Dispatch from Tunis, January 2011

Five years ago today, Zine al-Abideen Ben Ali fled Tunisia. Shortly after, I spent a week in Tunis reporting on the revolution - personally for me an unforgettable moment, and one that burns just as vividly in my memory as the Egyptian uprising that would come a few days later. Looking from through my archives, I found the fragment of a long piece I had planned to write on Tunisia before having to rush back to Cairo; as result of the drama unfolding there, I had to abandon that Tunisia piece. It is reproduced below, with only minor stylistic editing and no correction of facts that were, back then in January 2011, very fresh and still uncertain.

The Tunisian revolution was sparked by the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, a young man who supported his family by selling fruits and vegetables in a cart in the central town of Sidi Bouzid. Bouazizi decided to set himself alight after a humiliating altercation with a female police officer in the town’s square who had decided to confiscate his cart. One version of events has the officer attempt to extract a bribe from Bouazizi; others slap him publicly when he protested.

Either way, Bouazizi was the victim of both a petty injustice and a larger symbolic one: although he was probably not, as initially reported, a unemployed graduate forced into menial labor by lack of opportunities, he endured the precarity of this long-neglected part of the country and the arbitrariness of Ben Ali’s police state. His death launched the rebellion of the town’s youth, which over the next several weeks would slowly spread to other cities. The angry young men of Sidi Bouzid responded by fighting a type of guerrilla warfare against the police, drawing them one or two at a time into the warrens of the city’s popular neighbourhoods and then mobbing them.

These tactics gradually spread to neighbouring cities, and eventually the wealthier towns of the coast, but the protests were not taken up in Tunis until very late. It appears it was the decision of the police to use snipers with instructions to shoot-to-kill over the weekend of 8 and 9 January that tipped things over and signalled the end for Ben Ali. Due to the slow buildup of the confrontation by between the people and the state, the fiercest part of the uprising remained in places like Sidi Bouzid and other towns of the inner centre like Kasserine, the site of some of the worst killing (at least 50 people are believed to have been killed over that weekend, mostly by sniper fire).

Ben Ali’s response to the crisis came in three speeches. The first, in late December, threatened; the second, after that murderous weekend, cajoled and attempted to deflect blame; the third, on the eve of his departure for Jeddah, apologised made concessions but came too late. By that point, the army had already refused to fire on protestors and was in places intervening to protect them from the police. The vast security apparatus Ben Ali had set up was falling apart. Many Tunisians believe that, at some point between 4 and 8pm on Friday 14 January, General Rachid Ammar, the head of the armed forces, told their president that it was time to go, perhaps in coordination with the US, which had showed no sign of wanting to defend Ben Ali.

Among the ensuing chaos – said to be caused by the collapse of the secret police and the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (known by its French acronym RCD) party, whose more thuggish members were widely said to be part of the looting – the many palaces of relatives of the first family were ransacked and fear spread that insecurity was deliberately being created to justify a triumphant return for Ben Ali. In each neighbourhood, local militias formed. They mounted checkpoints, checking IDs and ensuring that no strangers were allowed in at night.

One taxi driver in his sixties spoke of this with pride: "I am working overtime to allow the young people to take care of security, to take care of us. They keep security in the neighbourhood with sticks and metal bars, and in the morning when we wake up, we find that they’ve left bread and milk on our doormats. They know how much each house needs, how many people it contains. We take care of each other."

Even so, he later acknowledged that the said supplies had been looted from a nearby French supermarket whose local partner had been Leila Trabelsi, Ben Ali’s despised wife who ran her family’s business interests like a mafia. The line between civic duty and vigilantism is sometimes hard to see.

Even after the security situation began to return to normal, at least in the capital, the government’s stability remained a concern: most of the ministers in the interim cabinet where RCD members, some of them privy to the decisions that led to the brutal repression of the weekend. This infuriated many, but none more so than the youth of Sidi Bouzid and other central towns that had suffered the bulk of the repression: they marched towards the capital and began to lay siege to the Kasbah, the seat of government near Tunis’ old city. Once again, protestors clashed with police, which fired tear gas. “These young men from Sidi Bouzid and elsewhere in the centre, they have the right to be here, to be angry,” a trade union activist told me in a Tunis café. “They carried out the revolution and paid the price for it.”

On the second day of the siege, General Ammar intervened personally, telling the crowd that the army would act as “a guarantor of the revolution” and prevent the comeback of the RCD. This in turn set off a frenzy of speculation as to whether Ammar himself might be the best choice to lead a transitional government, rather than Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, who held the post since 1999 and had been a cabinet minister throughout Ben Ali’s reign.

In revolutionary moments, even the wisest and best-informed change their minds from one moment to the next, dizzy from the rampant rumour and disinformation. People go from living in a strictly regulated police state to protesting for freedom to wishing for order to be restored as quickly as possible, even at the hands of a military figure. They see a protest movement against the government as another potential source destabilisation, a delay to getting the country economically back on track.

One night about 10 days after Ben Ali fled, I sat plumped in a white leather designer armchair at the chic villa of one of Tunis’ most prominent doctors — he owns a clinic where clientele from Libya, Algeria, Mali and Europe come to receive treatment on a par with French hospitals but at a lower cost. I was listening to a group of wealthy Tunisians have a heated debate about the growing unrest against the interim government headed by Ghannouchi. They all agreed it must go: its ministers were too deeply implicated in the scandals of the Ben Ali era, even if they did not benefit from them themselves.

Several entrepreneurs and an industrialist are also present; they have all received excellent education in France or the US and come from moneyed families. They worry about the composition of the RCD, but also about the new political reality. In particular, the UGTT — a trade union federation once largely loyal to the Ben Ali regime — has emerged as a potent political force, organising a general strike in the economic hub of Sfax and is beginning to flex its muscles to demand higher wages. While the UGTT’s leadership was largely composed of RCD cronies, its mid-level members across the country often took a leadership role in the revolution, using their nationwide network to organise protests and spread information. In the posh northern suburbs of Tunis, many worry that this will dampen the economic recovery.

As they argue, the industrialist — who runs a factory that employs 1200 mostly low-skilled workers — strikes a different tone than the rest "We are suddenly experiencing an extraordinary abundance of discourse and opinion," he says. "It is as if time has accelerated, things are moving too fast to judge where they are going. We change our opinions everyday. And if we want to return to normality, we have to address the concerns of lower-income people. I see them everyday at my factory, they are scared and directionless and worried about their daily bread, we don’t know what they’ll do if they don’t get their 220 dinars a month. The solution cannot be only political. We took advantage of the old system. We were all seduced by the myth of economic growth. The Tunisian elite betrayed its people, and personally I am going to work to counter this. The distribution of wealth was not carried out correctly in recent years. This revolution was borne out of anger, and if it continues we are all headed towards suicide."

The others think the industrialist is exaggerating, and that while social and economic policy will have to be addressed, the current problem is chiefly one of public relations and confidence. Prime Minister Ghannouchi infuriated the public by revealing, soon after the first interim was formed, that he had a telephone conversation with Ben Ali, whom he even mentioned — perhaps out of habit — with reverence. What they seem to want most of all is someone with uncontested authority, like Ammar, the army general.

Yet, for now, it is hard not to feel that some hope about Tunisia’s future is warranted. As normality returns (even if there will have to be some longer-term process of national reconciliation for those elements of the security forces associated with repression, as well as informants and local-level ruling party bosses) there is a ebullient sense of democratic possibility.

On Habib Bourguiba Avenue, Tunis’ central boulevard where multiple protests are organised daily — sometimes by mere high school kids, giddy to have a share of a revolution started by others — random strangers have vigorous debates unimaginable a month beforehand. They argue about whether to stick with a presidential system or adopt a parliamentary one, debate the merits of this or that party or politician, and make solemn calls to maintain Tunisia’s attachment to secularism and women’s rights. There is a nostalgia for the certitudes of the old regime, where everyone knew the place of everything. They need to grow used to the fact that, as Donald Rumsfeld once said, freedom is untidy.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.