The birth of Tunisia's revolution

The birth of Tunisia's revolution
Palestinian Nasri Hajjaj spent twenty years of his life in Tunisia, where he saw the scene set for the Jasmine Revolution.
4 min read
31 Oct, 2014
Political life in Tunisia has been transformed [AFP]

Twenty years living in a country is long enough to make you feel like a national, even if you do not hold citizenship. You mix in the same social circles as its citizens, follow its politics and culture, and become part of the national psychology. You eat like a citizen, shop in the same markets, get scorched by the same sun, breathe in the same air and smell the same jasmine in the gardens.

I lived in Tunisia for twenty years, so long that I nearly lost my Palestinian accent, which would confuse people asking about my identity. I arrived in Tunisia on 7 November 1987, three months after the former president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, took power in a military coup. During my twenty-year stay, I came to know Tunisians and established friendships with people from all segments of society.

People who were part of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Tunisia, and who came to the country from Lebanon, used to live in areas that housed the organisation's offices. These parts of the town I can only describe as Palestinian ghettos. I spent 19 years of my life in al-Karm and Sidi Bou Said, two suburbs in the north of Tunis, and established close relationships with Tunisians that gave me an insight into how the people thought and felt about their country's political and social structures.

Tunisians lived in fear and terror under Ben Ali's security state, despite initial attempts by the dictator to be more open to the opponents of the old regime. Ben Ali gave the Muslim Brotherhood space to operate in public, and even allowed them to have their own weekly newspaper.

Intellectuals and leftist politicians were even appointed to government but the openness did not last long. Police soon began to round up Islamists and leftists. Most members of the Muslim Brotherhood were forced to flee the country, including Ennahdha leader Rashid al-Ghannouchi.

In Tunis I heard the whispered political debates among friends, conversations that were held with great difficulty due to fears of who might be listening. Traffic police were called rulers, which came as a great shock to me, coming from a place where no one respected them. It was a sign of the horror that security forces had unleashed on Tunisia.

I heard so many stories about arrests and killings in jail. In the mid-1990s, I happened to be in the poor and neglected Karm al-Gharbi district, when I saw a number of people from the internal security division placing a coffin in a car, and surrounding it to prevent a group of weeping women from getting too close. The car sped off. When I asked what was going on, a local lady told me that inside the coffin was a political prisoner who had been killed in jail.

The security forces had brought the corpse here so his family could take one last look at him before he was buried in a secret location. This prevented them from holding any memorial service.

Tunisians lived in fear and terror under Ben Ali's security state.

Tunisians had a thirst for freedom and were eager to get rid of the police state by the time the revolution came some four years ago. This was clear from the voices that were raised against corruption, oppression and poverty.

Perhaps the death of the first president of independent Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, on 6 April 2000, was a sign of what was to come. The masses of people who came to the capital from across the country to take part in Bourguiba's funeral procession was a loud message that Tunisians were rejecting Ben Ali's rule.

There was a huge number of mourners on the streets, especially young people who had never even lived under Bourguiba. Their numbers forced the regime to block media coverage of the funeral.

The procession was a spontaneous vote of no confidence in the regime by the people, yet there was no nostalgia about the previous system.

I left Tunisia in 2008, and I got the feeling that a political earthquake was imminent - Tunisians' burning desire for freedom had been renewed.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Al Araby Al Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.