Tunisian civic awareness shows signs of life + picture of the day

Civic awareness was somewhat of a lost cause in Tunisia under Ben Ali. The regime’s tight control over any kind of organizing – unless it was for Ben Ali and his party, the RCD – was tightly controlled. Charities were hard to come by, unless they were underground, like Ennahdha and other Islamist organizations. Recently howver, there have been signs of life in Tunisians’ willingness and capacity to organize to better their communities and help those in need.

Last month I reported on the widespread efforts by Tunisians to help those affected by extreme weather – this included secular and religious groups, as well as extremist groups linked to international terror organizations. It seems that civic life has gone from one extreme to another.

Environmental groups have also been growing. Groups like Friends of the Belvedere have been actively campaigning for months to help save Tunis’s wonderful central park from illegal construction and general mismanagement.

This week, Tunisia Live reported that the international campaign Let’s Do It Tunisia will hold a national day this weekend to help clean up the country of the ever present problem of litter. Dozens of associated civic and environmental organizations have joined the campaign.

In my neighborhood, local do-gooders recently planted 50 trees in the local park. Using their own funds and their own labor, but with support from the city mayor, this group of arborists made their contribution to making Tunisia more green and more beautiful.

The Arab spring lexicon: Tunisian revolution downgraded from revolution to turning point by way of uprising

The Tunisian Prime Minister, Hamadi Jebali, speaking in Berlin this week, called the events that led to former dictator Ben Ali’s departure a “turning point” – further changing the Tunisian lexicon.

What began as a revolution in Tunisia was eventually downgraded to an uprising by many Tunisian and Arab commentators. The Guardian reported that “Tunisia hovers between uprising and revolution.” Tunisian and foreign bloggers also jumped on the term revolution – with so many state actors still in place, how could it be a true revolution?

A french blogger sums it up:

To speak of popular uprising rather than revolution is a way to emphasize that the recent events in Tunisia did not abolish the Ben Ali system. They swept away the autocrat and his closest network [of family and friends], but the entire edifice on which rested its hegemony is still in place.

According to Islamist and scholar Tariq Ramadan:

No “springtime” has come; no revolution has taken place, as I have insisted ever since the very first uprisings….

…Uprisings need clear regional and international objectives in order to become revolutions. For the time-being, the United States, Europe and Israel – like China, Russia and India – are protecting their own interests, both openly and behind the scenes.

Were the Arab world to lose hope in the wake of its failed uprisings, the great powers would have lost nothing. To succeed, the revolutions of today demand nothing less than an Arab consciousness, which only the people of the region can express. If, and only if, they do not abandon the struggle.

Prime Minister Jebali seems to be further refining the terminology, downgraded from an uprising to a mere “turning point.” The continuity between past and present is assured.

Of course, whether you choose revolution, uprising, or turning point, it’s nothing compared to many Tunisians, who insist on calling it a coup d’etat. This report by France 24 explains how many Tunisian and French analysts (and the public at large), think that the departure of Ben Ali was orchestrated by the American military. Under this theory, while there was a popular uprising, there could not have been a revolution – because an outside force was the principle actor responsible for the dictator’s departure. I suppose you could call it a turning point as well.

The lexicological debate over Tunisia’s “revolution” mirrors the very public debate in the West over the term Arab Spring. It’s hard to pick up a newspaper in the States without some mention of the Arab Spring actually being and Arab Winter.

For one term, however, there is no debate. While Tunisians argue over whether it was an uprising, revolution, turning point, or coup d’etat – everyone knows it wasn’t jasmine.

Perhaps in the end the events in Tunisia last year will be known like the French or American national days, by its calendar date – January 14, 201. How does translate to the Islamic calendar?

[On a personal note: In my writings I initially referred to the overthrow as a revolution, but quickly changed course and have been (mostly) consistent in calling it an uprising.]


Photo Gallery – Tunisia Year 1 – Bourguiba Avenue Januar 14, 2012

Some photos from yesterday’s happenings on Avenue Bourguiba in downtown Tunis in commemoration of the one year anniversary since Ben Ali’s departure. Reports say that up to 20,000 people took to downtown Tunis, many to celebrate, many to demonstrate that the revolution is not yet over. Ennahdha supporters were well numbered, as were Salafi groups, waiving their typical black and white flags, as well as communists and union members. I heard protesters chanting for all sorts of causes – for the return of the caliphate, for human rights, and for Bashar Assad’s degagement. 

Why Tunisia must preserve Ben Ali’s legacy

Tunisia must preserve the legacy of Ben Ali. Since January 2011, starting with the transition and continuing with the new Ennahdha-led government, Tunisia has begun a process of systematically removing elements of the old regime. It started with the man itself and his family. It continued with the spontaneous removal of Ben Ali’s photograph, previously ubiquitous in all public places. It continued with the removal of top bureaucrats, governors, and administrators close to the regime.

Little by little, in the last 12 months most public vestiges of Ben Ali have been erased from public life. This fall, one of the main squares on Bourguiba Avenue in downtown Tunis was renamed from Place November 7 (the date Ben Ali came to power) to Place 14 January – the date of the revolution. Meanwhile, the central bank started the process of changing the bank notes, which had previously praised November 7 (see image).

Tunisia's 20 dinar bills before and after the revolution (courtesy of Rue89.com)

After 23 years of looking at shrines to Ben Ali in every public space in the country, there is something not only natural, but cathartic in removing these elements. But as a get-out-the-vote campaign video so clearly and viscerally showed, dictatorship can return at any time.

Indeed, while the fear of Ben Ali coming back is not a common fear in Tunisia, the fear of a return to dictatorship has been one of the most commonly heard refrains after the elections. It comes not only from the secularists, who were largely defeated and fear the rise of the new Islamic forces in the country. It also comes from Islamists, who accuse secularists of wanting to return to the methods of Ben Ali, with indiscriminate imprisonment and intimidation of any religious act.

While Ben Ali and his legacy are fresh in all Tunisian minds now, they will not be forever. The preservation of this period of corruption and torture must be embedded into the historical memory of the country. Older Tunisians often cite the example of Ben Ali himself, who came to power in a palace coup which overthrew Tunisia’s first authoritarian president, Habib Bourguiba. He promised to open an era of democracy and freedom, and yet quickly went down an authoritarian path himself.

It is for this reason that the state must preserve and publicize the actions of Ben Ali and his regime. As Juan Cole recently pointed out on his blog, myths around the Arab spring abound. But history will be written by the winners – and not necessarily accurately or objectively. All the more reason for Tunisia to begin the process now of establishing its history by rejecting the methods of Ben Ali. This can only be done by preserving the memory and the methods of the former regime.

[A note from Kefteji: I’ll be off on holidays for the next week.  Looking forward to the new year with a look back at the anniversary of the January 14 uprising and more blogging on Tunisia and its transition. Happy new year to all my readers.]

Six months afterward – the revolution remembered (part 2 of 3)

Part two of my series on posts from Facebook in the days immediately before and after the Tunisian revolution. Part one (here) looked at the days before. Part two discusses the day after Ben Ali’s departure.

RCD Headquarters in La Marsa

From Tunisia 2011

January 15, 2011 – Looking for answers, but safe and sound 

…Now a bit of an update from last night until today….To recap, the fall of the Ben Ali was nothing less than extraordinary. Having been in Tunisia in 1999 (12 years into his reign of terror), and having seen how he silenced the opposition and a vote in which he won 99.9 percent of the vote, I thought I knew a bit his power structure. Coming back here 12 years later it had certainly gotten worse. The wikileaks cables that were released in November described the kleptocracy that the regime had become. And while this was news to me, the stories of pet tigers and wild shopping sprees seemed to be very well known among Tunisians. The first family is reviled here.

And it was the first family’s property that was the first to go last night. The mobs that had formed after the police broke up the peaceful protests yesterday in Tunis went about last night systematically burning and looting their personal property, their mansions, and their business. The car dealerships and the supermarkets that they owned burned. Neighborhoods with their houses were saved while their houses were singled out and destroyed.

As the president fled and martial law was declared the city felt tense, happy with the joy of being rid of the dictator, but nervous about what was next. After all, Ben Ali had set up a security apparatus that some have compared to the Stasi of East Germany, informers everywhere, up to 1 police man for every 40 inhabitants. While the population trusts the army, the police are a different story. And it was they who had the most to lose with Ben Ali’s departure.

While events around our neighborhood seemed calm last night, military helicopters circled overhead and sporadic gunfire could be heard form around the city.

We woke up to calm. We were able to sleep late as the call to prayer was cancelled because of the curfew that was in effect until 7 a.m. We spoke with our neighbors who seemed happy, but nervous. The funeral of a young man killed by the police the day before in our neighborhood was going to happen at 2 p.m. If we wanted to go out, we’d better do it in the morning. So, we ventured out into a somewhat normal, but still very tense city. We’re about a 10-15 minute walk from downtown La Marsa, with a nice walk through the park, by the French ambassador’s house, and finally to the seaside.

As we walked in to town, things seemed pretty calm. There was noticeably less people around, but still enough families and couples for us to remain pretty confident in our safety. As we approached the main train station in the center of town we noticed that at the roundabout an immense tank was parked with about 6 soldiers standing guard around it. Remember, the army is trusted here, so this was reassuring, but the orders they were giving on their megaphones did some seem particularly inviting (are any orders given from a megaphone by a soldier on a tank good orders?). We turned back, went to the market, stocked up on oranges and tomatoes, and headed back home. While things were ok, the tension seemed to be building.

After lunch one of Eloise’s work mates came by the apartment to stay with us. He was alone and it seemed like a good idea for us to stick together.

As sunset approached we could see from our fleeting looks from the balcony that neighborhood men were beginning to assemble. They had clubs and were going to defend their neighborhood. Gangs of rioters (perhaps supporters of the ousted president) were thought to be going around town terrorizing civilians, inciting violence, and looting property. While the military were set up at the major intersections, there weren’t enough to defend the entire population. And so the women gathered rocks and brought them to the rooftops, prepared to throw at any looters, and the men stood guard at the entrance to our small street, baseball bats in hand.

And so we sit. We hear shouts from outside as I write. Most far, some a little closer than any of us would like. The gunfire is sporadic, and the sound of an automatic weapon is always jarring. It’s never been close, thank goodness.

We’ll go to bed soon, try to relax, see what happens tomorrow….

RCD Headquarters La Marsa

From Tunisia 2011

Six months afterward – the revolution remembered (part 1 of 3)

It’s sometimes hard to imagine how much life has changed in Tunisia since the revolution. Before launching the Social Contract, I wrote to my Facebook friends to describe what it felt like. The thoughts here were not meant for the general public, but looking back on them, I can still feel the emotions from that period. I’ve decided to share these as part of the inspiration for A 21st Century Social Contract.

Defending against all attacks

From Tunisia 2011

A couple noteworthy references – one is that I was worried that the government would hack my account, so on the post of January 13th I refrained from making political commentary. Another is that the event was not even being followed by people abroad at that point, just one day prior to the overthrow.

Here are my posts from January 13 and 14.

January 13, 2011 – The day before the fall

I didn’t expect the first post from Tunisia to be about a curfew. For those who haven’t followed, there have been ever increasing protests in Tunisia since mid-December, culminating last night in a curfew for Tunis.
Today it has been calm around the neighborhood, but last night we could hear fighting between the police and civilians about 500m from our house. The army is in the streets since yesterday.
The amazing thing is the extent to which twitter is the source for information/disinformation. While the foreign press has been reporting on the situation, Twitter (and word of mouth) is the only way to know if your neighborhood has been affected. Despite the uncertitude, life continues. The stores were busy this morning, as most shut down at 11 or noon for the rest of the day. … people are stocking up on everything. I’ll refrain from political commentary – no need to cause any more trouble than necessary – but I’d encourage you to google or search twitter for information on what’s going on here. 

Tear gas rises after a day of street fighting. Tunis, Tunisia

From Tunisia 2011

January 14, 2011 – A Monumental Day

I woke up this morning with the thought that it might be over. I thought that the speech from the President Ben Ali last night calmed the frayed nerves of Tunisians, and that things might return to normal. But even then, the first thing I did was jump on the internet to see what was happening.
At the time, it appeared not much. The twitter posts with the hashtag: sidibouzid (the symbol of where all the protests had started from) were merely trickling in, whereas when I went to bed there were hundreds every few minutes. The newspapers had some stories, but nothing major.  
Eloise and I decided to see if the gym was open, finding it wasn’t we walked through the neighborhood where we saw evidence of the protests and a lot of military and security people but not much else. The shops were closed and only a fifth of the normal cars and pedestrians seemed to be out.
It seemed, as Eloise said, like it might be the calm before the storm.  We got back home and went online where we started to see the reports, from the Guardian, le Monde, and BBC, but especially Twitter, that there was a big protest in the center of town.
Everyone had been talking about it the night before, but we weren’t sure it would materialize. The first reports said there were a few hundred, then a few thousand, then more and soon we were seeing pictures of the entire boulevard Habib Bourguiba filled with peaceful protesters.  
Then we started hearing noises outside. The same noises we heard last night, only it was the middle of the day. I was supposed to start working – publishing some webpages and finishing up some loose ends – but after I heard the crowd, I knew it wasn’t going to be like that. I knew that I would be glued to Twitter again, and that things were afoot.  
The view from our apartment is great, it’s at a high point above our neighborhood which is perched on a little hill between the Corniche (the cliff above of the Mediterranean), and a pretty popular/urban neighborhood where we go to buy our baguettes and newspapers and get our keys made at the hundreds of local shops. There’s a major street running through the neighborhood that connects to our little side street, but the view doesn’t allow us to see exactly what’s happening on the street – but you can hear it, and boy did we hear it this afternoon. 
On this otherwise beautiful day a battle broke out between protesters and police. Between volleys of tear gas the youth advanced and retreated, lobbying rocks and yelling in Tunisian dialect.
After an hour or so things calmed down, but the fires were being lit. The air filled with smoke but the protests quieted down.  
Meanwhile, the riots continued downtown. The images and videos came in and the repression seemed brutal. And on the internet rumors circulated that the president might be stepping down. As the sun was setting, the word came that the president was leaving the country. Was the military performing a coup d’etat?
As it seems to have turned out, it’s been a palace coup – the prime minister was taking over. It’s been a long day with way too much time online. We’ll see what tomorrow brings….Thanks to all for the well wishes. Eloise and I are safe and for the moment our stock of fresh mediterranean food is not depleted, so we’re well fed. More updates tomorrow.