Remembering the day Tunisia’s President Ben Ali fled

On the 10th anniversary of the day that Tunisia’s President Ben Ali fled the country following weeks of protests, our writer looks back at the days leading up to that moment of the Arab Spring.

Protesters demonstrate against Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis on January 14, 2011 [Zohra Bensemra/Reuters]

It is hard to believe that an entire decade has passed since the Tunisian people finally toppled a 23-year standing dictator following weeks of protests. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, President of Tunisia, fled the country that day – going via Malta to Saudi Arabia.

That was the day that, for me, the fear barrier for ordinary people in Tunisia was painfully broken, and a glimpse of hope began to glow across an entire region that, for decades, had been subject to all forms of repression, injustice and brutal subjugation.

Economic disparity in Tunisia had become unbearable. Ben Ali, his family and close friends were the main beneficiaries of all economic policies. Despite relatively positive economic growth in the country before 2011, young people had not reaped any benefits and there were few jobs, even for those who were educated. They ended up doing menial work while others who were utterly unqualified were given highly prestigious positions in government.

Regional economic disparities were appalling, too. Many parts of the country – outside of the capital city, Tunis, and the fancy coastal cities – appeared to be stuck in the pre-industrial era with little proper infrastructure, poor living conditions and hardly any sign of development.

Ben Ali’s record of human rights violations was woeful. Under the pretext of fighting “Islamic extremism”, any political dissent was cruelly silenced and we knew people were tortured if they dared to criticise the government or speak out against the regime.

People had a name for the basement of the interior ministry building in the centre of Tunis, where the worst torture chambers were known to be. It was “behind the sun”. People would say, “he has been sent behind the sun”, or “watch your words, you would not want to go behind the sun”.

I remember starting to notice cars with blank licence plates after the 2009 presidential elections. One time, when we were on the road, I asked my uncle about them. He answered: “It’s the Ben Ali family and their friends. You would not want to come anywhere near them; even the police do not dare to stop them.”

The show of limitless power was clear to all.

Protesters argue with riot police in the downtown area of the capital, Tunis, on January 14, 2011 [Zohra Bensemra/Reuters]

Painful rebirth

Call it a “revolution”, an “Arab Spring”, an “uprising” or any other soul-soothing name; to me, what happened in Tunisia 10 years ago was a moment of rebirth.

As I turned 20 in early 2011, along with my brother and sister – we are triplets – I could not have wished for a more precious gift than this new hope for freedom.

The month of January 2011 will be forever etched in my memory. What I remember most was the seemingly fearless power of common people to stand up to an “invincible” regime, and the resulting flight of a dictator. It remains the most inspiring event I have ever witnessed.

How privileged I was, to walk into that defining decade between adolescence and adulthood with a handbasket full of confidence, inspiration and hope.

Ten years ago today, nothing but freedom and dignity seemed to matter.

Walking in the Medina of Tunis in June 2019, several years after the revolution in Tunisia which overthrew the despotic regime of President Ben Ali [Photo courtesy of Samia Fitouri]

It was a normal day at university for me on December 17, 2010, when the first photos of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in front of the governor’s office in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, started to flash across social media, flying from one mobile device to the next.

I was in my second year of a bachelor’s degree in English literature and civilisation at the Higher Institute of Literary Studies and Humanities in Tunis. I was talking to the library assistant about a book I needed for a course when a friend of his came in, whispering urgently to him: “Have you seen the news? Check Twitter!”

What we saw was shocking. Bouazizi, a fruit and vegetable vendor, had set himself alight in desperate protest after he was allegedly slapped by a police officer and had his scales confiscated because he did not have the correct permits to trade. He had gone to see the governor of the town, who had refused to see him.

The shock I felt when I saw those images was deep and I could feel everyone’s anguish around me starting to rise.

At a student union gathering in the main hall later that day, the union’s leader shouted into a megaphone: “The slap that Bouazizi got from the police officer is a slap in the face of all Tunisian youth.”

I was shaking when I heard that.

The speech was far too revolutionary. What if there was a snitch in the crowd? What if we were being secretly filmed? What if we found ourselves greeted the next day by police who had detected our faces on camera?

It was well known that Ben Ali’s ruling party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), placed “mock” student activists inside universities to act as informants. Humanities schools were key targets because social sciences students were deemed particularly suspicious when it came to critical thinking.

While our student union organised gatherings from time to time, the topics for discussion never touched on anything political and were generally limited to university issues such as exams and the curriculum.

So, this time, I was gripped with fear at the thought of all the scenarios which could arise from this gathering. I saw then that this was the seed of terror that Ben Ali and his regime had planted in me, from the day I was born.

I followed the news about Bouazizi closely over the following days on social media. We heard about his death at 5:30pm on January 4 and, by then, indignation and rage had spread across the entire country.

Protesters demonstrate against Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis on January 14, 2011 [Zohra Bensemra/Reuters]

In the days surrounding Bouazizi’s tragic death, exiled leaders, like Jalel Brick, a political activist who was harassed by the secret intelligence agencies in the 1980s and had fled to France, as well as famous youth figures such as Slim Amamou, an influential blogger, and Bendir Man, a pop singer who used to play highly political gigs at underground concerts, came out in support of the protesters. They threw fuel on the flames of the uprising with motivational speeches, calling on everyone to take to the streets. Their videos were shared all over Facebook and Twitter.

My mum – like the mothers of all my friends – was scared. She heard a video playing on my brother’s computer and shouted at him: “Don’t you dare reshare! This whole thing will be over in the blink of an eye, Ben Ali will get his claws into everyone who is contributing, in one way or another. I do not want you to be tracked down!”

Mum’s paranoia about our online identities being found out by the authorities got worse. And then, on January 13, Ben Ali made his last speech – in Tunisian dialect for the first time since he had been in power.

He sounded desperate, pleading with the people in an attempt to gain sympathy and, for some, like my mum, it had an effect.

His famous words, “Please forgive me, I made mistakes” moved my mum who said, emotionally: “There is no better virtue than forgiveness.” She was sure that he would remain in power and that his apology would be enough to quell the rebellion.

My grandma, who we lived with, felt differently, however. Her reaction, unlike my mum’s, was genuinely uplifting: “A president who addresses his nation in a language that they understand for the first time in his 23-year-long rule, does not deserve another day in office,” she declared.

Protesters chant slogans near a Tunisian national guard member during a peaceful demonstration in the Ettadhamen suburb of Tunis on January 15, 2011 [Zohra Bensemra/Reuters] (Reuters)

Enough is enough

Our grandparents’ generation had experienced colonialism and they knew what it meant to fight for freedom. Many of my grandmother’s peers had also internalised a longstanding grudge against Ben Ali who, as they saw it, had snatched power from their beloved leader Habib Bourguiba in 1987 in a “medical coup” that declared Bourguiba incompetent by reason of senility.

My mother’s generation, on the other hand, was born into a post-independence era. They tended to be more accepting of autocracy as the norm, having only ever known two single-party regimes – Bourguiba had declared himself President for Life in 1975. Political liberties and freedom of expression did not matter as much to them as long as the economy was booming and tourists were flocking to Tunisia’s sandy beaches every summer.

For us, a new generation verging on adulthood who had not benefitted from a booming economy, Ben Ali’s speech did nothing but prove to protesters that change had to come. Youth unemployment in 2010 was at 30 percent. Young people saw no prospects for themselves. Those of us who went into higher education felt anxious about graduating with no job to go to and social media had empowered us to share our opinions and organise.

And, we knew that words were cheap. I remember attending a so-called “youth dialogue circle” in 2010, organised by the Youth and Sports Ministry in Tunis. I was a member of several youth organisations at that time and was invited to the event as a youth delegate.

The event gathered youth representatives from across the country to “openly” and “democratically” share their views about their “Dream Tunisia”.

A young delegate from Kasserine, a border governate close to Algeria in west-central Tunisia, stood up and naively took the “democratic show” at its word.

“We can’t talk about a dream Tunisia under Ben Ali, full stop,” he said. An awkward silence followed before the moderator moved to the next participant.

When the dialogue circle ended, we were asked to leave the conference hall. I remember how we all looked at the Kasserine delegate being asked to follow one of the ministry officials to an unknown location. My heart froze at the thought of what might be waiting for him. We never did find out.

So, for all his attempts at conciliation on January 13, Ben Ali’s speech had the opposite effect to the one he intended.

Protesters gather before a clash with riot police in Ettadhamen near the Tunisian capital, Tunis, on January 12, 2011 [Stringer/Reuters]

The next day, thousands and thousands of people joined the demonstration of January 14 that would finally topple Ben Ali’s regime and cause him to flee the country. It was the tipping point. People of all ages and from all walks of life came together as a unified force – working classes, trade unions, lawyers, doctors; all were there.

My family lived in a southern suburb of the capital city, about 30km from downtown Tunis. My mum had forbidden us from attending the protests, but my brother and sister came up with an excuse to leave the house and hopped on a train to the city centre anyway. I stayed at home to share their news and updates on Facebook and Twitter.

The police violence we witnessed at that protest was repugnant.

The scene I watched of a young man being beaten by four policemen in front of the interior ministry on Avenue Habib Bourguiba has never left me. The rage it sparked in me was indescribable. The rage in the crowds at the scene was palpable.

Suddenly, the fight for dignity had overtaken the instinct for survival. Chants from the protesters seemed to get louder: “Bread and Water, No to Ben Ali!”

People were not just protesting against economic austerity measures with that message. What they meant was that they would happily settle for living on nothing but a loaf of bread and water if it meant they no longer had to submit to the cruelty of the Ben Ali regime.

The terrible economic conditions in the country were an undeniable driver for the protests, but our quest for civil rights and dignity was much bigger.

Women run during clashes with riot police in the downtown of the capital, Tunis, on January 14, 2011 [Zohra Bensemra/Reuters]

A celebration of nightmares

I have never again experienced such an emotional mix of fear, bewilderment, overwhelming hope and excitement as I did on the night of January 14.

The news of Ben Ali’s escape that evening sparked a sense of relief and nervousness at once. My brother and sister had returned safely home as soon as clashes with the police started. We were having dinner with our family when my cousin, who lived in the same building, burst in, screaming that Ben Ali had fled. We all jumped up from the table, but our moment of euphoria was short lived.

I would call the night of January 14 a night of terror.

Ben Ali left behind his thugs to wreak havoc across the whole country. The police suddenly disappeared from the streets and the Army, which had been present throughout the protests but only to protect national buildings, not to clash with protesters, became a much more visible presence. They were ordered to fire on protesters by Ben Ali as he departed, but refused to do so.

We heard that organised groups of thugs were smashing in doors, breaking into houses and terrorising families. The identity of these people looting and attacking homes was never completely clear but many people believed they were Ben Ali’s private security guards who felt threatened by his departure, along with men paid to join in.

On Facebook, people were warning each other to stay away from windows and to double-lock their doors. Suddenly, every neighbourhood was mobilising and setting up neighbourhood watch groups with help from the Army, which took the side of the people.

Me, posing in front of a whiteboard at the Elections Media Centre in October 2011, when Tunisia held its first free elections after the fall of the Ben Ali regime. Journalists and civil society members were invited to write their thoughts and feelings about the democratic transition. I was covering the elections for the new English-language website, Tunisia Live [Photo courtesy of Samia Fitouri]

Ordinary people built huge barricades to block access to their neighbourhoods. It was a cold winter, so some built bonfires to stay warm. Women cooked them hot meals and asked them to share food with the local Army patrols. There was a sort of friendly cooperation between the military and the local neighbourhood watch patrols.

Despite the tension in the air, I remember plenty of humour as well, such as stories of the girls fighting over who would deliver meals to the “heroes” protecting us from the chaos.

Thankfully, no one from my family was attacked or hurt. A neighbour’s son, however, was shot in the head by a sniper a few hours after the news of Ben Ali’s escape broke. He was a student in Italy who had come home to spend the winter break with his family and had been standing by a window inside his home.

Fear and hope continued to feed us. Chaos, looting and rioting went on for five days. I mostly stayed indoors but occasionally ventured out to volunteer in cleanup campaigns around the neighbourhood. There was massive damage from the late-night clashes. Police stations were being attacked by angry mobs and shops were being looted.

I still remember how my friends and I opened the Tunisian constitution for the first time in our lives during one of those long nights (over a Skype meeting) and started digging deep into each of its clauses to speculate on a way forward for our country.

A group of citizens organise a cleanup in the main Habib Bourguiba Avenue a few weeks after the protests in Tunis which drove President Ben Ali to flee the country [Photo courtesy of Samia Fitouri]

A stateless society

It had only taken three days for the new Prime Minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, to announce his interim cabinet on January 17, but life was still chaotic until he reshuffled his cabinet on January 27, causing the departure of six former RCD members. It was not until all 24 regional governors had been replaced by early February that things started to calm down properly. For a period of time, therefore, the country felt “stateless”.

We had to sit for exams during the last week of January 2011. Winter break had been extended by 10 days because of the chaos that followed Ben Ali’s escape from Tunisia and it was my first day back at university after the long interruption. The university dean called for a flag-raising ceremony.

The National Anthem of Tunisia started playing and I could see everyone’s eyes around me turning watery. “When the people will to live, Destiny must surely respond. Oppression shall then vanish. Fetters are certain to break.”

Voters line up outside a local school in a suburb of Tunis, waiting to cast their vote at the first elections since the fall of the Ben Ali regime, in October 2011 [Photo courtesy of Samia Fitouri]

It was this powerful refrain that had energised protesters for weeks since the tragic events of December 17. The final two verses of the National Anthem – Humat al-Hima (Defenders of the Homeland) were written by the Tunisian poet, Aboul-Qacem Echebbi, who was from the southwestern city of Tozeur. To us, his poetry summoned up the meaning of patriotism and had long evoked the fight for freedom and resistance against tyranny.

For the first time, we truly connected with every single word of the anthem. Suddenly, we were not forcibly saluting the flag as the symbol of the state, but we were wholeheartedly cherishing our homeland. It was a magical act of reclaiming our citizenship. Goosebumps marked the beginning of freedom and dignity for me.

On the way back home that day of the flag-raising ceremony in January, I still vividly remember the sight of a lawyer directing traffic at a dense junction. Traffic officers disappeared for days and people had to take it upon themselves to keep order. We lived through a stateless period, but I had never felt safer.

A Tunisian man studies his inked finger after voting in Tunisia’s first truly free elections in October 2011 [Photo courtesy of Samia Fitouri]

A new independence

Since 1987, when Ben Ali had come to power, his ruling party had swept every seat in the legislature. He appeared alone on the ballot sheet at every presidential election because presidential candidates were required to get endorsements from 30 political figures to stand and no one dared to endorse anyone else.

Now, I felt energised by the sight of the colourful political campaign posters and banners picturing possible alternatives. More than 70 political parties were registered after the revolution and some 655 independent candidates ran for the country’s first free elections in October 2011.

A drawing on display inside the Elections Media Centre in October 2011 [Photo courtesy of Samia Fitouri]

The turbulent changes that swept my country 10 years ago also opened my eyes to a whole new universe: that of politics and journalism, two fields that had for long been tightly controlled and coloured with one single brush, specifically, purple, the official brand colour of the RCD. The propagandist press was dubbed “Al-Sahafa Al-Banafsajya”, the “purple press”, and the interior ministry had a legal right to review all newspaper and magazine articles before publication.

Some brave journalists did try to work freely. I was a big fan of Nawaat (which means “core” in Arabic). The site went online on April 5, 2004, as a forum for Tunisian citizens and diaspora to be able to express themselves free of censorship from the government.

Of course, Ben Ali blocked access to it, along with many other sites. I discovered it in early 2009 when I accessed it through a virtual private network (VPN). Sami Ben Gharbia was one of the co-founders. He used to be a political refugee living in the Netherlands between 1998 and 2011 but he returned to Tunisia following the revolution.

My blue-inked voting finger on the day I voted in Tunisia’s first truly free elections, in October 2011 [Photo courtesy of Samia Fitouri]

The revolution offered me a chance to pursue journalism as well. I published my first article on August 16, 2011, in the UK’s Guardian newspaper before becoming a full-time reporter for a Tunisian news outlet, Tunisia Live, providing coverage of local news in English to an international audience.

It was an extraordinary privilege and pleasure to be able to cover the country’s democratic transition as it was slowly unfolding over 2011. From capturing joyful scenes of young voters dipping their fingers in blue ink (a fraud-prevention measure) to interviewing running candidates and political analysts, to covering the blooming civil society landscape, I witnessed and captured colour and life in ways that had been completely unthinkable under Ben Ali.

Ten years later, the year of 2011 remains the bedrock of my personal and professional growth. It has instilled in me an unshakeable belief in the power of determination.

A joyful evening shot of the national theatre downtown. I took this photo as I was walking home from work around the end of November 2014 during the Carthage Film Festival and the city brimmed with peace, art and joy [Photo courtesy of Samia Fitouri]

Today, despite the deep disillusion caused by the current economic hardships in Tunisia, freedom of expression remains one of the most vital and cherished assets for all Tunisians. A decade is not a long time to transform a country and whatever the outcome might have been, toppling Ben Ali’s despotic regime will remain for me and all Tunisian youth, a second independence.

Source: Al Jazeera