Taking the pulse
When I landed in Tunisia in May 2014, I did not know what to expect. The country was an Eastern holiday resort for many Greeks, up until before the economic crisis. But, for the majority, it appeared on our map to stay on the 17th of December, 2010, the day the poor vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, burnt himself alive, in the public square in Sidi Bouzid. A forgotten city where people lived forgotten, as in all the Tunisian hinterland. The young Mohamed, aged 26, died on the 4th of January, 2011 and was the first martyr of the "Arab Spring", as the Western media hastened to baptise what, for Tunisians, will always be their Revolution.
The streets did not burst into flames in a single night. Three years earlier, in January 2008, mine workers and unemployed graduates took part in an uprising in Gafsa, a "city-hell": industrial, polluted, where school teachers adamantly did not want to be appointed, because the scorching heat and unemployment record (40%) were making people go crazy. It was bread, work, and dignity that people were demanding in Gafsa. The mobilisations lasted six full months and are considered to be the premises of the 2011 revolution. Three deaths, dozens wounded and hundreds of arrests were the result of the violent repression of the Ben Ali regime. "But at the time, there were neither social networks, nor Al Jazeera. Thus, you were never informed of this uprising," a Tunisian activist told me.
Fred Dufour / AFP
The 2011 revolution freed minds, tongues and people. Tunisians lived through the irrepressible force of the mass uprising. Journalists and bloggers were able to sign their texts for the first time; social groups, such as the Black Tunisians, began to become visible, young musicians came together to sing about democracy, a political, long persecuted caricaturist held an exhibition next to the presidential palace alongside the birth of the first independent media of investigation and while independent media of young journalists, banned by the old regime, found their voices. Whoever the Tunisian is who is asked the question, they will tell you that the greatest achievement of the revolution was the freedom of expression, that mouths have been freed and thinking muscles have been activated.
You most likely have heard that Tunisia is the success story of the "Arab Spring", but for the young women and men who live within it, it often seems like an "open prison" and it often happens that the dream is very close to being the escape route. The word harga, which means "to burn", is a word constantly pronounced by the Tunisians. Burning the borders, burning their documents, whatever it is, it talks about travelling without documents to the "Eldorado". Newly arrived in the country, it seemed strange to me to learn that the majority of those who left the country without documents destined for Europe were registered in the first days after the fall of the dictator Ben Ali. Just for the year 2011-12, it is estimated that 1,500 Tunisians disappeared at sea. Dreams and freedom were identified with Europe. Tunisians did not feel citizens in their own country, and it was only after the revolution that they forcefully claimed the right to citizenship.
Fethi Belaid/Getty Images
During the two and a half years that I lived in the country, I met Tunisians who, having eaten nothing for several days, had stolen melons in the fields of Evros; I heard the music of Zorba the Greek played very loudly in a kiosk whose owner was supposed to marry a Greek, but she dumped him; Foued offered me the meal, he who had abandoned the "cemetery of dreams" for a better future and ended up becoming a trafficker of migrants in the mountains of northern Greece.
Many Europeans live in Tunisia, mostly French and Italians. They come to work in NGOs, learn Arabic and do research for their doctoral thesis, since Tunisia is now the favourite subject of the social sciences and humanities. If you travel from north to south, the borders are open. To be more precise, for 300 euros, we did not even need a visa and, in a few hours, we found ourselves having travelled from Athens to Tunis. When travelling from Tunisia to Europe, the nautical miles are few, but the green passport - and not the much "coveted" burgundy European passport - makes the visa application process difficult or impossible.
Graffiti on the revolution in the conservative city of Kairouan. June 2014. Photo Jenny Tsiropoulou/ThePressProject
Politics à la Ben Ali, sold as democracy
On 7 November, 1987, Ben Ali seized the reins of Tunisia, held since 1956 by President Habib Bourguiba, by a "velvet coup". He changed the Constitution to extend his mandate, when he was elected, sometimes without an opponent, sometimes with 90% of the votes.
On 14 January, 2011, ten days after the death of the small vegetable merchant, Tunisians were crying for joy on the streets shouting Dégage ! (Get out!. Ben Ali boarded a plane and fled to the golden exile of Saudi Arabia, after having spent 23 years in power.
After the fall of the dictator, the government of the country was handed over to the Islamist party Ennahdha -whose leader had been exiled in London since 1989. But why did an Islamist party (close to Erdogan's AKP party) win 37% of the vote in the first free elections, after a revolution that demanded freedom? We will not analyse this in detail in this article, but the answer could be sought for in the fact that, since 1956 - the year in which Tunisia gained independence from France - the country was ruled by French-speaking elites subject to Western models. The first president, Habib Bourguiba, controversial (for some, a god, for others, a dictator) appeared on television during Ramadan, sipping an orangeade at the time of fasting. Then, for decades, the Ben Ali regime threw in jail or tortured the Islamists. Beards and veil were forbidden. And, everything that had been banned, exploded liberally after 2011. "The veil has become fashionable," many Tunisian women told me, worried.
In October and November 2014, Tunisians plunged their fingers once more in the blue ink of the elections, in an atmosphere of euphoria for the first free parliamentary and presidential elections of the country, convinced that, from now on, they should discard the Islamists. And this they achieved. The secular centrists of Nidha Tounes won the parliamentary elections, while their leader, aged 87, became president. Western mainstream media, showing a really short-sighted perspective, wrote : "The transition of Tunisia to democracy is now complete".
The party in the streets suddenly lost its breath. Indeed, very quickly, the landscape became reminiscent of the Ben Ali era and those who dared to disrupt the government's "do not disturb my calm", by denouncing the violence of the police, the army or officials, ended up in prison, in the blink of an eye. In addition, it was particularly common for well-known activists to find themselves charged "by the stroke of a magic wand" of possessing marijuana, an offense whose penalty is not convertible into a fine in Tunisia.
To reinforce the skeptics, in September 2017, the government passed an amnesty law for the oligarchs and politicians of Ben Ali who were accused of corruption, in exchange for the repatriation of their money to Tunisia and a certain fine.
A look in the houses and streets
2015 was a bloody year when the country's history was written by three terrorist attacks, at the Bardo Museum, on the cosmopolitan beach of Sousse in the centre-east and in a bus of the presidential guard that was in the centre of the capital. After the attacks, the government imposed a curfew and it was necessary to shut oneself up at home, often from 6 o'clock in the afternoon until the next morning. In March of the same year, the state introduced "arbitrary restrictions" denounced by international organisations concerning women and men under 35, forbidding them to leave the country simply because of their age. They were all considered potential terrorists who would most likely have sought refuge in Libya, to receive training. This violation of international law and the sense of social justice exploded the anger of the young people who were driven home from borders and airports, even if they had the necessary document of paternal consent, thus removing even their chance of studying abroad.
But, the Tunisians did not give up. "We must not give them our freedom as a gift, because we have struggled hard to obtain it. We are life," they told me, covered with red-and-white flags.
In Tunisia, I made the acquaintance of young people who organised philosophical debates in parks, artists who organised music festivals in farms, young filmmakers who have won prizes in festivals such as in Athens, gays who fought publicly, whatever the cost, to decriminalise homosexuality, women workers who organised themselves in order to keep open a factory that went bankrupt, women eager to marry their non-Muslim boyfriend - a right won only in 2017 , while for men there was no similar restriction - and I've seen teenagers in love, walking hand in hand, against the morals of the public space. I heard stories in poor neighborhoods, told by atheist parents whose son became a jihadist because of disappointment, economic and social marginalisation. "We were still living freely, we were like a European country. How did we get to this point? ", Khalifa wondered. For a person who has lived in Tunisia with churches, synagogues and their people who wish you "Merry Christmas" while offering you dates, regardless of their confession, and couscous with fish, at Ramadan, at first reading, it seems very paradoxical, that the country is the first in terms of export of jihadis.
Jenny Tsiropoulou /METRO Magazine
In this Mediterranean country dominated by olive groves and palm groves, people are polite, open-minded and welcoming. They open their house and put their best dishes on the table to welcome a stranger. Young girls and boys enjoy themselves, drink Celtia - the local beer - in abundance and dance in bars until the early hours. Girls wearing the veil drink tea and speak loudly with girls without a veil, while the cafes, traditionally occupied by men, are all day long full of regulars who debate politics, as if to regain all these years of silence.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
338 people died and 2,147 were wounded in 2011, in the name of revolution and freedom. 2 out of 3 were shot dead and 8 out of 10 were under 40 years old. The people and streets of Tunisia will never be the same again.
“The slogan written on a palisade of Bourguiba avenue - "Tunisia, only democracy in the Arab world" - has long since disappeared: in its place stands the overwhelming building of a bank. This symbol says everything. Tunisia, like Greece, is at the mercy of the banksters”
Rim Ben Fraj, 33, precarious journalist
This Friday, 14 January, 2011, in the middle of the crowd that had gathered on Bourguiba avenue, in front of the Ministry of the Interior, I came across my high school Arabic teacher and philosophy teacher. She told me: "Remember these moments, you will tell your children about them". I had woken up around 9 am, awakened by the sound of helicopters circling the neighbourhood. At that time we lived behind the Ministry of the Interior. We had fallen asleep the night before with the background noise of the "protesters" who, despite the curfew, had surged over Avenue Bourguiba to cheer Ben Ali, who had just made his last televised speech, launching the famous "I have understood you".
My father called around 10 am: "Girls, I'm on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, we're protesting against Ben Ali, come and join me". We rushed into the street, with a mixture of fear and excitement. A navy blue flip flop lay abandoned in the middle of the street. Two cops told us: "Going any further is prohibited". I shouted: "We'll carry on, we're going to join our father!"Our father was in front of Hotel Africa, shouting slogans with the crowd. Al Jazeera was filming. I could see a lot of friends and acquaintances. The following hours were total confusion: we advanced, we receded, we changed sidewalks, we took refuge in shops, we fled by streets perpendicular to the avenue, we came back, all drowned in clouds of tear gas. Finally, in the afternoon, the news spread throughout the country: "He's taken the plane, he's escaped."
7 years later, the image of this day that has stayed with me, is that of my father, emerging in his long coat from a cloud of tear gas, like Superman, to save us from the rage of the cops. I had never seen such rage. And they carried on with the same rage in the months following the dictator's flight.
Where are we, the generation that made this revolution?
The majority are, like me, still in a precarious situation, having accumulated experiences and disappointments. A small minority has made its way into the bureaucracy of subsidised NGOs, another minority has emigrated.
Our experience makes us think that the people in power - who are pretty much the same as the ones in power before the revolution, simply "updated" - have done what they could to disgust us and force us to get on a plane and go elsewhere. The number of Tunisian students who have benefited from Erasmus has tripled, but Schengen visas are still difficult to obtain.
The slogan written on a palisade of Bourguiba avenue - "Tunisia, only democracy in the Arab world" - has long since disappeared: in its place stands the overwhelming building of a bank. This symbol says everything. Tunisia, like Greece, is at the mercy of the banksters.
Of course, today we can say (almost) everything and write (almost) everything, but the attitude of the mafia in power boils down to: "Go on and talk, I don't give a shit."
Local revolts follow each other without interruption. They rarely give palpable results. Movements are trying to block the most monstrous initiatives of the new regime - a strange coalition of former benalists, "technocrats", "democrats" and Islamists - on the one hand the law of financial reconciliation, aimed at whitewashing the economic crimes committed under the old regime, on the other hand the bill giving more power to the police. Two collectives were created against these bills. The fight continues, in Tunisia as in Greece, against those who apply the Ottoman proverb: "Kiss the hand you cannot bite". And to those who are nostalgic for the old regime - "at least there was order" - we can only answer one thing: disorder of the multitudes is always preferable to the order of barracks and prisons.
" People who are not used to freedom of expression or democracy, are nostalgic of the Ben Ali and Bourguiba regimes. They are looking for the protective "father" figure"
Anis Mokni, 36, foreign language teacher and translator
Following the flight of the Tunisian dictator, the Western media and mainly the French media, sought to attribute a qualifier to the Tunisian revolution/change/revolt like that of carnations (Portugal), tulips (Kyrgyzstan), roses (Georgia) or orange (Ukraine). Thus, they found nothing better than jasmine to qualify our revolution, which did not please many people who believed strongly in regime change, and who believe that they have sacrificed many things to finally see this day, sacrifices that can not be equated with the finesse of jasmine. We saw in this appellation, the reflection of the postcard-Tunisia that reduces it to a cheap "sea and sun" tourist destination. These people needed a qualifier that projected them into the era of revolutions where blood flowed freely and people gave away their children in the hope of better days. Others have found this name rather "bourgeois".
As for the name of "Arab Spring", we are already in an advanced chronological stage of the revolutions/revolts that have occurred in these so-called "Arab" countries. Here already, even some of those who supported or adhered to the Tunisian revolution, rejected this qualifier and even replaced it with "Hebrew Spring". Whether for ideological reasons (solidarity of the Arab nationalists with the Kaddafi and Bashar al-Asad regimes, anti-imperialist position of the leftists after the NATO attacks in Libya) or disenchantment after the rise to powerof the Islamists (Tunisia, Egypt) and the rising tide of Islamist fundamentalism.
In the first days after Ben Ali's escape, there were plenty of inexplicable sensations that people must have experienced for the first time. There was an atmosphere of love, trust and pride expressed on people's faces. In the early days, people willingly went out to protect their neighbourhoods from the threats of bandits and criminals who wanted to take advantage of the situation of complete absence of surveillance. I remember that people and especially young people spontaneously organised to sweep the sidewalks of Habib Bourguiba avenue and everyone met for discussions. In those early days, the people felt that they could truly be part of the democratic world, that they could speak freely and have a political life worthy of Western countries. People spontaneously respected road signs on the road, free riders were now paying for their tickets on public transport, expressing their "good citizenship", young and old had started organising visits to the interior towns to "thank them" for their human sacrifices and their daily struggle in the days of the revolution against the agents and the police of the regime. Following this, every weekend there were more and more hikes to the regions of the interior to visit "our country, our homeland" organised by young people thirsty to know "the other" Tunisia.
There was a patriotic drive that gave a lot of hope for a better Tunisia, a pure and sincere desire to improve things. However, the political immaturity of the people, the grip of the "rearguard" and the old regime's shadow men on the media, the political "adolescence" and the selfishness of the former opponents who became the new actors of the political scene, were all factors of the non-fulfillment of the expectations and consequently of a great disillusionment of many young people. We see more and more young people, graduates or not, in work or unemployed, all with only one desire: to leave the country towards any destination.
My feeling is above all a feeling of disappointment after the return of the same system, certainly with new faces but using the same practices such as media propaganda, lies, false promises and especially the forceful return of "police" practices (violence against the citizens, shenanigans, impunity...).
The fight against corruption and shady deals (customs, police, state clerks in ministries, lack of transparency in hydrocarbon exploitation contracts), the reduction of disparities and differences between regions, the weak infrastructure. All these files remained open and without proper treatment by governments. The current government came to power through a campaign based on the popular fear of terrorism and not really on a reasonable election platform (none of the promises were carried out).
A taste of unfinished business for a revolution that was so promising, but which has not fulfilled any of its promises, its ambitions. There is a bitterness we see on the faces around us, engendered not only or mainly by economic difficulties but in particular by the return of the same system (administrative routine, bureaucracy, clientelism, corrupt customs, absence of a favourable environment for investments, a law of economic and administrative reconciliation that encourages impunity and corruption, the impossibility of carrying out transactions with foreign countries such as using the paypal service, which slows down or even prevents any foreign trade initiative etc.)
Personally, I am disappointed by the Tunisians, or at least a good part of them who have showed a lack of maturity, a naivety and egoism that is not worthy of a people who claim to have brought forth civilisation and be ahead of their neighbours in the field of education and culture. Especially those who lived through the period of the first two presidents, two periods of dictatorships, people who are not used to freedom of expression or democracy, something that drives them to think of the periods of Ben Ali and Bourguiba with intense nostalgia. They are looking for the protective "father" figure.
"How can we be proud of being the only country where the "Arab Spring" has succeeded, when all around is in ruins?"
Abir Gasmi, 31, screenwriter
My first reaction when I was asked to talk about the revolution was surprise. I have the impression that I have not heard that word for a long time, not in the media, certainly not in the mouths of politicians, but not even in the mouths of people, on the street, or even friends who went out to protest, as I went out to protest, before and after Ben Ali's departure. Suddenly this word was stored in a dark place of my memory, literally forgotten. Forgotten because, if I want to be totally honest, it is now bound to a mixture of bitterness and shame. Shame because the poor and persecuted people of this country are even poorer and more persecuted than before. Shame because the fraction of the people that Ben Ali's dictatorship did not seem to bother, reproach us for having disturbed their tranquility and made their lives difficult. Shame of the behaviour of some fellow citizens, who had previously been held back only by fear of the dictator. Shame and anger at a stupid, incompetent, greedy political class that has no sense of homeland. Finally shame and guilt over what has happened in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Egypt. How can we be proud of being the only country where the "Arab Spring" has succeeded, when all around is in ruins? ("Arab Spring", a term invented by the West to replace the revolution of freedom and dignity...)
Why do I have trouble admitting there has been some success, despite this? Because the day after Ben Ali's escape, everything seemed possible, EVERYTHING. A new Tunisia, the one we, protesters and idealists, had dreamed of for years and years. An egalitarian, pioneering, creative and daring Tunisia. We had to get out of the yoke, jump into the future. There was a breach there, which would never happen again, and we had to get into it, we dreamers, with all this burst of life and love and hope and... and then the breach closed, too quickly, before we could catch our breath from running in the streets of downtown Tunis as the police ran after us...
Today, nothing pleases us, as the poem by Mahmoud Darwich says. Yet today, at least we can say it. We can say many things, almost everything. We can create, without constraints, without fear, in any case not fear of a political power. We can discuss a lot of things, things that are unimaginable in other countries in the region, to the point where we want them. We fight the good fights, sometimes we lose, but sometimes we win. And more than anything, we are finally at home, and we will not give up. Of course, there is violence, tensions, even terrorism. Of course, there is a brain drain, and illegal emigration without even counting those who die in the Mediterranean. Of course there is misery, injustice, inequality. Of course it hurts, very badly, especially since in our dream Tunisia, it could have been avoided. But there is also a flamboyant, amazing, intelligent, creative, tenacious youth, who do not stop in the face of obstacles. New initiatives are created every day, and every day we look for solutions, and every day we grow up a little more. There is an extremely active and influential civil society. There are fundamental, delicate and sometimes conflict-generating discussions, but essential and unprecedented for an Arab country. There are laws which are passed, which are indisputable victories.
In finishing, despite the bitterness, I will quote a friend who quotes the film Gladiator:
"- Marcus Aurelius: But what is Rome, Maximus?
- Maximus: I saw a lot of the rest of the world. It is brutal, and cruel, and dark. Rome is the light!"
Carthage is the light.
"It’s better today to live in a free society faced with economic challenges than to prosper under a fascist regime"
Aymen Abderahmen, 29, journalist
Almost 7 years after Tunisia’s revolution, wounds remain open and questions remain unanswered. As a civil society activist coming from the town where it all started (Sidi Bouzid), I could see so many things changing, in me and the country as a whole, everywhere except in Sidi Bouzid, the cradle of the Arab Spring.
People there have done everything within their capacity, but it seems like the central government in Tunis has never learned the lesson. They insist on focusing on a continuous investment in non-profitable sectors, such as beach-tourism, and neglect the vital backbone of our economy which is agriculture. When people of the South protest this, they are called savages, ungrateful and extremists. These measures have led and will always lead to the same old results: no stability and no prosperity. This shouldn't be surprising once you know that the ruling political party is the “recycled” version of the regime Tunisians revolted against.
A few weeks ago, I was looking at a picture of two of two of my friends and myself at a protest against corruption in Tunisia. I noticed something funny but sad: all three of us are now living abroad on 3 different continents. It’s sad that Tunisia is still deep into corruption years after its revolution despite all our sacrifices.
The government claimed to catch “the big heads” then after a few months of media blackout they released them through the back doors. According to polls and studies recently carried out on Tunisia people feel there is even more corruption today than before the revolution. What’s even worse today is the brain drain of its young educated and socially active citizens. They’re left with no options…
Today’s politicians are like those of the past. They have inherited the same issues and have the same inability to understand the situation. The future lies with Tunisia’s civil society and young political activists, whether they live in Tunisia or abroad, and their efforts to open new partnerships and horizons for the country.
Being in the frontlines of the revolution makes the demands higher. I don’t feel today that Tunisia has achieved much, but do I regret what happened? Absolutely not. It’s better today to live in a free society faced with economic challenges than to prosper under a fascist regime.