23 May 2011. A World to Win News Service. Following is the first instalment of a report written for AWTWNS by Samuel Albert. It describes what the revolt in Tunisia has achieved, and how. Subsequent instalments will analyse the underlying and triggering factors behind this revolt, and what the future may hold.
I. Great things
Great things have happened in Tunisia .
The greatest thing is that Tunisians, kept down first by the French and then by more than half a century of autocratic government subservient to France and other foreign capital, have awoken to political life in a way that happens only in special moments in history. They cast off passivity and routine's chains and sought to take the destiny of their country in their own hands. In fact, the masses of people were able to seize the political initiative countrywide – how often has that happened in today's world? – and impose changes that the Tunisian ruling classes and France and the US might or might not be able to accept but definitely did not want.
Zidane El Abidine Ben Ali ruled over Tunisia for 23 years. On 14 January 2011 he fell so unexpectedly and suddenly that the world was stunned, including Tunisians themselves. Since then they have brought down two successor governments and are challenging the third. The country remains in a rare state of effervescence.
Bourguiba boulevard in Tunis is a grand, French-style avenue with two rows of trees in the middle and cafés and expensive shops lining the sidewalks. Almost every evening since 14 January people of all walks of life gather to discuss and debate the issues of the day. The crowds are thickest on Friday and over the weekend. Knots of university students and older unemployed workers often listen to each other. Sometimes everyone shouts at once about this or that government proposal, about whether or not people should quiet down and go back to work and let the authorities take charge, or about Islam and the role of women in society. It's not unusual to see a woman loudly proclaiming her views to dozens of surrounding men. It seems to be a rule that everyone gets to speak.
Tongues have been untied. What a foreigner hears over and over again, from young and old, men and women, is this: "We've been kept silent all our lives. Now we are going to talk and nobody can make us shut up. We're going to be heard. Everybody's going to have to listen to us now."
People in the neglected smaller cities and dusty towns of the country's interior gather in squares and the cafés where men drink tea, smoke and argue from morning to night. They want to make sure that the country is still listening to them. There have been several violent social explosions over the past several months. Unemployed youth in at least two towns are on hunger strike, continuing to send the message that a young street peddler conveyed when he burned himself alive on 17 December and set off the revolt: they'd rather be dead than go on living this way.
Everywhere, one of the most contentious questions is whether or not there has been a real revolution. The current government says there has been, and that it is the revolution's representative. The armed forces says that there has been, and that it is the revolution's protector. In the streets and cafés, opinion is divided. An immense number of people are far from satisfied, especially the youth in general and the lower classes, and various parts of the middle classes, including the intelligentsia. What they have done so far has demonstrated their potential strength and made them hungry for more.
The question now is this: Will what the people have achieved so far make it possible to bring about the kind of radical change that could satisfy the aspirations expressed in their revolt? Or will the gains they have won through their self-sacrificing spirit be snatched away?
II. How it happened
Sidi Bouzid, where it all began
Sidi Bouzid is the town in the country's centre where the uprising began. It is the administrative capital of an arid governate (province) isolated from the world by wretched roads even though it is only a few hundred kilometres from the coast over flat land.
- A doctor (general practitioner):
Sidi Bouzid is last no matter what parameter you use to measure it. By law health care is supposed to be guaranteed for everyone, but there's only one small, badly equipped clinic in this town and other towns have none. I've never heard of a woman from the countryside coming in for a prenatal check-up. The public dispensaries have no medications – the supplies are sold illegally to private clinics.
There are no gynaecologist/obstetricians. Why would a specialist come to live in a province that has 413,000 inhabitants but not a single cinema? People are scattered in the countryside and small towns. There's no industry to concentrate people, no cultural life and it's hard to get to the big cities. Only 10 percent of the population is connected to the sewer system. There are 140,000 unemployed university graduates in this country of ten million, and ten percent of them, 1,400, are in this town of 45,000 people.
- A primary school teacher:
I was one of the first to pass by in front of the building after Mohammed Bouazizi set fire to himself, about 1 in the afternoon. A few men and women were demonstrating, mainly family members.
I called comrades and told them what happened and how it was the fault of the authorities. There are about 6,000 school teachers here. We're the biggest union, and we're also the intellectuals most closely in touch with the youth. Other activists came, including lawyers.
About 10:30 the next morning, lots of police came from Kasserine (the nearest city, towards the Algerian border). The battle began and continued for two days. About 8,000 gendarmes were brought in from all over the province. Ninety bus-loads of them, plus motorcycles (two-man teams, one to drive and the other to beat people). The whole town was throwing stones and fighting them – women, youth, elderly. We didn't burn and loot because it's our town, after all.
On the fifth day people came from other towns and villages to demonstrate. Other towns of 5-10,000 people erupted. It spread to Gabes on the coast, and then back to larger interior cities like Mederine. Then to Sfax, on 12 January, and the other big coastal cities. We didn't go to Tunis until after Ben Ali fled on 14 January...
- An older schoolteacher's union leader and political activist associated with the Patriotic and Democratic Labour Party (PT)
Most of the people in this region are small farmers. They tend livestock – especially sheep, and grow olives and other crops. Some land is irrigated, some not. There are no big landowners here. Families hire seasonal labourers during harvests, mostly women from neighbouring areas. There are some tomato canneries and an air conditioner plant, but not many factories. Aside from the top local government employees, living standards range from OK to pretty bad. Many farmers can't sell their crops in the coastal cities because there's no transport, and the buyers here rob them. The government programmes and other institutions like co-operatives are run by corrupt people with ties to the regime. Instead of helping the peasants they bleed them.
The poor peasants take out credit to buy a small truck or other equipment, and often can't pay back their loans. The interest is high. They end up going bankrupt and have to leave the country. When someone else buys up their land – and here there are few big capitalists and even fewer foreign investors – they irrigate it and grow crops for export like grapes, lettuce, peppers, cucumbers and melons. Because we're so far south, crops are ready for market early in the year, long before Europe and even northern Tunisia .
There isn't a single large store. There are lots of cafés because it doesn't take much capital to open one up and there's nothing to do but drink tea in a café. Some people buy and sell alcohol illegally.
Until now, hardly anybody was interested in politics, society or culture. Traditional holidays and folkloric events were organized by the regime for its own political purposes. Tribal relations are dying out because so many people are moving to big cities. In some places in this province 50-90 percent of the population have gone to look for work in Sfax, Monastir and Tunis , or immigrated illegally to Italy and France .
What we have here are lots of schools – 313 primary schools, 170 middle schools and several high schools. Education is compulsory and free. Among other reasons, peasants send their children to school because they don't have enough land to divide it up among their children. There's nothing else for kids to do but go to school. But the schools are in terrible condition and don't have much modern equipment.
The roads are so bad, especially the farm roads, that children who come to town for high school can't commute and have to find a place to live here. For university they go to the coastal cities. Many youth end up living with five or six other people in a garage. They drink wine, like most youth.
Isolated from their families and connected to the world by television and the Internet, craving a modern life style that unemployment and the lack of development won't let them have, they grow distant from their families and traditions. This is a patriarchal society, but they don't recognize their parents' authority. They won't even let their fathers find them a wife. That's a big generational rupture.
My son has two years of technical university. He's 29. I tell him, "I want you to have a wife and children like me." He says, "I can't, papa. That's too big a burden, too much responsibility." Some people are 40 years old and still haven't started their own family.
On top of all this is the fact that the youth weren't allowed to talk freely to each other and nobody would listen to them. Politics and political life was forbidden to them. Police were in the cafés to keep people from talking.
There were social explosions in 2006, 2008 and 2010 in the mining areas to the south and near the borders with Libya and Algeria . The government's solution was the police and this aggravated the situation. Some brave people, especially teachers, were sentenced to long prison terms. The economic situation got worse; peddlers selling contraband became numerous. The general mood among youth was very pessimistic and there were suicides.
Mohammed Bouazizi was typical of these youth. He wasn't a university graduate like the media said. He had a pushcart selling fruit and vegetables. He didn't have a permit, so a municipal agent confiscated his scale. Without a scale, he couldn't make a living. He complained to the authorities, but nobody would listen to him. A woman municipal agent slapped him in the face.
I wasn't there when he set fire to himself in front of the administration building on 17 December. His family staged a protest, and spread the word to other towns through tribal relationships. On the 18th and 19th we organized demonstrations. There were teachers and government employees, and soon most of the townspeople were in the streets. Our slogans held the regime responsible for Bouazizi's death. The police encircled the whole city. We met in the offices of the UGTT (the union federation). The police wouldn't let us out of there to demonstrate in the streets.
So the youth started protesting in their neighbourhoods. They fought with the police, especially at night when police cameras couldn't take pictures.
Our first slogans were "Work is a right" and "Gang of thieves – where is our right to work?" Then the central government sent in the gendarmes. We chanted slogans for freedom of expression and demonstrations and equality of development.
The media didn't mention any of this. There was a total blackout for the first few days, even as the protests spread to nearby cities. Many towns were blockaded by the police and gendarmes. We made videos with our mobiles (cellphones) and posted them online.
"Let us tell you how we made the revolution"
- University student, Tunis (with half a dozen other students chiming in)
I'm a member of the Communist Party of Tunisian Workers (PCOT). I've been a student activist since 2000, when we were arrested for holding a demonstration at school. We were always getting clubbed by the police. When Bouazizi burned himself, students and high school teachers' union members from Tunis went to Sidi Bouzid. The regime was trying to calm people down. Ben Ali gave Bouazizi's mother money. We paralysed the city and used our mobiles to spread the news. Many comrades were shot in the head while fighting the police. Some of us stayed there; others came back to Tunis to work Facebook and show people what was happening in Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine.
The demonstrations started to reach Tunis on 28 December (when artists and professionals, especially lawyers, protested), but not in a big way until 11 January, when there was a major protest in a suburb near the capital. The next day there was a demonstration in Beb El Khader, about a kilometre from the city centre. A youth was killed in another demo there the next day. Seven of us comrades went there. On the 14th we carried his body all the way through the city and down Bourguiba boulevard , calling on the people to revolt. People on the street were very respectful of us. We attacked the police. We didn't want to have just another demonstration and then everyone go home. We were tired of seeing youth get beaten.
- A third year student:
For a long time I felt like I was just about the only one who thought like me. We started using Youtube and Facebook because it was the only way we could talk freely. Then two bloggers were arrested in mid-2010, and everyone got scared.
When friends called and told us what was happening in Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine, and the media wasn't saying anything about it, we got mad. We had to express ourselves. About a hundred of us used Facebook to organize the first demonstration in central Tunis . On 13 January the police arrested me and other bloggers and held me for about three hours. I'd been clubbed before, but never arrested. They asked why we were demonstrating; I said because of injustice.
When they let me go I went home to the working class neighbourhood where I live. On the Net I saw that other bloggers had been busted. We told everyone to come out into the streets the next day. That night Ben Ali gave a big speech saying that he wouldn't step down. Some guys – nobody knows who they were – were driving around in cars without license plates and shooting people at random. I was scared to go out. A curfew was in force, but a few people were allowed to come to Bourguiba boulevard to applaud the president. We heard that France and the EU were going to send Ben Ali help. I thought that was going to be the end of it.
The next morning, at 8:30, I was on the boulevard. There were three or four thousand people in front of the Municipal Theatre. Everyone carried Tunisian flags and protest signs. For once, it wasn't raining. By 10 or 11 the boulevard was full; there wasn't room for one more person. I didn't think the police could attack, because there were so many of us and the international press was watching. Nothing was happening, and then suddenly tear gas grenades were fired. People in the first ranks in front of the Interior Ministry began trying to back up. I thought that would be it for the day and we'd come back tomorrow. It was an unforgettable moment – people were crying as they sang the national anthem. The old people, children and some women retreated. The rest of us started fighting. We fought all day.
- Union members and leaders, UGTT regional headquarters in the Tunisian industrial suburb of Ben Arous:
This town has half a million people. It has chemical plants, an oil refinery and many factories like electronic parts sub-assembly plants for foreign car companies and food processing. It's considered attractive for foreign investment because of its educated and skilled workers and technicians and good infrastructure. Most of the workers here are originally from this region.
We were never a "normal" union . The UGTT was founded during the liberation struggle in the 1930s. We were doing political work for years, especially in the mining region of the south. The national union leadership supported Ben Ali, but the regional and local leadership were against that. Because political parties were outlawed, the leftist parties worked mainly through the unions, as well as human rights organizations and NGOs.
It's true, like people say, that the revolution was made for liberty , not bread, but it's also true that while we were suffocated by the Ben Ali mafia, people in the interior were suffering from extreme regional inequalities and unemployment.
We had our first rally here on 5 January, mainly union members and other workers. The police surrounded our offices. After that we held a mass meeting to decide what to do, and called for a regional general strike on 14 January from 10 am to noon.
Ben Ali closed the schools because of the unrest. The students came to meet in our offices because they had nowhere else to meet – the official student union was run by the regime. It turned out that there were no strikes because many factories didn't even open that morning. Everything just stopped. So students and other people went to demonstrate in central Tunis . That evening Ben Ali resigned.