Revolution sweeps away a hated dictator. Thousands fill the streets to celebrate their newly won freedom. The scenes sound like something from a history book. But this is Tunisia in January 2011.
This is the first time revolution has overthrown a Middle Eastern leader since the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979. And it is having an electric impact across North Africa and the Middle East.
The ruling classes in Algeria, Jordan and Egypt are terrified that the courage and determination of the Tunisian masses will inspire popular revolt elsewhere that could threaten their power.
Here in Britain, the media is obsessed with reporting tourists’ holidays being cut short and “violence on the streets” of the capital city, Tunis. But this leaves the real story untold.
This is the story of ordinary people making a stand against a brutal regime and demanding, and winning, their basic rights.
In the past many Tunisians were fearful of confronting the government.
The president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, was held in power by a huge network of police and armed militia who were notorious for brutally crushing any resistance.
But this time no amount of armed police could hold the people back. The Tunisian revolt broke out because people had had enough—of poverty, rising food prices and over
14 percent unemployment.
There were jubilant scenes on Friday of last week as Tunisians ignored curfews to celebrate their freedom on the streets. Crowds cheered as people ripped down banners bearing Ben Ali’s image and threw them to the ground.
After years of dire poverty and oppression, ordinary people invaded the luxurious mansions and villas that just days earlier had belonged to Ben Ali and his family.
One man, picking up the remains of a lobster found abandoned by a swimming pool, wryly commented, “The family did not eat bread then.”
Alongside the joy was a determination to keep fighting.
Fadhel Bel Taher told Al Jazeera, “Tomorrow we will be back in the streets to continue this civil disobedience until the regime is gone.”
Leila Bouazizi, whose brother Muhammad sparked the protests with his public suicide, said, “My brother is alive in all of us. He opened many doors for us because we can smell democracy and freedom now.”
Muhammad Bouazizi was just 26-years old when he killed himself.
Unable to find work he had been reduced to selling fruit and vegetables from a cart.
When the police confiscated his cart, his only means of earning a living, he returned to his hometown, Sidi Bouzid.
On 17 December he went to the main town square, doused himself in petrol and set himself on fire.
It led to mass protests because Muhammad’s situation was not unique.
The economic crisis means thousands of Tunisians suffer grinding poverty, all while Ben Ali and his cronies lived in obscene luxury.
Once the protests began they seemed to be unstoppable—despite the numbers shot by the police. Some estimate that up to 200 people have been killed.
The media denounces the “violence” of the protests—but the violence came from Ben Ali and his henchmen as they fought to maintain their brutal rule.
Police shot into crowds of demonstrators.
They even attacked the funerals of those they had murdered.
But each act of repression swelled the protests and helped transform them into a popular uprising.
Ben Ali tried desperately to hang on, giving concessions, promising not to stand in 2014.
It was too little too late. He was only Tunisia’s second president since the country’s independence from France in 1956.
He had looked firmly entrenched in power—yet within days he had fled the country and taken refuge in Saudi Arabia.
He tried to fly to Paris, hoping to find safe haven with his allies in the French government. But then French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced that he was not welcome.
He may have feared that the million Tunisians living in France might have also taken to the streets.
Ben Ali had been a staunch ally of the US and its “war on terror”, allowing the landing of “rendition” flights of prisoners from US torture camps.
So it was only when it was clear Ben Ali was finished that Barack Obama said he applauded the protesters’ “courage”.
But US secretary of state Hillary Clinton revealed the West’s fear that the revolt could spread—and that forces less sympathetic to the needs of the US could come to the fore.
“Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries’ problems for a little while, but not forever,” she said.
“If leaders don’t offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum.”
What will happen next?
There will be immense pressure for people to simply wait for the new elections promised.
These are a major achievement—but if the momentum of the revolt stalls, elements of the old ruling class can suceed in re-establishing their control.
If a mass movement in Tunisia can topple a leader who seemed
untouchable, it can also achieve much more.
Tunisian workers, students and the unemployed have shown what is possible.
They need to push through their revolution.
They can fundamentally challenge the rule and priorities of the rich and create a very different society, one that is organised on the basis of what people need not on what makes profit.
Tunisia have made the fight for a socialist society seem just that little bit closer—because we have seen the process of revolutionary change unfold in front of our eyes.
Corruption and ice cream
Ben Ali ruled Tunisia as a corrupt fiefdom for his family.
While ordinary Tunisians struggled to find work, the regime was marked by astonishing opulence.
Mohamed Sakher El Materi is a billionaire businessman who is the president’s son-in-law and was, until last weekend, his heir apparent.
A leaked diplomatic email reported of one of his recent lunches: “Ice cream and frozen yogurt had been flown from St Tropez, and that his host kept a pet tiger in a cage.” That’s why not just Ben Ali but his entire family were hated.