Tunisia: Portrait one of a revolution

Tunisians celebrate the one-year anniversary of the revolution that kicked off the Arab Spring.

Demonstrations Continue In Tunisia As Calls Come For Dissolution Of Ruling Party
Popular slogans, such as “Tunis hurra” helped galvanise a budding revolution [GALLO/GETTY]

Exeter, UK – Today, Tunisia celebrates the first anniversary of its January 14 revolution, when the autocrat residing in Carthage had to flee.

There are many ways of marking a historical benchmark such as the ousting of a dictator. But what is the significance of January 14? Is it just a question of a national day – or even a Pan-Arab day – when the Arab Spring sprung? Is it about enumerating the anniversaries of a spectacular escape? Or is it an idea and an ideal requiring renewal and stock-taking?

Clues to these answers may be found in many a tableau vivant depicted all over Tunisia, capturing both the audacity of resistance, and the delight of triumph over injustice. 

‘I love you people’

Simple words. Yet they are too deep in meaning to articulate succinctly. It was the one of the most striking pieces of graffiti written in black paint on whitewashed walls. Ahibbak ya sha’b reads the Arabic phrase. It raised philosophical questions in my mind which I am still grappling with slowly and arduously.

There are endless possibilities of how to interpret the celebratory phrase. The use of the collective noun is intriguing. Imagine loving ten million Tunisians at once. That would include the tens of thousands who were trained and deployed to kill the revolution, the rapists, the opportunists, and the butchers of Tala, Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine. Or were these not subsumed under the term “people”? Perhaps they were not endowed with sufficient “Tunisian-ness” to qualify as people?

Or were there no such “thing” as people before January 14? Were these words a manifesto of the birth of a “people”? In that case, one must find the threads linking the events of January 14 and the word “people”. In any case, the meaning and the property attributable to “people” is at the core of what happened on that day.

Unless before January 14 our graffiti artist hated the people. He or she now expresses gratitude, elation and jubilation at the ecstasy of being dictator-less, being “human” and of the people.

Revolution Through Arab Eyes –
Tunisia: The Revolt Continues

In year one of the revolution, everything must be about directed at giving meaning to the word “people” – in politics as well as in the arts – in every sphere where peoplehood must mean sovereign, sublime, ennobled and sacred.

‘The people’s will…’

Another simple phrase that Bourguiba Avenue, the Kasba demos and the various live sites of Tunisia’s revolution popularised.

It is a phrase that is destined for a career in any demos. A people who will also do not will. It is the double meaning that makes it spectacularly an embodiment of people, peoplehood and a sovereign people.

To will when choosing, opining, parleying, opposing, approving, voting, electing, demonstrating, speaking, writing, working and being. The possibilities cannot be exhausted of a people can will when they are established as people.

No other phrase spread as fast and as wide as “al’sha’b yureed“. It has a special ring to it – and only yesterday I heard how it reverberates when chanted en masse, echoing zest in the expression of will, determination, invincibility and peoplehood. That was in Cairo, as hundreds toured around Tahrir Square and neighbouring streets chanting “the people’s will [is] for the field marshals to depart”.

Al’sha’b yureed” must have had a special meaning for the lucky hundreds of thousands singing it rhythmically in chorus in Tunis, Cairo, Sanaa, and Damascus.

That is one memorable tableau vivant with such imagery that one year on, the masters of the new order must not forget why January 14 was not, and shall never be, an ordinary date in the Tunisian political calendar. 

Tunis hurra

Tunisia is free. The ubiquity of this phrase adorning the walls spoke to the commonality of objective: delivery from authoritarianism. It was the writing on the wall. So simple and yet so powerful. Often it stood next to another graffito: “thawrat al-hurriyyah wa al-karamah” –  “the revolution of freedom and dignity”.

This lacklustre phrase paints a striking portrait of a revolution’s psyche. It derives from an entire nation’s profound antipathy and rejection towards the un-free state of being. Not a single graffito, for instance, claimed “Tunis azimah” – “Tunisia is great”. As if the human condition of being free and dignified represents the zenith of ennoblement.

This condition of freedom, 12 months after the fall of “Tunisia’s last Bey”, has thus far sustained the process of enacting people’s power, freedom, and sovereignty. It should not be treated as a tautology now that dictatorship has been dismantled. The enabling superstructure and infrastructure of freedom must now be constructed so that “Tunis hurra” means more than a lexical starburst on a plain wall.

 Sidi Bouzid a year after Tunisia’s uprising

Taking stock

Endless images depict the conception of the Arab Spring in Tunisia a year ago. The man in a shooting posture playing out some kind of “exterminator”, spraying imaginary bullets with a baguette at a long line of police riots in the Habib Bourguiba Boulevard speaks thousands of words about the human side of Tunisia’s revolution.

Defiance for bread and resistance for freedom are inseparable. People were not hungry. Or rather, they were hungry – for the enabling means to be, to share a homeland as equals, to provide, and to feel free.

The bird cages lifted high, their doors open, metaphorically giving their imaginary residents an opening – from which they flutter their wings on a much vaunted flight of freedom – was one of the memorable tableaux vivants of that revolution.

The area opposite the notorious interior ministry at the end of the boulevard was heaving with audacious and tenacious protesters, many draped in the red and white single-starred flag, the largest gathering, and the critical mass that was to change Tunisia and its Arab neighbourhood.

As if pre-choreographed, more than 600,000 hands were at once gesturing to the dictator from opposite the building that stood as a symbol of a reign of terror to depart. The rest is history.

After one year, that building is about to cease to be the headquarters of the ministry. Its current minister, Ali La’rayd, is a former inmate. Nearly 17 years in detention more than qualify him how to take stock from the past. More than any other minister, Mr La’rayd not only deserves his cabinet post, but also stands as a symbol of the rupture with 22 years of singular rule.

Celebration without complacency

January 14 stands for the enactment of popular will. The revolution Tunisia staged and won is the gift of that will.

“January 14 stands for the enactment of popular will. The revolution Tunisia staged and won is the gift of that will.

Anniversaries come and go. They should not be killed by routine. The road ahead is so long and will be fraught with endless challenges.

Tunisians are equipped to measure up to them, and to any “power” instituted during the period of democratic transition. The new rulers must draw one lesson: they will not be tolerated more than needed should they fail to mind the simple terms: “people”, “freedom” and “dignity” – woven into the legend which has become January 14, a people’s revolution and an entire Arab nation’s spring.

Whether when framing the constitution or making or executing laws, they must be working to honour the values which conceived the people’s revolution. The collective mind and psyche must now be geared toward constructing a system that is imbued with the standards of freedom, dignity, equality, and good governance. 

The Tunisian people have brought to the public sphere – when resisting in January 2011 and when voting in October – the intelligence, defiance, resources, creativity, and norms worthy of a government matching what they achieved: releasing imaginary birds of hope into freedom, and forcing one infamous dictator on an aimless one-way flight out of the country of the free.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009), The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004) and forthcoming Hamas and the Political Process (2012).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.