By Nourane Hentati
A ten-year-old child sat in front of a TV. A news reporter on a foreign TV channel reported atrocities. She saw dead people on familiar streets. She looked around and noticed that the doors of her house had been sealed for days. She heard her parents murmuring about an ‘uprising’. She didn’t understand what an uprising meant at the time or why her parents were murmuring in the first place.
But when I grew up, I found out that prior to 2011, the walls had ears.
“I will say to you once more, loud and clear: Do write on any subject you choose. There are no taboos except what is prohibited by law and press ethics” declared Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
However, human rights, freedom of speech, political opposition, mindful youth, civil society, dignity, and fair trials, were all ‘taboos’ for the 23-year-rule of Ben Ali.
Ironically, Tunisia goes far beyond those 23 years. In fact, Tunisia’s first documented history goes back 200,000 years to the Middle Stone Age. The biggest democracy in the Mediterranean and the Carthage 814 BC relied on an effective system of checks and balances that helped keep officials accountable. However, these systems changed as the years passed, leading to the revolution that would transform history.
In December 1983, the Tunisian people protested against a sudden 100% increase in the price of bread, an essential commodity in Tunisia.
The uprising that lasted about 2 months and 150 people lost their lives. People were just asking for bread, and they trusted that the government could do better by deliberately providing bread at lower prices. When the price of bread dropped again, people were mostly satisfied but only a few people questioned the weaknesses of policies that initially put the government in such a vulnerable position.
But the people still showed signs of revolt. In 2011, a man fearlessly held a baguette in the face of the armed militia on the Habib Bourguiba Avenue. Bread in the face of guns was a modern revival to the bread riots. Ironically, it was on a street named after the president whose government raised the bread price in 1983.
The Tunisians now hungered for something more than their bread: they hungered for their rights and freedom. The uprising was a message to the tyrants that they had exhausted their chances with patient people. It was a collective stance against a corrupt government that tortured, stole, oppressed and systematically impoverished Tunisians.
Prior to the revolution, fear was widespread and enrooted in our culture. A collective cognizance of government capabilities to commit atrocities towards someone found “guilty” of criticizing Ben Ali or his family was a key feature of the Tunisian society.
This paranoia dominated our lives to the utmost of personal levels, people were even afraid to speak about the president pejoratively in the privacy of their homes because “they could always hear”. The media was censored, books banned, the internet was heavily filtered, and cyber activists were shadily arrested and unfairly prosecuted. The Freedom House registered these human rights violations and scored Tunisia’s political rights index as low as 7, with 1 being the best and 7 being the worst. Those numbers accurately summarized the situation of a country which has been ruled by a monstrous dictator. Those figures embodied the people who helplessly died suffering from torture in obscure dungeons and prison cells. They explicitly narrate the stories of hundreds of Tunisians who had undergone exile, imprisonment and assassinations.
Information is always valuable and anterior to the revolution, it became public knowledge that “the family”, —Ben Ali’s extended family— was taking over private possessions by force. The family was so powerful that nobody could claim their property back. However, the public couldn’t quantify the thefts and the human rights violations and that’s when Wikileaks caught the public attention and triggered the crowds when they published documents exposing the government.
Desperation dominated the lives of many people. The harsh reality of poverty was lived by thousands, especially those in interior states. Each family that underwent hardships and were forcefully incorporated into a merciless and systematic chain of underdevelopment, initiated by numerous historical factors.
One of those rings was Bouazizi, a street vendor from Sidi Bouzid, who on December 17th, 2010, set himself on fire.
Bouazizi immolated himself as an act of desperation after being slapped and humiliated by Faida Hamdi and her coworkers, the municipal officials for vending on the streets. Bouazizi who would be posthumously awarded the Sakharov Prize for triggering the uprising. His self-immolation was a loud and clear call to action that echoed across the country and reached all doors. Subsequently, people across the nation went protesting against the tyrants and the illusion of having laws that ideally would protect the vulnerable. Even though Bouazizi passed away in the intensive care unit 18 days after his immolation, on January 4th 2011, he was the face of many Tunisians who lived in constant economic instability. And shortly before setting himself on fire, he asked how he could make a living when corruption and nepotism were eating the country inside out.
الشعب يريد اسقاط النظام” — “The people want to overthrow the regime.” The slogan echoed through Tunisian streets during the uprising and neither the tear gas nor the penetrating bullets could stop the anger. They fueled the rage and gave the people more reasons for wanting to overthrow the regime.
The loudness of the streets contrasted the silence of the domestic media, still burdened with the heavy load of censorship. People turned to the international media to see what was happening in other parts of their own country. Despite my young age, I was still able to see the irony in this, and it didn’t feel right to see that the Tunisian history was being recorded by other than Tunisians.
As a child, I was still able to identify the greatness in what was happening around me, and I was aware that nothing will be the same in just a few weeks. I jotted down numbers, dates, media headlines and what I was seeing on the streets.
Every Tunisian contributed to the revolution somehow, and as a child, documenting was how I connected with the call for freedom. For others, music and art was their medium of expression.
Emotions were translated into an international language set to trigger any human being’s first instincts. Out of the crowds, “Kelmti Horra” —My word is free—was born. In the song, young Emel Mathlouthi speaks for the people to the people of Tunisia and the world. The song powerfully and beautifully articulated the message of the uprising
Finally, on 13th of January, 2011, the dictator delivered a speech. The local media were obviously no longer silent. Ben Ali spoke to the people in Tunisian Arabic, the national dialect that is nationally and informally used. The dictator thought that speaking in the same language as the slogans would be water to the tension in the country. However, Bouazizi’s fire and the people’s flame weren’t going to be put down by phoney speeches and manipulative linguistics. And unexpectedly, this appropriation ignited more resistance.
Tunisians were armed with a stronger collective resilience that extracted its power from information, empathy and patriotism. People remained on the streets and mastered a harmony of “Dégage! Dégage” meaning “Leave! Leave!”. And the next day, January 14th, 2011, Ben Ali left the presidential palace in Carthage with his wife Leila Trabelsi and their three children along with the 23 years of dictatorship. The dictator and his family were denied to land in France. However, Saudi Arabia gave them political asylum and they landed in Jeddah, the city infamously known for welcoming another dictator who fled from Uganda.
With his departure, Tunisia sighed with relief. We were freed from the 23-year-old burden. People celebrated the long-awaited falling of kleptocracy and dictatorship on the streets. It was our triumph. The regime was not overthrown by the military, but by the invincible will of Tunisians.
Our uprising sent out a clear message to the world: In the face of the bullets with the dignified power of posters and slogans, the voice of the Tunisians was able to beautifully metamorphose into “The Revolution” that eventually would be called the “Jasmine Revolution”. The world resonated with the victory, and people in other countries angrily started shouting the same exact slogans of discontentment. The “Jasmine Revolution” quickly became the world’s fight against worn-out regimes. It reached all sorts of regimes and dictatorships as far as Egypt or China.
Today, Tunisians are about to celebrate the Revolution’s 8th anniversary. The country took time to be reshaped into what we know today: the only Arab country to be free. Despite the relatively short period, Tunisia witnessed tremendous accomplishments. In 2014, the world observed and praised as we conducted our very first democratic elections, after which a new National Constituent Assembly was formed to draft the new constitution of Tunisia that was adopted on January 26th 2014.
Tunisia sparked the Arab Spring, inspiring change across the MENA Region.
Unfortunately, we are so far the only country that achieved peace, freedom and democracy. And in 2015, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet won the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts of unification and preventing the adverse effects and repression as seen in countries like Syria and Egypt.
Realistically speaking, Tunisia has most definitely achieved democracy. But, the economic challenges are still underway, unemployment is still menacing the economic stability of many Tunisians and basic needs of many families are barely met due to the relatively high cost of living. The dinar recorded a historical regression in comparison to the Euro and the US dollar. But Tunisia could have never achieved such a relatively fast transition without an uprising. Without it, we wouldn’t have been able to revolutionize our thinking and the way we viewed and interacted with the concept of power.
Today, Tunisians face the ultimate challenge of staying on the right track towards the betterment of the economy and the safeguarding of freedoms and democracy. If we don’t, the revolution would go to waste and the people who have been sacrificed by the system would have died in vain. We are also challenged with helping humanity remember the uprising that reshaped the MENA region and the world forever.
The question of how we will sustain the message which awakened the region from the deep slumber of dictatorship still remains relevant.
However, a very valid question that remains is this: could the Tunisian revolution have sparked uprisings in other African countries other than the Arab ones that remain burdened with a dictatorship?
Edited by Katai Lutanda Mutale
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