Tunisia: after the revolution

It’s a new world on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis. This is the Champs-Élysées of the city, where people lounge in sidewalk cafés and tourists usually stroll all the way down to the entrance of the souks in the old town. I have visited Tunisia many times over more than a decade, yet never paid much attention to the tree-lined avenue, named after the founder of the modern Tunisian state. But back in the country three months after the first Arab revolution, which convulsed Tunisia and pushed aside its longtime dictator, I could feel the air of freedom. As if discovering the avenue for the first time, my eyes lingered on the colonial and art nouveau architecture, on the French names of cafés, on the expressions on people’s faces.

Tunisia’s new freedom was on display everywhere: at the newsstands, where people were taking time to read headlines about the transition, instead of the insipid comings and goings of the now-deposed Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali; at the Librairie Bouslama, where the bestseller Ben Ali le ripou (the corrupt) sits prominently in the window. Crowds now gather spontaneously to discuss politics on the wide pavement that runs across the middle of the thoroughfare: one group debates the merits of the sudden proliferation of political parties – more than 55 since Ben Ali was ousted in January; another argues over whether the former president should be made to return and stand trial.

On the Rue Charles de Gaulle, street sellers usually relegated to markets outside the city centre have laid out their goods, some genuine, some fake. They tell me the police still harass them and try to get rid of them, sometimes even resorting to the same old beating tactics. In the new Tunisia, however, the police state is slowly being dismantled and the security forces that roamed the streets are demoralised, having been accused of killing most of the 200-plus people who died during the revolution. The interior ministry at the top of the avenue, the symbol of Ben Ali’s 23-year rule and the target of the protests that brought down his regime, is still protected by army tanks and long rows of barbed wire.

As an enfeebled state transforms itself from dictatorship to democracy, people who have discovered the right to speak are provoking mini-revolts across the country. On a sunny morning in April, Tunisia’s main avenue was permeated by the stifling stench of burning rubbish. The garbage collectors were on strike demanding higher pay. That same week policemen demonstrated, carrying posters with the names of colleagues killed during the revolution and demanding respect. Even members of the former ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), have marched to protest about the dissolution of the party and their exclusion from the first democratic elections, which Tunisia will hold on July 24.

Tunisia’s revolution reached its climax on this avenue on January 14, as a sea of people flooded in from the city’s old town to the interior ministry at the other end. “The people want the fall of the regime,” they chanted. With much of the country already beyond the control of the security forces loyal to Ben Ali, and the army refusing to shoot on protesters, Tunisia’s dictator bundled his family off to Saudi Arabia.

Tunisians, a usually docile society of just over 10 million people who had lived in fear of Ben Ali for more than two decades, were shocked by the speed with which the uprising developed. Even more shocking was the impact it would have on the rest of the Arab world.

Tunisia’s revolution will be remembered as the moment when the wall of fear collapsed across the Middle East and North Africa – when Arab youth awakened from a long, deep sleep to lay the foundations of a new era, fragile and turbulent no doubt, but also full of new possibilities. Within less than a fortnight of the fall of Ben Ali, Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous state, had risen against its longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak; revolts in Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Syria would soon follow. Each uprising has its own specificities but all have shared elements with the Tunisian revolution: they have been driven by disaffected youth no longer willing to live in oppression and social deprivation.

Yet, if the Arab world has been surprised by the pioneering spirit of Tunisia, a country long thought of as marginal to the region, Tunisians were not. As one intellectual after another reminded me, this country has long been at the forefront of change: the first Muslim country to have abolished slavery, the first in the Middle East to have drafted a constitution. “We’re proud that our movement started the trend in the Arab world,” Mokhtar Yahyaoui, a judge and longtime dissident now involved in shaping the transition, tells me. “And we want to be avant-garde in taking the right decisions now and giving the right example to the others.”

Tunisia’s revolution broke out on the pavement outside a salmon-coloured building with an iron gate in the impoverished town of Sidi Bouzid, 260km away from Avenue Habib Bourguiba. In the early afternoon of December 17 2010, a 26-year-old man by the name of Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself with petrol and set himself alight, sparking an uprising in the town that spread to neighbouring cities.

Bouazizi came from a poor family who lived a few blocks away, in a small, nondescript house down a narrow, dusty alley. He had not finished high school and had been working to help his family as a mobile fruit and vegetable seller for several years. He was saving up to buy a car. That morning, he had gone to fetch his cart and produce, as usual. With a strange calm, his mother, Mannoubia, who has repeated the story many times by now, tells me that he was serene that day, having already made good money during the week.

There are several versions in Sidi Bouzid about how that day unfolded, but the story that Mannoubia was told by other members of the family is that her son had settled his cart in front of the governorate building, and was told to move away by a policewoman who had harassed him in the past, often hoping for a small bribe. The dispute escalated and his goods were ­confiscated, sending him on a frenzied journey to recover them. The family has maintained that the policewoman, Fayda Hamdi, had slapped Bouazizi, a humiliation that his mother believes had pushed him to the edge. Hamdi, however, says the slap never happened and she was acquitted by a court in April. The family also dropped the charges against her.

Whether slapped or not, Bouazizi was in a state of rage. “He went to the municipality, they told him to go to the police station, and the police station wanted proof that his goods had been confiscated, and he had not been given any paper to prove it,” says Mannoubia, her expression shifting from teary sadness to deep concentration as she recalls the details of the day. “So he went to the governor’s office and asked to see him, but they would not open the door. He was very troubled.” So troubled that he went next door to a shop, bought a bottle of petrol and told the guards at the gate that he would burn himself alive unless they let him in. He would be declared dead more than two weeks later in a Tunis hospital.

Bouazizi’s tragedy might have been limited to a misfortune in a remote Tunisian town, had it happened at a different juncture in the country’s history. But the method of his suicide and his desperation about his job struck a chord among the youth in Sidi Bouzid, an olive-growing region where thousands of young people cannot find work and feel they have long been forgotten by Tunis. His plight brought back memories of the demonstrations in 2008 in the Gafsa region over unfair recruitment practices at a phosphate company, an event that had escalated into broader protests against unemployment. This time, however, there was a crucial difference: Tunisian youth joined the protests, giving the demonstrations the mass they had lacked in the Gafsa unrest, confronting the police and, ultimately, defeating them.

At a youth centre in town, Hicham Daly, one of those who participated in the Sidi Bouzid protests and is now part of Karama (Dignity) – an association set up to attract investment to Sidi Bouzid – says the solidarity with Bouazizi was immediate. “People are related to each other here so the reaction was very quick. The young people who knew Bouazizi, his family, his neighbours, everyone went to the governorate building – and the revolution started,” he tells me. “Some lawyers showed up, too, and they spoke to people there the same day. That mobilised the crowds more.” Day by day, he continued, “the whole town was out on the main avenue, chanting ‘Water and bread, yes! Ben Ali, no!’”

Among the crowds was Mounir Chelbi, a photographer and blogger. A cigarette in one hand and a laptop in the other, he shows me the videos he took from the first day onwards, which he posted on a new Facebook page and sent to al-Jazeera, the pan-Arab news channel, helping to rally other towns in support of Sidi Bouzid’s protests. “When the government cut the internet, we used the phones to send the clips. Every two minutes of video would take three hours to transmit,” says Chelbi.

Tunisia’s blogosphere was ready for a cause. As Slim Amamou, one of Tunisia’s most famous bloggers, says, a group which had mobilised a few months earlier against Ben Ali’s internet censorship began spreading the videos across Facebook, turning Bouazizi into a symbol of everything that was wrong with Ben Ali’s state. Amamou was arrested during the revolution but is now a deputy minister for youth in the interim government.

For more than two decades Tunisia’s president, who had pushed aside an increasingly senile Habib Bourguiba in 1987 with the promise of political freedom, had betrayed Tunisians, breeding resentment across social classes. His family’s arrogance and flaunting of wealth compounded the anger of economically deprived areas in the centre and south of the country. Tunisia, a favourite European tourist destination, was in reality a mafia state, controlled by the family of Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Trabelsi, and her relatives, who demanded a share of virtually every sector of the economy.

It was the children of the Ben Ali era, particularly the 150,000 unemployed graduates, who would turn most ferociously against him. Organised into an association long ago, but rarely able to mobilise large crowds to support their demands that the government should find them jobs, they were an instrumental force in the revolution. Today, in a reminder of their role, the walls of the governorate building in Sidi Bouzid are plastered with copies of diplomas, from a master’s degree in teaching to bachelors’ degrees in nutrition and plastic arts.

“We organised protests and banners and tried to make sure that the situation didn’t get out of hand,” says Mihoub, an unemployed graduate from Sidi Bouzid. “We have experience. We’d tried to react before and we had nothing to lose – we were like the living dead.” A pattern soon emerged in Sidi Bouzid, which was followed in other towns too: demonstrations during the day, in which youths, lawyers, union leaders and politicians would participate, and more violent youth riots at night, as the police tried to round up protesters. “At night, we used to cut off the roads with burning rubbish bins, and throw gas canisters all over the place. And we would throw stones at the police – almost 5,000 stones every second,” Mihoub says.

For two weeks, the revolution was largely confined to Sidi Bouzid, but it was at the beginning of January, as students returned to school, that the simmering tensions elsewhere would erupt, unleashing a more brutal response from Ben Ali’s forces. In nearby Thala, which prides itself on its rebellion against the French colonial powers at the turn of the 20th century, but laments the fact that nearly half its youth are without jobs, a sign greets visitors with the slogan “Blood for blood.” Here, say residents, the unemployed graduates who had started a sit-in soon after Bouazizi’s self-immolation were joined by students who flooded out of schools and clashed with police. The violence culminated with the shooting of five young protesters on January 6. “Even then, the people did not get scared, and more shots were fired at the funerals the next day. The situation got out of control,” says Abdelhamid al-Arabaoui, a local representative of the Tunisian General Labour Union, whose regional arms pushed its co-opted leadership away from Ben Ali, adding a powerful organised voice to the revolution. Schools and universities all over the country were ordered to shut, police were pulled out of Thala and the army was deployed. It refused to fire on protesters, an attitude that would be decisive in the fall of Ben Ali.

By then, in any case, Tunisia’s dictator had a bigger problem on his hands: the uprising in Kasserine, another crucial stop on road to revolution. If Sidi Bouzid is where it all started, Kasserine, the central town on the edge of Jebel ech Chambi, the country’s highest mountain, is where Tunisia paid a steep price, losing 21 “martyrs”, mostly to sniper fire. Past a burnt-out Ben Ali family furniture store and a charred RCD building, the people of Kasserine have built a shrine for their dead, posting their pictures on the walls. Nearby, in what is now Martyrs Square, a clock has been replaced by a marble stone, inscribed with the names of those who died. A sign in front of it lists the demands of the town’s youth: to hold those responsible for the crimes accountable, and for jobs and equality between Tunisia’s regions.

At the local hospital, Mahjoub Ahmed Kahri, a doctor who closely followed the revolt in the town, tells me that Ben Ali was always hated in Kasserine. A few years ago a demonstration was held here, asking for the town to be integrated with neighbouring Algeria. “Everyone is unemployed here, and 80 per cent of the economy is based on smuggling with Algeria,” he says. Ben Ali deliberately wanted a massacre in Kasserine to stop the revolt from spreading further, Kahri reckons. But even as the bodies came into the hospital, all shot in the upper body, and all young, the youth adapted to the snipers, separating into small groups and trapping security forces in the alleys of Hay Zohour, the bloodiest neighbourhood, which lies slightly elevated from the rest of town.

It was in Kasserine, too, that Tunisia’s lawyers – a group that had miraculously managed to maintain its independence from the regime and had been agitating in Tunis in support of Sidi Bouzid – added significant weight to the revolt. Authoritative in their black robes, they led the protests in Kasserine, helping to craft the political slogans that were by then overtaking the economic demands. “We came out in black robes to encourage people to protest, to sensitise them, to tell them that the president was weakening, that he was becoming irrelevant and that we had to keep going,” says Imad Kahri, a lawyer from Hay Zohour.

As Kasserine demanded the departure of Ben Ali, other large cities joined in, calls for general strikes intensified and the ­revolutionary fever spread to the neighbourhoods around Tunis, starting with Hay Tadamum, the most populated. By January 14, people from all walks of life were on the streets of Tunis, united in a single, simple call: “Dégage!” (Get lost!) “There were 28 dead in Tunis over two days,” says Hamma Hammami, leader of the Communist Workers party and longtime Ben Ali opponent. “The capital was no longer controllable.”

At the edge of the old town in Tunis, the sprawling square is dominated by Dar el-Bey, the 18th-century seat of Ottoman rulers, now the office of the prime minister. It is here, in the Casbah, that the revolution went on long after Ben Ali fled, as protesters staged round-the-clock sit-ins and resolved to rid Tunisia of the vestiges of his regime. There was Casbah 1, which forced out most ministers from the ruling party still in the cabinet and Casbah 2, which brought down Mohamed Ghannouchi, Ben Ali’s prime minister, who had been left in charge of the transition. The former president’s departure came so rapidly and abruptly that it spawned all sorts of conspiracy theories and fears of a counter-revolution, particularly as he unleashed some of his loyal forces to loot and destroy property, leaving a terrifying chaos that lasted for two weeks after he was gone. The army chief, General Rachid Ammar, was the main player behind the scenes, provoking the president’s despair with his insistence on maintaining the neutrality of the small 40,000-strong army long marginalised by Ben Ali to the benefit of interior ministry-led forces. But Ben Ali had few friends in his final days. As Slim Amamou, the blogger-turned-government official, says, “In the end, everyone seized the opportunity, even those close to him. Tunisia was united against Ben Ali.”

Tunisia’s military is still an active mediator in parts of the country, including the central areas around Sidi Bouzid, where citizens have been resistant to local authority, crying “Dégage!” every time they are sent a new governor by Tunis. Unlike Egypt, however, where a military council now is steering the country towards elections, in Tunisia it is the frail forces of civil society that are taking the lead, with all the potential chaos, hope and excitement that this engenders.

The only political figure that the parties and civil society groups could agree on to lead an interim government until the July 24 elections was Beji Caid al-Sebsi, a diminutive 84-year-old who had served as foreign minister under Bourguiba. Respected as a national figure, Sebsi also had the distinct advantage of being too old to harbour political ambitions of his own. The constituent assembly that will emerge from the elections will write a new constitution and prepare for legislative elections.

Sebsi’s government is being watched by a newly created and awkwardly named Higher Council for the Realisation of the Objectives of the Revolution, made up of parties and civil society groups. This body, in turn, is being watched by local committees for the protection of the revolution – in some towns rival ones have even sprung up, all claiming to represent the people who drove away Ben Ali.

I meet the pragmatic Sebsi in his office, still heavily guarded by police, and ask him about the frustrations of the central towns, which are waiting to see concrete benefits from the revolution, both in terms of justice and economic improvement. Rhadia Nasraoui, a fiery human rights lawyer who had struggled against Ben Ali, had told me that the treatment of prisoners remains as abusive as ever; in her view, Tunisia is still a long way from accomplishing the objectives of the revolution. Everyone wants justice, Sebsi says, most notably his own government. “But we cannot put everyone in prison … there is no distributive justice.” He lists former officials, including ministers and presidential advisers, who are languishing in jail, but says instructions have changed and no one in prison is now being tortured.

Acknowledging the biggest challenge of the revolution – to satisfy young people’s hopes for employment – he is also realistic. Tunisia has 700,000 people who are unemployed and the ­revolution, while good for business in the long term, has driven away the tourists for the time being, and paralysed the factories. Sebsi’s government is creating 60,000 new jobs, the best it can do at present, and shifting the budget priority to deprived regions instead of the coastal towns. “We’re on the right track, but it’s a tough task,” he says.

No one knows better how tough than the political parties that are racing to fill the vacuum left by the Ben Ali regime. For the first time in two decades, Tunisians are confronting their ideological and political differences, with the debate in the traditional and online media zeroing in on the reassertion of authority by the country’s forgotten Islamists. At a cocktail party-cum-political gathering in an upscale suburb of Tunis, I listen to the anxiety of secular, professional women terrified at the thought that Nahda, the Islamist movement that Ben Ali claimed to have eradicated, has now been legalised, and is freely and rather aggressively organising its ranks to contest the July poll.

Nahda represents a mild form of Islamism in the Arab world, more a conservative party than a religious one, but for this audience it might as well be the extremist Taliban of Afghanistan. They suspect its ultimate aim is to dismantle Tunisia’s secular tradition and the gains of women granted long ago by Bourguiba, the most progressive in the Arab world. Over the past few weeks, the Islamists have been accused of everything from using the mosques to preach politics, to wanting to destroy Tunisia’s tourism industry and relegate women to the home. Sensitive to the expanding controversy, Islamist leaders are nonetheless refusing to be deterred by sentiment they interpret as the unfortunate result of years of Ben Ali propaganda.

When I meet Rached Ghannouchi, the Nahda leader who returned to Tunis in January after a long exile, he is not shy about his party’s ambitions, saying that he has no doubt it will do very well in the elections. Would it not be safer for the party deliberately to limit its participation in the first poll, if only to avoid the greater polarisation of society? “We Islamists are afraid to win, but parties fight to win, not to have a half-victory,” he replies.

However, the secular political leaders appear less panicked about Nahda. “One should not be lamenting [the Islamists] … but mobilising the population against Nahda,” says Néjib Chebbi, a charismatic centrist political leader. “Nahda appears more dynamic than others, but the fear of Nahda also reinforces this perception.” The real dilemma of political parties, adds Chebbi, whether Islamist, liberal or leftist, is that the young people who led Tunisia’s revolution appear less interested in participating in politics, as if the Ben Ali era has tarred all forms of political leadership. Tunisia’s youth are not a national movement; they joined forces through a virtual world, united in their opposition against the regime but less clear on how to build a new democratic order. “The revolution was an explosion, the youth revolted and organised themselves through Facebook and no political party can claim [ownership]. But the youth movement does not have an alternative to propose to the political elite, which have now sought to fill the vacuum,” says Chebbi. “The youth are retreating into themselves – they are forming associations but they are not an active political force.”

From Kasserine to Hay Tadamum, few of the young people I came across could say which political party they would vote for in the elections, often expressing impatience instead with the slow pace of post-revolutionary change. As Dr Kahri from Kasserine says, the youth of the town “think a politician only looks after his own interest”. He relates the story of the minister of culture who recently arrived to engage with the youth. “They said, ‘Unless you are bringing jobs, go away.’”

As politicians from both the empowered old parties and the emerging ones get down to the business of building a new state, they know it now rests on their shoulders to keep the hope of change alive for the disenchanted youth to whom they owe their own release from dictatorship.

Roula Khalaf is the FT’s Middle East editor

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