Economic hardships, corruption grip Tunisia 10 years after an uprising that spread across the Arab world.
“17 December 2010 would have been a normal day if the local press and people hadn’t been here,” says Ali Bouazizi. “The fact they decided to stop being afraid of the government changed everything.”
It is 9pm and Ali, who is now 48 years old, has just returned home from work in his mini-market in Sidi Bouzid, a small town in the centre of Tunisia.
He used to see his cousin, Mohamed, almost daily, as the 26-year-old often helped out in Ali’s shop.
“I was very fond of him,” he says. “He was a good person. His only problem was that he would get angry quickly and couldn’t see reason anymore.”
‘I can’t breathe anymore’
When Mohamed was younger, people called him Basbous, which Ali translates as “someone who makes jokes”.
“He used to be a funny guy who laughed a lot,” he recalls. “But in the last years of his life, he’d lost his sense of humour because of the daily stress he experienced.”
Mohamed’s father worked in Libya, but died of heart failure when his son was just three years old, Ali explains. So, from an early age, Mohamed supported his mother and six siblings.
“Every day, he took his cart to the wholesale market at midnight to buy fruit and vegetables, which he would sell from early the next morning until evening,” he recalls.
“He would then go home to sleep a few hours, and then repeat that same routine over and over again. He was always occupied with work and paying back his debts.”
On the morning of December 17, 2010, police had confiscated Mohamed’s scales because he was working as a street vendor without a permit. He went to complain to the governor at the provincial government building in Sidi Bouzid, but he refused to see him. In an act of sheer desperation and protest, Mohamed set himself alight on the street outside.
“Nobody wanted to listen to him,” says Ali. “If I’d been there with him that day, I would have definitely intervened. I would have found a way to see the governor, with force if needed. But I wasn’t there.”
Ali pauses a moment and adds: “Let me tell you something I haven’t told anyone yet. Our cousin, Lasaad, who controls the taxes in the market told me later about a conversation he’d had with Mohamed a week before his self-immolation. ‘I’m so fed up and tired,’ he told him. ‘I can’t breathe anymore’.”
Corruption within the police and among government officers was common. The police always harassed Mohamed, says Ali. “Because he worked illegally, they demanded bribes from him. Either he had to give them money, part with everything he had earned that day, or they would confiscate his scales or his merchandise – the fruit and vegetables he was selling.”
‘I was terrified when I posted the video’
At that time, Ali was an active member of the secular Progressive Democratic Party, which opposed the Tunisian dictator, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Ali published critical articles in the party’s newspaper, Al Mawqif, and on a website, called Tunisia News, which no longer exists.
On December 17, Ali was working in his shop. His uncle, Salah, called to say he had heard someone had set themselves on fire, “He said, ‘let’s go to check, see how we can help’.” Neither man was aware it was Mohamed. Ali took his camera, intending to film the scene.
When they arrived, a taxi driver who had used his own jacket to put out the fire engulfing Mohamed, came to Ali and screamed: “Ali, it is Mohamed! It is Basbous, the good man.” Ali says he was so shocked he cried. He managed to film the gathering crowd and, after Mohamed was taken to hospital by ambulance, the growing number of protesters outside the government building.
“At first, they were only a handful of family members and close friends”, he says, all shocked and demanding to see officials in the building. “Other people were watching from a distance,” he recalls.
But then more people joined – dozens, “perhaps hundreds,” Ali says now – eventually forcing their way into the building. The governor also refused to meet with them and then fled.
Ali, who had created a Facebook account just two months early, decided to publish a video on Facebook of the people protesting in front of the provincial government building. “Of course, I was terrified when I posted that video,” Ali says. Being in the opposition and criticising the regime was very dangerous – Ben Ali’s prisons and police stations were notorious. “But I felt I couldn’t back down now, for the sake of my children and family. This was a God-given chance, and I had to take it.”
Soon, the video was being widely shared. That evening, news channels started to report on what had happened.
“The government panicked when the news reached the international media,” Ali says. “Ben Ali controlled all the Tunisian media and was afraid of freedom of expression and free media.”
Following the airing of Ali’s video, state-controlled news channels reported that foreign countries had hired the protestors to make Tunisia look bad, Ali remembers. “They said the situation in Sidi Bouzid was as usual and promised to send millions of Tunisian dinars to Sidi Bouzid [for economic and social development], which was, of course, a total lie.”
The price of freedom
Mohamed was in a coma in the hospital and was unaware of all the protests triggered by his self-immolation. By the time he died from his burns two-and-a-half weeks later, on January 4, several dozen protesters had been arrested, particularly younger protesters who had stayed out all night, confronting the police. Fearing that he, too, would be arrested, Ali had been in hiding, moving between the homes of friends and acquaintances at night. But on January 10, he was captured, along with his cousin, Lasaad.
“At the police station, the chief of the special forces called me ‘Ali from Al Jazeera’,” he recalls, referring to an interview he had given to Al Jazeera after he had posted the video of his cousin. “‘This is the one who brought hell on us’, they said. You will be the scapegoat for the protests that happened. They handcuffed me with my hands behind the back, they covered my face and beat me the whole night.”
Following pressure from protesters, Ali and others being held with him – including three teachers and the manager of a post office – were released on January 12. The other prisoners, who had been arrested separately to him, were released a couple of hours before Ali and Lasaad were let go together. He has pictures of the bruises on his body after two days in a police cell.
“I am happy that God decided I should stay alive after that torture,” Ali says now.
Two days after his release, on January 14, the regime fell and President Ben Ali fled the country.
Ali says the chief of the police unit that arrested him fled to Algeria shortly after the fall of the regime and has not returned since.
Ali was no stranger to arrest at that point. Back in 2008, he had already spent a few days in prison after taking part in a protest against the arrest of one of his colleagues from the opposition party. “Back then, the demonstration was halted within 10 minutes, and we were beaten.”
When asked how these experiences have affected him, he reflects: “I consider it the price for freedom. It was nothing compared to what so many others endured. The ones who were imprisoned for 10 or 15 years during Ben Ali’s regime and who had to suffer physical and psychological torture.”
‘A martyr now’
Over the past 10 years, Ali has been involved in organising an annual festival in Sidi Bouzid commemorating the events of December 17, 2010. Despite the pandemic, a small event is taking place today as well.
Although the current president, Kais Saïed, made December 17 a national holiday and the festival receives some funds from the Ministry of Culture and the Sidi Bouzid governate, Ali says: “The festival has such a low budget that it’s barely surviving.”
He thinks it is a pity it never grew into a big, global festival, where international media, movements and parties could meet at the birthplace of the Arab Spring. “It’s a missed chance to invest in this important chapter in Tunisian history and to keep our town in the spotlight,” he says.
Ali adds that he still misses his cousin and “hopes he is a martyr now”. “I feel sad I was not there to help him voice his needs and his struggle. Everyone viewed Mohamed as a good guy. It was sad the way he died, he was very young and lived a very tough life.”
Mohamed’s mother and siblings all moved away from Sidi Bouzid. Ali said they were harassed after they received some small amounts of money from people who sympathised with their plight and, later, from the Tunisian authorities. His mother and sister, Leila, went to Montreal in Canada in 2013 when Leila married a Tunisian man who lives there. The other siblings now live in Sfax and Tunis. On the whole, Ali says, “they lead a better life now”.
‘We need to have more patience’
Following the revolution, some Tunisians have felt disappointed. Many still struggle to pay their bills in a country where prices are high compared to incomes. Unemployment also remains high – for young people between the ages of 15 and 30, it is more than 30 percent – and corruption is still prevalent.
Out of desperation, some have embarked on the dangerous journey crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Others have followed Mohamed Bouazizi’s example of self-immolation. Recently, in December last year, Abdelwaheb Hablani, 25, a day labourer who had not been paid in two years, set himself alight in Jelma and died.
“Suicide happens anywhere in the world,” Ali says. “Also, before the revolution, it happened a lot in Tunisia, but the numbers were hidden.” Two months before Mohamed’s self-immolation, there was a similar case of a young man in Monastir, he says. “It was covered up. There was no media.”
Ali Bouazizi remains happy that the revolution took place, however. “Ten years is nothing compared to other revolutions. We need to have more patience. Of course, Tunisia is doing well compared to the other Arab countries that followed our example.”
At least in the Sidi Bouzid governorate, he has noticed improvements. “The infrastructure is better now, jobs have been created, a university and small colleges were built.”
Freedom of expression and of the press has also improved significantly in Tunisia, he says. “A 180-degrees difference, although you need to be aware of the different agendas of the many private channels.”
Ali says he has heard from inmates that the situation in prisons has also improved. During the dictatorship, if you were beaten or tortured, nobody would hear about that. “If that happens now, there is an investigation and perpetrators are punished. The police are also more careful, as they can be brought to justice.” Nonetheless, he also notes: “It will take time before this bad treatment will disappear completely.”
‘Beginner’s level’ democracy
Tunisia is considered by many observers to be the only “success story” of the Arab Spring.
“Democracy in Tunisia is at a beginner’s level,” Ali reflects. “We are lucky we got this opportunity, but unfortunately, politicians have squandered it over the past 10 years. They have fallen into the trap of working for their own interest instead of working for the people.”
Besides, he thinks: “Tunisian voters aren’t mature yet. They vote for whoever makes a good speech and they aren’t aware of the party programmes.”
In 2011, Ali left politics and his work for the opposition party after he grew disappointed in the actions of politicians after the revolution.
However, he recently joined the newly established ‘Haraka 17 décembre’ (17 December Movement), which will be launched on the day that marks the start of the Arab Spring 10 years ago. Once the movement receives authorisation, it can become a political party. Ali says it hopes to fight corruption, to investigate the misuse of power and money by the political elite, to bring those people to justice and to reform the political system.
“I still want to change Tunisia for the better and believe the situation in the country will improve in the coming years.”