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January 14, 2014 – a day you probably weren’t considering with particular anguish. But for some 10 million Tunisians, this day marks the three year anniversary since the ousting of president Ben Ali, thus ending his 23 year authoritarian grip on the country. January 14, 2011 was perhaps the watershed of Tunisia’s popular uprising which, from the literal spark of one man who set himself on fire, fanned out from the hot center of the country to the streets of the coastal capital, Tunis.
In a mere month, years of discontent surfaced, swept Ben Ali out of power, and spread outside the country in what became known as the Arab Spring. The momentum of this contestation was picked up in May and June of 2011 by the Indignados in Spain and new waves of general strike and protest in Greece, and by September, revolt found expression on US soil in the Occupy movement. Despite the complex and vast array of reference points and motors for these political experiences in 2011, there’s no doubt that Tunisia became a source of some degree of inspiration for just about everyone protesting.
Three years later, however, for Tunisians who so quickly won a major demand through mass demonstration, the date strikes a bitter chord. What little attention English language press gives to the country nowadays attests to the general opinion of Tunisians: nothing has changed.
I spoke with two young Tunisian men, Hassen Ltaief and Souhayel Hedfi, both college students, about their memory of Janurary 14. Both of them are from middle class coastal communities, neither one a militant revolutionary before or after their country’s upheaval. Both were swept up in the political aspirations of the uprising but were witness to two very different experiences of the days leading up to January 14, 2011: for Hassen, a view from the streets of Tunis, and for Souhayel, watching from his parent’s house in the suburbs, a reality forming on TV and social media.
In the Streets
Hassen Ltaief, 25 years old, is from Sousse, a port city with sandy beaches and a historic medina that make it a hub of business and tourism just north of the capital Tunis. Hassen visited the capital for the first time in March 2010 as a tourist, returing in December for a week of films and catching up with friends. It was December 27 at a cafe when one of his friends first mentioned Sidi Bouzid, the rural city in the country’s center where on December 17 a 26 year-old street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire after authorities seized his merchandise. With a college degree and a family for which he was the sole providor, he died two weeks later. His desperate choice to die rather than live in misery prompted immediate protest, and after a week, news of confrontations with the police had spread to the capital. “What do you think about that guy who set himself on fire?” However for Hassen, the question didn’t yet register. “I felt like it was happening in another country.”
Two weeks later, back home in Sousse, Hassen went to a soccer game between the clubs from Sousse and Tunis, the top two teams in the league. Sousse won 5 to 1, and before the game finished, supporters of Tunis were already getting into it with the police. But as the crowd exited the stadium, the police began indiscriminately hitting people with batons. Less than two kilometers away was the housing project Cité Riadh where residents responded with force to the police repression. The political consequences of that afternoon along with other outbursts in previous weeks weren’t made clear for Hassen until that night on TV when Ben Ali’s governement anounced that all schools were to close immediately and that the normal January exam period would be pushed back to a later date.
“It was like Big Brother saying: Go home or else.” Over the next day, Hassen joined millions of Tunisians online, sharing videos of popular revolt and its repression, and he discovered what was going on across the country’s interior. “Martyrs were falling before our eyes. Real bullet holes in the walls, the blood of youths in the streets, and bits of human brain on the sidewalk. Now the system had really shot itself in the foot. The whole country rose up against it.” By the afternoon of January 12, Hassen was taking a train for Tunis. “My father called my cellphone angrier than ever and yelled at me: ‘Where are you going? What are you going to do in Tunis? You’re going to liberate the country? Heh, you’re planning to liberate the country?!’ And I was just silent, knowing that even if I couldn’t answer his questions, and even if at that moment he was right, he couldn’t make me get off this train.”
On the train Hassen ran into a classmate who denied everything and affirmed that all was well in Tunisia. The same message was repeated throughout the day on much of the radio and television. Then a young man sat down next to them. “I liked him right away, and he confided to me in a low voice, talking slowly and checking that no one was listening to go inform the police. He said ‘I come from Kasserine, there the cops don’t wander out anymore in the streets.’ They shot his brother the day before, and he said, ‘We’re heading to Tunis, all of the youth, Tunis is where it’s happening, they’ve got it coming to them.’”
When the train arrived in Tunis, Hassen’s father’s fears were confirmed. The government had decreed a curfew and the army’s soldiers and tanks and barbed wire surrounded the Capitol and much of the city center. “It was enough to remake all the postcards,” remembered Hassen. “But before that, I saw a dozen policemen armed with rifles chase a young teenager in the train station, beating him in a corner as all the passengers ran screaming to the closest exit. Just after that, another dozen policemen entered the station chasing a second teen, who made it out another door, the officers chasing after him. The same crowd of passengers rushed back into the station, crying out in shock at the scene around them. Myself, during all of this, I was in the middle of it. I didn’t run, I didn’t move, I didn’t yell, I just watched it all with an exclamation mark above my head.”
Hassen spent two nights at a friend’s place by the train station. Friday morning he went out into the city with his backpack. “On the morning newspapers the date was January 14.” He saw Ben Ali’s last speech printed on the front page, welcomed by honking horns from rental cars the “fascist party” had hired. “I had no intention of returning to Sousse before finishing what I had come to do.” The UGTT, the country’s major trade union, had called for a general strike. “A perfect pretext for me to have missed my train.” Hassen walked around for an hour with his bag, not knowing anyone, not able to ask about the announced demonstration for fear of asking an informant or attracting police attention. “Everyone inspired distrust, I was even scared of the elderly, for fear that they start yelling in the street and that police jump me.”
“After two hours of wandering, I heard the sound of the crowd up ahead and my whole body quivered with excitement. The walls echoed: Khobz w Mè, Ben Ali Lè (Bread and Water, Ben Ali No). It was the first time that I clearly heard the name of Ben Ali denounced by a crowd, and it was also exactly what I wanted to cry out. I ran up Avenue Habib Bourguiba, and quickly we became more and more gathering together in the same direction. The elderly closed up their shops. The most distrustful went home and closed their windows. The most cowardly stood aside and watched history pass by.” Later that day, president Ben Ali would flee the country to Saudi Arabia, officially beginning the end of a two-decade family affair, raising for some the uprising to the status of a revolution, and launching a host of challenges for the protestors hoping for a better Tunisia.
On TV and Social Media
Souhayel Hedfi, 24 years old, is from the suburbs of Tunis. He had a different experience of January 14, 2011 and the days leading up to it. Like Hassen, Souhayel first recognized the seriousness of the government’s response to weeks of protest in the country’s interior when classes were cancelled and students were told to go home. But unlike Hassen, he didn’t dig into the social media sharing footage of the uprising and leave for Tunis. Instead, along with his classmates in a Monastir pharmacy program, Souayel remembers being barely aware of what was going on. “No one was talking about going to Tunis to protest. One minute we were stressing about exams, and the next minute we were stressing to find a way to go back home.” Although friends were shocked by videos on Facebook, with a 7 pm curfew issued by the regime, concern was primarily for their safety that night passing Sousse by highway on their way up to the Tunis suburbs. “I knew some heavy shit was happening, but I would never have guessed it would be as big as this.” Having talked with his parents, professors who were militant communists in their youth, Souhayel was aware of the political gesture of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, but he only expected an “oppression mission” from Ben Ali – that is, the usual state crackdown. So, nervous, he and a classmate drove back to Mornaguia, the small town 14 kilometers outside Tunis where his family lives. Not sure when exams would be back on schedule, Souhayel’s attention was still schoolwork: “I had to study.”
But over the course of the next three days, his attention drifted more and more to the unfolding drama on TV and social media. “I was watching this tug of war between what was happening, what the media said, and what Ben Ali said. He made three speeches in a few days, and that’s not normal here.” Souhayel sat with his parents around the television and their computers watching French and Quatarian news stations, livestreams and Facebook videos, and sifting through online posts, statements, and articles. “We spent our time watching, reading, and analyzing. It was exausting.” During this time, thousands of people were arriving in Tunis to protest as more and more of the country shut down in a general strike. “Watching the livestream of all these people flooding in was so impressive.”
Typically, raw footage and reports traveled faster on Facebook than on TV news. Souhayel jokes that “this is why people say the revolution in Tunisia was sponsored by Facebook.” Prior to that period, nobody Souhayel knew would have criticized the regime on Facebook, but after the general strike in Sfax on January 12, that changed. “A lot of it was confused, people trying to explain what was going on, but the important thing is we were no longer afraid to get caught talking politics. It was like, ‘Have No Fear!’ We insulted the regime and made fan pages against what was going on.”
The TV was slower to pick up the latest stories, but on January 14, Souhayel and his family wound up channel surfing in disbelief, watching thousands converge thanks to cameras recording live from a rooftop in front of the Capitole. “On the 14th, I completely stopped studying. Everyone stopped what they were doing and watched.” The family wanted to be there but it was too late, that evening the news reported that Ben Ali had fled. “We spent the afternoon wondering what would happen if the protestors win or if Ben Ali takes over again. I was watching and holding my breath.”
Perspective on January 14, 2011: Then Vs Now
Hassen went to Tunis and came face to face with the regime, while Souhayel stayed home and observed the events with concern. At the time, it was obvious to Hassen that in Tunisia the moment had come to protest Ben Ali openly and force him to step down. The date was historical and proud and why he left home to take part in a “relative revolution.” Less sure, Souhayel says he was “reticent to call it a revolution.” It was a surprise to see Tunisians stand up to their dictator, and when he recovered from the shock, Souhayel turned his focus from international and nongovernmental politics to Tunisian politics. “I didn’t take Tunisia or Tunisians seriously before that.”
However, over the last three years of political parties fighting and international forces manipulating the process, the buzz of the uprising has become all too difficult to still feel. Not that it was better under Ben Ali. But Souhayel emphasizes the confusion that reigns in the country. “With Ben Ali it was relatively calm but we didn’t have much freedom. For the last four or five months, it’s been such a mess, so much has happened that I’m not sure what’s what anymore.” Souhayel has returned to nongovernmental politics, giving up on Tunisian governmental politics, claiming it’s “frustrating, traumatic.”
Hassen feels like he did before the uprising, “without a popular movement you can participate in, you fall back in the daily grind. I’m organizing my own life. The elections are full of black holes. It doesn’t regard me. And in five years, I’ll be 30 years old, and I’d rather take their place then instead of vote for them now. There’s no real democacy, no real hope for most of us.” Both of these Tunisian college students, though unique in their own personal experience, echo millions with these expressions of dissapointment looking at where they’ve come since January 14, 2011. When asked if the latest prime minister and political lineup makes for a fifth government, Souhayel laughs and says, “I’ve stopped counting.”
Joshua Richeson writes from Marseille, France. He can be reached at email@example.com.