Looking back, I see that the movement that came to overthrow Zine El Abidine Ben Ali started in 2008. There was a very big intifada—an uprising in the mining basin in the south of the country.
It’s a mineral-rich area, and was exploited throughout French occupation and later since independence. The people there are very poor, despite being surrounded by wealth.
The Tunisian government treated the people there almost the same as the French had. There was no development—apart from the infrastructure needed to get the minerals out.
There was a rebellion and strikes. It was brutally crushed—people were killed and thousands went to prison. Now, in hindsight, it seems to me it was a rehearsal of our revolution which began on 17 December 2010.
The revolution started out of economic hardship, not simply from one person, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself alight. It began in the town of Sidi Bouzid.
There was a general crisis in Tunisia. It was made more difficult by the global economic crisis, but there is also something particular to this region. This region specialised in importing goods from Libya, semi-legally.
At some point a problem emerged between the two countries. One of the brothers-in-law of Ben Ali sold someone from the Gaddafi family a bad deal.
This resulted in the closure of the borders for the next few months, strangling the area economically and making life even harder for the people there. This made them angry and ready for revolt.
So Mohamed Bouazizi touched a nerve. The protests spread. But the response of the dictatorship was shocking—in some places 30 people were killed in one day by snipers. These are things that Tunisians had never seen before.
For a long time the protests didn’t touch the capital. Most towns have between 20,000 to 50,000 people, they are more like big villages than cities.
Almost 40 percent of the population live in the capital and its suburbs.
It was important that the movement was taken up in Sfax, the second largest city, well known for being anti-government.
One reason for its militancy is that since independence the politicians have all come from one area. So Sfax, the biggest industrial city, has been marginalised politically.
The other reason is that the trade unions are very strong there. The most famous and admired Tunisian trade union leader, Farhat Hached, was from Sfax. He’s like Che Guevara—you see people wearing T-shirts with his face on.
Both the middle class and the working class in Sfax wanted change. The middle class because they wanted to snatch power from other regions, and the working class because they have a strong militant trade union history.
People demanded the fall of the president—the fall of the regime. One chant that spread was “hang the dictator”.
That was when people knew Ben Ali would leave, because so many people had stopped being afraid.
The leadership of the trade unions couldn’t handle the pressure. Even though they were tied to Ben Ali, they turned 180 degrees and called a general strike—and became revolutionary themselves.
Just three days after a general strike and a big demonstration in Tunis, Ben Ali fled.
I went back to Tunisia on the day of the elections, nine months after Ben Ali fell. It was like a family festival—people queued for more than four hours with their children. So many people there were too young to vote but went there with their sisters and brothers, to be there and discuss.
Tunisians have a great sense of humour in times of crisis. This was seen during and after the elections—people cracking jokes at each other from different parties in the queues.
People discuss politics everywhere now. There are new artistic movements. One is an underground art collective called the Cave People, who do street invasions. Twenty artists will invade a street, project a movie, perform poetry and theatre.
Many people got pessimistic after the elections, but the movement is still going on. There are strong protests such as a recent sit-in at the constituent assembly in a suburb of Tunis.
It started because people got scared when new ruling party Ennahda (see right) tried to concentrate power in the hands of the prime minister. People went onto the streets very early on to confront them, saying they were not going to wait for it to become another dictatorship. The demand is to separate the powers—a basic of parliamentary democracy.
Now unemployed people, people representing the deprived mining basin area, have joined them. There is a mixture of political and social demands—and it is growing.
No one is capable right now of leading this opposition. The left is not strong enough. But there is a strong civil society movement. People are not in parties and vote for those that represent them at any given time.
But still, the people are starting to become ungovernable.
There are strikes almost everywhere in the country and almost every day. The strikes in the main mining and oil areas in the south can stop the country and shut the ports.
The people just brought down a regime, so they don’t respect authority and power in the same way as before.
This is newly discovered freedom—and they want to express it.