- Life Style
I began writing these words under curfew in the heart of the Tunisian capital, one day after the Tunisian popular uprising forced the dictator Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali to flee the country. The sounds of gunshots, sirens and roaming helicopters around us echoed the struggle for security in a country where the police force was co-opted by the regime. Ben Ali gave the police preferential treatment and in return turned many of its members into his personal guards and militiamen. After his fall, the militia cum gang terrorized the people in an attempt to thwart a popular revolution. Despite the confusion and fear created by the police--through arbitrary looting and the destruction public and private property--popular reactions remained steadfast.
The military, which was politically marginalized by Ben Ali’s regime, stood between the people and the violent police in the final days before Ben Ali’s departure. Today, the military is the only trusted security force in the country. More importantly, the Tunisian youth who championed the revolution have also formed popular committees to protect their neighborhoods against the militias, using sticks and iron rods. Shortages of bread, milk and basic foodstuffs have brought neighbors and friends together to share simple meals, amid powerful sentiments of solidarity that I had never before seen.
I spent seven days in Tunisia and witnessed revolutionary change.
I initially arrived on a business trip to meet with Tunisian NGOs working on rural environmental issues. We met with one organization whose members were hesitant to invite me or any other Egyptian, especially NGO workers, to visit their country. This NGO’s attitude typified the culture of fear that dominated Ben Ali’s Tunisia, where civil society was either non-existent or scared to death, imposing self-censorship on their work every step of the way.
Throughout our travels around several south Tunisian towns, we either saw protests or heard people talk about them. In Tunisian homes, people were fixated on their TV screens, watching what was happening in their country. Parents were both proud of and scared for their children. We watched Ben Ali’s final address on 13 January. Everyone was thrilled that the people had finally shook their dictator. The next morning we drove north to the capital city, Tunis, to participate in a historical demonstration that put a final end to Ben Ali’s regime.
“Un moment historique,” people repeated along Bourguiba Avenue in a state of ecstasy. I found myself congratulating everyone I saw. “Mabrook,” I repeated, to which many people replied that they wished me a similar revolution back home.
It wasn’t long before the police cracked down on the protest and tear gas filled the air. We ran with the crowds and found ourselves taking refuge behind a military post. The protesters complained to the military personnel about the viciousness of the police. People embraced the military who gave them a sense of security. There were fears, of course, that this revolution might turn into a military coup, but there was hope that the Tunisians who took to the streets could reject any extension of authoritarian rule. And sure enough, today protesters are insisting that Ben Ali’s ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), be dismantled. “RCD Dégage!” is the cry being heard today across many Tunisian cities. Tunisians have not only succeeded in bringing down the president, but their voices are influencing the shape of the new government.
I left Tunisia on 17 January on an EgyptAir flight, sent especially to fly home Egyptians stranded in Tunis’ Carthage International Airport. I kept wondering whether we could bring the Tunisian dream with us. So far, more than four Egyptians have attempted brun themselves alive, with one success, in a display of protest against unemployment and poor economic conditions.
Analysts have insisted that the Tunisian model is unique and will not be repeated in Egypt. The weakness of the Islamists, the existence of a large and well-educated middle class and the lack of venting channels in Ben Ali’s Tunisia, they say, are some factors that make the two countries very different.
It’s true that in the last five years Egyptians have mostly taken to the streets over bread and butter issues or have rallied under religious slogans, but have rarely marched to call for more freedoms, political or otherwise. The so-called rallies for democracy and change have failed to draw crowds larger than a handful of “secular” political activists. All this has understandably led some to believe that what happened in Tunisia will not occur in Egypt.
But the Tunisian protests began over economic grievances as well. The real question is how what started as “bread protests” turned into a full-fledged political revolution.
The answer lies in the fact the Jasmine Revolution was orchestrated by a young generation of political activists who managed to transform everyday grievances of the street, epitomized by the tragedy of Mohamed Bouazizi, into popular anger at the regime. In other words, one should not underestimate the role of young activists, or the “Facebook generation” (as some have dubbed them), who anonymously infiltrated the security curtain of the Tunisian regime and elevated popular demands into a loud call for an end to Ben Ali’s rule.
The fact that the Tunisian revolution is young and, in many ways, technically savvy should inspire Egypt’s political activists to build on people’s everyday grievances and orchestrate a similar revolutionary change. The Tunisian revolution succeeded because popular demands were woven into the language, mediums and political priorities of the youth. This can indeed be duplicated in Egypt.
Dina K. Hussein is a doctoral student in the History department at Georgetown University.