(Originally Published in the UCC Express in February 2012)
Just over one year ago, on January 14th 2011, Tunisia finally managed to oust presidential despot, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, after a relatively short but explosive struggle. His regime came crashing down around him as the Tunisians revolted in a way not seen in 30 or so years. His fifth term as president came to an inglorious end, after he rose to the position in the aftermath of “the medical coup d’état” or the “Jasmine Revolution”, with Ben Ali of course preferring the latter term, in 1987. The incident which provided the metaphorical and literal spark for the uprising was the self-immolation of 26 year old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. He had been harassed by the local police and bureaucrats for years with the climax of this abuse being reached on December 17th 2010 when his cart and produce, his only source of income, were confiscated by the local authorities. Bouazizi’s family have also claimed that he was verbally abused by a local female municipal official who spat in his face and tossed aside his cart before it was confiscated. The latter incident has been disputed and we will probably never know exactly what happened, but what happened next is something which will be recorded for decades to come. He ran to the Governor’s office seeking the restitution of his goods where upon the Governor ignored him. Bouazizi then went to a local gas station, filled up a gas canister and then returned to the Governor’s building. He stood in the middle of traffic, doused himself in petrol, shouted out “How do you expect me to make a living?” and set himself alight.
He survived at first, suffering burns to 90% of his body, but he eventually succumbed to his injuries 18 days later on January 11th 2011. An estimated 5,000 people attended his funeral with the anger of the Tunisian people, now no longer stifled by fear and repression, flowing into streets all over the country, thus starting the Tunisian revolution and giving rise to the Arab Spring. When I spoke to my friend Mohamed Turki, a native of the capital Tunis, he spoke of the regime which up until then controlled their lives and whose collapse, with hindsight, was inevitable. “ For two decades, we lived under oppression, censorship, explicit corruption at every level and it was getting worse and worse every day. People couldn’t take it anymore, especially the youth who saw no future for themselves. They wanted to change things”. One year on, things are now quieter and the Tunisian people can feel hopeful. Democratic elections were held on the 24th of October last year, the first truly democratic elections in the country in decades. Books which were previously banned are now freely available. The internet, which itself played a large role in the uprising, is now no longer censored. Free discussion reigns and as Mohamed told me, “People are more interested in politics and what the government is doing. Thus, a lot of critics and opinions can now be heard in the media and in the street which is something we couldn’t do under Ben Ali’s regime, unless you wanted to risk your life, and your family’s too. There are more colors in the picture; different opinions about politics and subjects related to it. It probably seems something normal for a European, but it’s not a common thing for Tunisians.”
However, the result of the elections held in October last year put some in the West on edge again, with governments being fearful that Tunisia could fall under the spell of a theocratic Islamic regime. This was because the party which won the most seats in the elections is the Ennahda Movement, a moderate Islamist party, which won 90 seats, with the next largest party, a center-left secularist party, winning only 29. The success of the Ennahda Movement is something that Mohamed puts down to Tunisian’s confusion and insecurity over their identity; once bound to a dictatorship and censorship, now having no chains with which to bind it, itself being something us here in the West take for granted on a daily basis. Tunisians simply see the Ennahda Movement as the “only protectors of their Islamic/Arab identity”. Conversely though, people there are also uncertain about the role of religion in politics and Mohamed told me that they seem to be censoring themselves when it comes to the topic. “People don’t have any experience participating in the political landscape, so they don’t have a good understanding of certain concepts, like secularism etc”, with the result of this being the aforementioned success of the Ennahda Movement.
Despite this, and the youth of true democracy in Tunisia, the future does seem bright with the chances of another regime in the style of Ben Ali’s being almost inconceivable. The country which sparked the Arab Spring seems to be the star pupil among the newly liberated Arab countries. On the other hand, Egypt is still struggling one year on with a military regime which does not want to cede power to the people, something which it promised to do once the Mubarak regime fell. “I doubt there’ll be a president or prime minister who’ll ever dare to emulate Ben Ali, otherwise we’ll be back in the streets. People are more vigilant now”, says Mohamed. “I feel proud being a Tunisian and I have always been. I’m happy that what happened in Tunisia inspired others to throw away their dictators and that we were an example to follow.”