisians are still inhaling the Jasmine Revolution’s intoxicating scent of possibility. In cafés and restaurants, people gather for open discussion of politics and pore over uncensored newspapers — unthinkable under Ben Ali. Khélifa, who studied British Romantic poetry at Yale University, says that for days he has been repeating two lines from William Wordsworth’s Prelude, written in the aftermath of the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very heaven!” At least for now.

Read this story on TIME Magazine.