How I photographed the start of Tunisia’s Arab Spring

A photographer who documented the early days of the 2010 and 2011 uprising reflects on the first month – from Mohamed Bouazizi to Ben Ali’s downfall.

A Tunisian demonstrator throws a rock during clashes with security forces in Regueb, near Sidi Bouzid on January 10, 2011 [Fethi Belaid/AFP]

On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit and vegetable vendor from the small Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, set himself alight. With that, he lit the fuse that sparked protests across the country, leading to the downfall of the government of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The force of the demonstrations in Tunisia rippled across the region, inspiring uprisings in other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. Ten years after the start of the Arab Spring, photographers who captured the first passionate moments reflect on what they saw and what the events of the time meant to them.

Fethi Belaid is a veteran Tunisian photojournalist who was among the first to document initial protests in Tunis, Sidi Bouzid and Regueb in December 2010 and January 2011. He reflects on the first month of Tunisia’s uprising.

For 20 years, I had worked as a photographer in Tunisia, but I never before saw the kinds of demonstrations that rose up in December 2010, in the weeks after street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire.

To be a photojournalist in Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s Tunisia was always a balancing act. Working for the news agency Agence France Presse (AFP), one had to keep abreast of daily news and cover as much as one could – from sports and official events, to Palestinian negotiations and opposition hunger strikes. But working in a country controlled by a police regime, where we were one of the only international media bureaus still open, the decision to publish always came with the pressure of not wanting to do something that would jeopardise the work of the bureau.

When Bouazizi self-immolated on December 17 in Sidi Bouzid, I was working in the capital Tunis, more than 200km away. The moment triggered such anger among the inhabitants of his marginalised town that two days later the revolts started. At first, no one imagined the scale it would take. Everyone was fed up, but did not think the mobilisation would become so important, especially after 23 years of life under a very authoritarian regime which closely controlled all citizens.

But people needed freedom and change, and soon there were demonstrations happening every day, all over the country. By January 14, when the demonstrations became so massive that change was inescapable, no one knew how the story would end, but everyone felt we were living a historic moment; many had tears in their eyes – including myself. That night Ben Ali stepped down and fled the country.

A Tunisian demonstrator holds a placard reading ‘Game Over’ during a rally in front of the country’s Interior ministry in Tunis on January 14, 2011, to demand President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s resignation [Fethi Belaid/AFP]

Avoiding police detection

In the first month, between Bouazizi’s spark and the downfall of Ben Ali, the situation became increasingly complicated for journalists, as we assumed our responsibility to cover all the protests and demonstrations.

At first, the police tried to prevent us from entering the protests and posting pictures of them. There was intimidation, violence. I was openly threatened by a police official whom I knew – and on that day, I even told my wife not to attend a meeting at the college where she taught, as I was afraid it was a stunt to arrest her.

That December, there were almost daily demonstrations taking place in Tunis in front of the headquarters of the UGTT, a trade union. This was in a small square, with only two narrow streets leading into it, so the police could easily corner us and control access. You had to arrive an hour or two early, and hide your equipment, to be able to take pictures during the demonstrations. And at the exit, the police would search people, which made it complicated to get our images out. One day I managed to pass, together with some colleagues, because a policeman on duty was a neighbour of my mother. But later, I heard the police were looking for one of my colleagues. I warned him, and to avoid detection, he had to spend five hours hidden in a cafe 200 metres away.

Tunisian lawyer and human rights activist Chokri Belaid speaks as he attends a meeting along with other lawyers in Tunis on December 29, 2010, to express their solidarity with the residents of Sidi Bouzid following days of protests by mostly jobless and frustrated young people [Fethi Belaid/AFP]

In early January 2011, police kidnapped left-wing lawyers Chokri Belaid and Abderraouf Ayadi, who were released after 24 hours. I was contacted by human rights lawyer Radhia Nasraoui to cover a meeting at their union premises, in front of the Tunis courthouse, on the occasion of this release. I found myself the only journalist present that day, once again afraid of being arrested on my way out. How to cross the police barriers set up around the court, I wondered?

I ended up leaving alone, unaccompanied by Nasraoui or Mokhtar Trifi, who was then head of the Tunisian League for Human Rights, as being seen in the street with them and my camera would have endangered me and jeopardised the reporting. But we were able to publish these photos, and they remain important testimony to the commitment of Chokri Belaid, who was assassinated two years later.

Regueb and Sidi Bouzid: Stones and tear gas

On January 4, 2011, Bouazizi succumbed to his injuries and passed away. I approached ATCE, Ben Ali’s propaganda and censorship body, for permission to cover the funeral in Sidi Bouzid, but the head of the foreign press said we were forbidden to go there. The regime did not want especially foreign press to bear witness to the demonstrations which continued in earnest.

This combination of pictures created on November 18, 2020 shows Tunisian vehicles at Habib Bourguiba street in Regueb near Sidi Bouzid on October 27, 2020 and a Tunisian demonstrator covering his face as he holds a rock during clashes with security forces on January 10, 2011 at the same place. Ten years ago, a wildfire of revolts in the Arab world touched off an unlikely series of events that swelled, then dashed many hopes, and irrevocably changed the region [Photos Fethi Belaid/AFP]

In Sidi Bouzid and Regueb, two neighbouring towns in the interior of the country, the protests had only grown. Young people in Regueb were demonstrating, and when the police fired tear gas or worse, they responded by throwing stones. Bypassing YouTube bans, protesters would film events, and footage was picked up and distributed by regime opponents and international media, who published the evidence. Images circulated on Facebook, on blogs, on satellite channels and elsewhere. This fuelled peoples’ anger and contributed to even greater mobilisation of protesters.

Finally, I decided I would go to the area two days later, without permission. Together with two other Tunisian photographers who worked for international press agencies, we made the four hour drive from Tunis to Regueb in my wife’s car, because mine was known to the police. We avoided police checkpoints by taking side routes, and by following the directions of a high school supervisor opposed to the regime.

At 10:30am on January 10, we arrived in Regueb. Once there, I started taking pictures, in the midst of tear gas being fired by police, and stones being thrown by young protesters – attacks and counterattacks.

There had been deaths in the clashes in previous days, caused by attempts to repress the protests, and the anger among people was very strong. Many young people were out in the streets but there were women too; one could tell the whole city was mobilised.

A Tunisian demonstrator prepares to throw a tear-gas canister during clashes with security forces on January 10, 2011 in Regueb, near Sidi Bouzid [Fethi Belaid/AFP]

The protesters were happy to see us, they knew that AFP footage of what was happening would have an impact. But we had to play cat and mouse with the police to take pictures and publish them. They threw tear gas canisters at us; one aimed so close to me that I passed out. But the protesters helped us, they took us to safety and kept our equipment to protect it. It is a day I will always remember, one in which I escaped death and arrest. If it hadn’t been for the people from Regueb who helped us, I don’t know what would have become of me.

Bearing witness

With more direction and assistance from friends, we managed to reach Sidi Bouzid at about 3pm that day. Normally a 30 minute drive, it  took us over an hour as we passed through the agricultural tracks to escape the police who were on the lookout for us because they did not want the photos we took to be published.

In Sidi Bouzid, I took pictures of illustrations in the city centre, and in front of the governorate headquarters where protesters were asking for help. But we left soon after, headed in the direction of Tunis, because there were police everywhere and I had not yet filed the Regueb photos. I was worried that if they were seized, all the work and risks we had taken would have been in vain. A curfew was in effect from 5pm; I arrived in Kairouan hours later, at 7:30pm, settling into the first hotel I found in the city and transmitted all that I had shot that day.

The next morning, watching the press review on France Télé at 6:30am, I had unprecedented joy seeing the photos on the front pages of French newspapers. Filling up the cover of the daily Liberation was one titled “Silence Ben Ali represses”. I was moved and proud that my work had informed the world about the situation in Tunisia, and that the images drew even a little attention to the grief of a helpless and desperate youth.

Smoke rises from fire left after clashes between security forces and demonstrators in Tunis on January 14, 2011 after Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s address to the nation, hours before he fled the country [Fethi Belaid/AFP]

Then a few days later, on January 14, Ben Ali stepped down from power. A few hours before, I had taken a photo of smoke and flames billowing in the background behind a street portrait of the president, as people clashed around it.

At first I hesitated to file this photo. I was really scared, because living in an authoritarian regime, we give a lot of importance to the image of the president. In Tunisia, people could be jailed for insulting the president or the government. But in the end, I decided to send it: Ben Ali was clearly on his way out.

If the regime had remained in place, I may have faced another fate. This, and other photographs of mine from that time, could have led to my arrest. But with the departure of Ben Ali, it was a relief, a breath of fresh air and of freedom.

Source: Al Jazeera