Reflections on the Tunisian Revolution – one year on January 2012
When I received a broadcast email seeking a French speaker to take on two days ‘train the trainer’ in Tunisia I thought it was worth pressing the reply button and sending my CV. This was only a few days before Christmas 2011, and to make a short story even shorter, within a week I had a contract and my flights were being booked.
In early January I found myself arriving late at night in Tunis. I was passing Arabic posters but there was no need to understand the language. All posters shared a feature and that was a date in blazon red : ’14 janvier 2011’.
I have been warned against using the European term ‘Arab Spring’ to describe the wave of political change that crossed the Arab world in 2011 and the posters were in no doubt that what had happened last year was not a season of the year but a Revolution – proud and red. Not Marxists red but the red of a revolutionary tradition going back, at least, to the storming of the Bastille in 1789.
Along with the rest of the world, I had followed the story of president Ben Ali’s swift overthrow following a rapid rebellion against a dictatorial regime, apparently sparked by the sad suicide of a young unemployed graduate who had been thwarted by corrupt local bureaucrats in his attempt to make a living as a market trader.
Tunis felt calm and safe as I wandered the streets on a Sunday night but Revolution was on people’s lips and pasted on the walls. The following morning I turned down a chance to travel to the ancient historical city of Carthage – that was ‘old history’ but the city centre was offering me a chance to see and feel history in the making.
My late night arrival was met with many more friendly faces than I had left behind at the glitzy but rather glum Paris Charles De Gaule airport. There were smiles, no hassle and hardly any hussle. My only dispute was with a cash machine which was too impatient to wait for me to select the amount of currency I wanted and it spewed out more notes than I would need. Mildly irritated I reflected that at least this was ‘cock up not conspiracy’ and that a bit of mechanical inefficiency can be endearing – and anyway I could change the Dinars back when I was going to leave.
From taxi drivers to senior civil servants our conversations always came round to some passing comment about how things had changed ‘since the revolution’. This was not expressed with the passion of revolutionary ferver but most often in a passing comment about changes in everyday. The abiding impression was that people were quietly proud that their country had effected change with relatively little loss of life but that the speed of change had been a bit bewildering. The power of their fellow Tunisians had evidently surprised everyone.
Uncertainties remained – one official told me how he had made himself ill with stress brought on by a conflict between head and heart. His heart was with the revolutionaries and his head told him not to jeopardise his job. A young woman told me frankly ‘I was neutral – I did not know what to think’ .
The power and energy of the people who had fuelled the change was certainly a power to be taken seriously. A manager at a young people’s training centre told me that since the fall of Ben Ali, students had demanded that their food be improved and that the curfew for residential students be moved from 9 pm to midnight. Their requests were granted and on top of this he got a budget for 250 new mattresses. He shrugged ‘ c’est comme ca’ . Directors of schools and centres are being sacked when students complain – the shift of power is palpable.
The civil war in Libya had also clearly caused waves across Tunisia as refugees had crammed the roads, seeking safety, but their arrival had pushed up prices of everything from a bottle of water to accommodation costs. I heard one story of a woman who was told by her husband that they should leave their home and move in with her in-laws so that they could rent their flat to arriving Libyans. She felt that the motivation was financial gain rather than fraternal solidarity and this was causing some tension between husband and wife. When I enquired how it had been resolved the answer came ‘ they killed Ghadafi so the Libyans stopped coming’ .
Symbols of change
Along with the ‘14 Janvier’ posters were other potent symbols of the year of changes. Bourguiba Avenue had not changed its name and still honours the first Tunisian dictator. The Avenue has a different face now as it leads to the ‘Place de l’independence’ where a military encampment is surrounded by rolls of razor wire and patrolled by men with guns. A would- be tourist guide told me ‘army people’s friend’ and others confirmed this view when they told me how reassured they were to see a military presence; it was the refusal of the army to fire on the people that had tipped the balance against the regime in January 2011. The police were also in high profile on the roads – just about every car trip I took included a police checks that would have irritated drivers in Britain but without exception the drivers all told me ‘this is good’. They were reassured to see a police profile because after the revolution the police had become invisible as they feared reprisals.
Towards the end of my stay I discovered there had been a demonstration by one of the elite police brigades against the sacking of their commander by the new government. The new ministers, elected in October, are beginning to flex their muscles and in particular replacing people with track records of corruption or atrocities. The affair seems to have been quite civilised and it conformed to legal requirements for demonstration, there was also a counter demonstration and the appearance of the minister who had initiated the sacking to state his case to the crowd. .
Everyone I met had something to say about the Tunisian revolution and they were proud to be Tunisian – certainly proud that their country had effected change so well but I was not all together sure it was they were talking about ‘their revolution’ . It seemed to come from a power elsewhere in the country. One impassioned speech I heard told us that the revolution had not been about democracy, it had not been about liberty, but it had in fact been about jobs. With a million young people unemployed and a large proportion of these being graduates others agreed that this had been a key driver for change. I saw and felt a confidence in young people which seemed to say that ‘we will make the future’.
The power of youth
While sitting at a street restaurant a well dressed and perfectly well fed looking young man skipped over to me and pointed to my roll indicating that I should give it to him. Half an hour later I heard another young man behind me mimic what I had said and make fun of my accent in French. Neither incident was malicious or threatening but both signalled a youthful confidence and reminded me of the man who was suddenly given a budget for 250 new student mattresses!
The Tunisian Revolution is too young to have lost its way, too new to be judged. There is a strong sense of collective pride for being part of a country which has worked so well to move from dictatorship to democracy.
This was not a velvet revolution, lives were indeed lost, but it was softer than many others of 2011 so maybe it is made of Merino Wool at least and not steel? Women told me that they still do not have an equal voice, unemployment is stubbornly high and people shared with me a mistrust of their political opponents.
I can only reflect my snapshot experience on a short visit to Tunisia on the first anniversary of the Revolution. The change may be less about the overall objectives for public policy and much more about how they are achieved. This was a country confident and proud and those two qualities could prove to be keys to making the changes stick.