Tunisia: the burning man revolution


It took the death of a fruit seller in a small town in central Tunisia to spark the revolution that has sent President Ben Ali and his family into exile after 23 years in power

SURROUNDED BY plains of olive groves and cactus bushes of the type that cover swathes of Tunisia’s interior, Sidi Bouzid felt like a sanctuary this week from the uneasy tension that hung over the capital. While the people of Tunis were on edge, tormented by the sounds of sniper shots and late-night gun battles, those in Sidi Bouzid, 300km to the south, had picked up the rhythms of normal life again.

Traffic inched along the main thoroughfare. Stalls brimming with bananas and oranges did a busy trade, and men whiled away the time under the morning sun.

It wasn’t until the elegant cream-and-ochre facade of the governor’s office came into view, military jeeps parked in front, that the outsider had any hint of the events that have made Sidi Bouzid the semi-mythic heart of one of the most remarkable events a modern Arab state has seen.

Early on December 17th last year Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old fruit-and-vegetable seller, had doused himself in petrol, flicked a lighter and started a revolution in front of the building.

Within three weeks Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s authoritarian president of 23 years, had fled to Saudi Arabia, his palaces ransacked and his once ubiquitous his portrait nowhere to be seen.

That morning in December a couple of police officers had approached Bouazizi in the town centre and confiscated his cart because, they said, he did not have a permit.

It wasn’t the first time this had happened to Bouazizi, but he grew angry and went to the governor’s office to complain. Nobody would see him. When he insisted, a woman staff member hit him in the face. After that humiliation he set himself alight.

The cart had been his livelihood for years, as he could not find a job after finishing his education, his 19-year-old sister, Samia, explains. “The whole family is unemployed . . . Mohamed’s dream was to buy a car – not for pleasure, but a van to help the family,” she says as we chat near the white stuccoed family home just outside town. “He was always laughing. He liked his work a lot, despite his difficulties.”

Within hours of Bouazizi being rushed to hospital with third-degree burns – he would die three weeks later – a crowd had gathered at the governor’s office to protest against his treatment. In a police state where public assembly was tightly restricted, the demonstration was illegal. Officers repelled the crowd with batons, but the next day they returned in greater numbers, burning tyres and demanding jobs.

The stand-off became a daily event, and word of the protests began to spread. Two days later a 22-year-old man died after electrocuting himself. Elsewhere an 18-year-old protester was killed when police opened fire on a crowd.

Around this time Hajer Ajroudi, a young reporter with the Tunis daily Le Temps, was despatched to Sidi Bouzid to cover the protests. Like every other Tunisian paper it was subject to routine censorship. In her copy Ajroudi described the protests as she saw them: a spontaneous movement by young people who felt excluded. “So I sent the piece to the office and all of that appeared,” Ajroudi says over coffee in Tunis. “But they added that this revolt was not against President Ben Ali, ‘who people still support’.”

By December 27th rallies had spread to the bigger towns of Kairouan, Sfax and Sousse, and scuffles broke out in Tunis when 1,000 people attended a rally in solidarity with the protests in the poorer regions.

BY NOW THEunrest clearly was unsettling the regime. In the final days of December, Ben Ali made a television broadcast criticising street violence “by a minority of extremists” and said the law would be applied “in all firmness” to punish protesters. His words had no effect. Hundreds of lawyers – a group that was to play an important part in the protests – were next to march, first in central Tunis and then in several other cities. Three ministers and three governors, including Sidi Bouzid’s, were sacked.

News of the events was travelling quickly. Tunisia under Ben Ali was one of the Arab world’s most repressive police states, but it was also one of the region’s fastest-developing economies, with a growing middle class and a good education system. Almost a third of the country’s 10 million people have internet access, and, of those, 55 per cent are on Facebook. Many people I met this week spoke of Facebook’s importance as a means of spreading information about protests or passing on videos of police brutality, though none of the people I interviewed mentioned Twitter.

With the dawn of the new year the crowds grew in size and the police response more brutal. The highest death toll was in the eastern town of Kasserine. Messaoud Guessoumi, a gynaecologist at a hospital in the city, was called into work on January 8th to carry out complex surgery on shooting victims because the hospital was overwhelmed by what he describes as a massacre. “Between Saturday, Sunday and Monday, the three bloody days, there were 48 deaths,” he says. “The turning point of the revolution was at Kasserine.”

By early last week the end was approaching for Ben Ali, even though few knew it at the time. On January 13th he made a TV address, announcing unprecedented concessions and vowing not to seek re-election for a sixth term in 2014. Many protesters would later say that seeing Ben Ali in such a weak position emboldened them. The next day violent clashes continued between police and protesters, prompting Ben Ali to impose a state of emergency. In central Tunis about 8,000 people gathered near the interior ministry, many with placards that read: “Ben Ali out.”

Ajroudi was in the area when her newsroom at Le Temps called to ask for a piece on the protest. She filed a story including a reference to the demand for Ben Ali’s departure – an unthinkable act for a journalist in normal times. “And they published it,” she says, still marvelling at it all. Within hours Ben Ali was on a plane to Saudi Arabia.

It is widely believed in Tunis and Paris that the Tunisian army sealed Ben Ali’s fate, first by refusing to shoot at protesters and then by telling him he had to go. Significantly, the US and France, having previously restricted themselves to carefully balanced statements, issued strong condemnations of the excessive violence against civilians 24 hours before the president fled.

That Friday night there were wild celebrations in Sidi Bouzid. Across the country the pillars of the authoritarian system fell overnight: gone were the surveillance, the portraits of Ben Ali, the censorship and the paranoia.

Opposition figures made their debut on state television. Le Monde showed up in kiosks for the first time many people could remember. These are gains few Tunisians will give up lightly. “I want my brother’s memory to be recognised,” says Samia Bouazizi firmly. “I don’t want my brother’s blood to have been spilled for nothing, and in order to demand that, we can use words and violence, and I can set myself alight tomorrow if they try to steal these rights from me.”

THIS WAS NOTthe first time Tunisians had protested. Demonstrations took place in Gafsa in 2008, and many other acts of resistance occurred during Ben Ali’s years in power. In middle-class circles in Tunis the unrest is often seen as a reaction against the suffocating control exerted by Ben Ali’s regime. After being denied free expression for a generation, they argue, a relatively well-educated and sophisticated society simply reached the point where it could no longer put up with it. They revolted in the name of freedom.

For others the most important factor was the hatred that had built up towards the ruling family. Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Trabelsi, stirs particular loathing, as her family is believed to have enriched itself at the public’s expense. Members of the Trabelsi clan owned banks, supermarkets, telecoms companies and concessions for Porsche and Volkswagen. When their houses were ransacked this week, looters were bemused to find pools, built-in lifts and birth certificates for horses.

In recent years many Tunisians have been finding it tougher to make ends meet. The social pact underpinning Ben Ali’s power was that people would tolerate curtailed political freedom as long as the state made good on its ambitious economic pledges. For many years the bargain held: Tunisia has attracted huge foreign investment, and average incomes have risen more than in neighbouring countries. But the recession hit investment and tourism hard, pushing people out of work. Food prices rose dramatically. The Tunisian state subsidises basic foodstuffs such as sugar, bread, milk and coffee, but in the past year all have become significantly more expensive.

Sugar, for example, has almost doubled in price. Tunisia receives gas for free because the supply pipeline between Algeria and Italy runs through its territory, and yet the price the consumer pays has risen by 30 per cent in the past two years.

In Sidi Bouzid the protesters’ demands were primarily economic, speaking to a sense that the country’s interior was neglected compared with the coastal regions where tourism thrives. By the time the protests reached Tunis, their cause had been enlarged and given a fresh charge by the evidence of police shooting young people – and this was very clearly a young people’s revolution – elsewhere in the country. “It began with economic demands, but then very quickly those demands became political,” says Monia Ben Jemai, a law professor in Tunis.

With his desperate act Mohamed Bouazizi, a man too young to remember any president other than Ben Ali, set in train a complex sequence whose outcome he could never have imagined. And yet, retracing that sequence, many Tunisians now see a dynamic that was not only unstoppable but inevitable as well. “If you have a glass of water and you keep filling it up, eventually it will spill over,” says Kamel Kouka, a 29-year-old unemployed IT graduate in Sidi Bouzid. “In the end it will only take a little drop to make it spill.”