Mythologizing the Tunisian Revolution Redux

I’ve spent the last three weeks out of the country and just returned to Tunis. During my visits to South Africa and Washington DC I’ve had a chance to speak with bloggers, civil society representatives, government officials, and aid workers.

Tunisia has been the subject of so many conversations, discussions, seminars, and presentations in some ways it felt like I came from the center of the world. At the same time, it was remarkable how the discourse outside of Tunisia has differed from the reality of pre-election Tunisia.

To bloggers and civil society activists, the revolution has been a model of talking truth to power and has demonstrated the importance of unfettered access to information (the internet, wiki leaks, the government, etc). To aid workers, Tunisia is a guinea pig, more accessible than Egypt, less dangerous and volatile than Libya – a place to experiment with different aid policies. To government officials, depending on their authoritarian persuasion, Tunisia represents the best hope for democracy and an example for peaceful democratic transitions.

The reality in Tunis is far removed and much more complex than these perspectives. Mythologizing the Tunisian revolution did not stop with the myths around Sidi Bouzid, but continues from capitals to bloggingheads around the world. In the coming weeks I will explore these topics further through the lens of the upcoming elections, now less than three weeks away.

Mythologizing the Tunisian Revolution

The French have the Bastille, the Americans have the Boston Tea Party, the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace. The Arab Spring, and Tunisia in particular, have Mohammed Bouazizi’s humiliation, self immolation, and the subsequent people’s revolt.

The famous revolutions in France, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were based on an idealized version of events and their implications – and so too, it seems, the Tunisian revolution.

In a recent article (in French) in the French daily Liberation, Christophe Ayad, suggests that it is highly likely that the humiliation of Bouazizi was an exaggeration of events to help inspire other Tunisians. In particular, one of the key elements of Bouazizi’s story is that as he was peacefully selling fruits when he was approached by a female police officer. Lacking a permit for his stand, the police officer overturned his cart and slapped him.

Ayad writes that the police officer incarnated the entire system that so many Tunisians fought against, especially in the restive center of the country, where gainful employment remains out of reach, especially for young men. His humiliation came not just from being slapped, but from being slapped by the pitiless autocracy – embodied by a woman – of all things.

And yet, after the revolution as the officer was put on trial, the case fell apart. Two eyewitnesses recanted, another had such a grudge against the police his testimony was deemed inadmissible. Ayad spoke with a local union official in Bouazizi’s hometown of Sidi Bouzid, who described the actions taken against the regime long before anyone knew the name Bouazizi. And…..he admitted to inventing the whole story about the police officer, a ruse to get public support behind the unions movements.

In Sidi Bouzid, Ayad reports, the Bouazizi name is not the one of heroes. His family has moved to La Marsa on the northern coast. But across Tunisia and the Arab world, he remains an inspiration. Obama’s recent speech on the Arab World mentioned him by name. And the slap itself was profiled on 60 Minutes back in February.

History likes heroes and a good narrative. Bouazizi, whatever the story may be, fits our expectations of revolution and struggle against oppression. My guess is that the slap is here to stay.