Ten years since the Tunisian Revolution that led to the ousting of longtime ruler Ben Ali in January 2011, Tunisian social entrepreneur Leila Ben Gacem reflects on the changes that have happened and the hope she has for her country.
We Craved for the Rose, but Forgot it Comes with Thorns: Tunisia’s 10 Years of Revolution
by Leila Ben-Gacem
December 28, 2020
It was a very peaceful mid-January day. Tunisians around the world were glued to Al Jazeera and Facebook – the only reliable sources of information during the 2010 revolution. It was dark outside and very quiet due to the imposed curfew. The airport was shut down, but there were rumors on social media that the military allowed a plane to take off with Ben Ali and his family.
That night an amateur phone-filmed video was circulating on social media. It was surreal. Abdennaser Laouini, a little known lawyer before that magical moment, was filmed from someone’s balcony as he walked on his own, along Habib Bourguiba Avenue, shouting out to Tunisians and to the world: ‘Ben Ali escaped, glory to the martyrs…we Tunisians are free, we will not be scared after this day…people rule. Oppressed people, no injustice anymore…oh great nation, you are free.’
Abdennaser Laouini, shouting ‘Ben Ali escaped’ right in front of the Ministry of Interior without anyone stopping him meant the start of a new country that we didn’t believe could exist. Before January 14, 2010, the Ministry of Interior’s sole mission was to protect the regime from us. Overnight Abdennaser made us realize that the Ministry of Interior protected Tunisia and Tunisians. A dream come true, scary, exciting, magical. We were proud and very worried of our unknow nation.
Today, 10 years later, our courageous little country is maintaining its new democracy, so far, at some costs; as everything in life has a cost. We have come a long way, and we always forget that the changes are extreme.
Before the Revolution, we had a total purple parliament, which was Ben Ali’s favorite color, and hence the colour of his party. We had a quiet parliament, and noisy, loud and busy souks. After the Revolution, they seem to have switched – now the souks are sad and quiet due to economic slowdown, and the parliament has become the noisiest, loudest, busiest, legislations trading floor, with every color of the rainbow.
Before the revolution, the carefully selected, well-known politicians ran election campaigns, which looked more like festivals, since they competed with nobody and surprisingly always won (!). Now we have creative politicians, from hundreds of political parties, who compete like lions over a feast. Now we finally have a choice to freely vote for electoral lists with unknown citizens, coming from all walks of life and corners of the country, who not only found their voices but also their roars. We vote for them so that they can learn politics by doing.
Before the revolution, many young people were employed as drivers, either tirelessly driving tons of food exports to Libya or driving happy busses full of tourists. Now, most of them have lost their jobs. Sadly, they are riding jammed boats and risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean as they hunt to feed their families, or go to start a family. You can’t blame a truck driver, when even elected officials in municipalities travel to represent their cities, then never come back, choosing to melt away in Europe thanks to Schengen visas.
Before the revolution, I had once tailor-made a summer program for youth of Beni Khalled, my city, by inviting volunteers from Europe that I met online who were willing to provide summer courses for free. Getting project approval was complicated. It even seemed dangerous to me to talk about the project at some point, and I had to give it up. Every government officer I spoke to about the idea, at the time, totally discouraged me, saying that it would be a very bad idea, as we don’t know the hidden agendas of foreign volunteers, especially with youth. In fact, the most dangerous hidden agenda could be contaminating youth with democratic ideas, God forbid!
Pre-Revolution university students were not allowed to gather on campus. Some university students disappeared when they voiced anti-system statements, to come back after sometime, much thinner and very quiet. Young people could only hang out with family members and were invisible in society. Post-Revolution university students are launching and joining NGO’s that fight every cause there is to fight for, and it gives me immense pleasure to be invited as a speaker, every now and then, by university students, who freely organized on-campus events…it is a dream come true! Today doors are wide open for youth; exchanging freely with the outside world; learning from YouTube, which was inaccessible before the revolution.
Youth today are finally free to apply to whatever is available, such as scholarships, on planet earth. There are foreign funds pouring in to support youth creativity, and no one is worried about any “hidden agendas.” There are plenty of start-up development initiatives encouraging youth to unleash their pitching talents, free to sell any idea, from panel to panel. NGOs in every corner of the country are implementing youth inclusion, civic engagement, digitalization, LGBT rights organizations, you name it! And the menu keeps on growing.
Some argue today that the revolution is a bad idea. Some even argue that our culture and democracy don’t mix. I think the pot was boiling really bad, and it had to spill over or explode. We are lucky it just spilled over. Yes, it created a mess, but it’s a mess in the right direction. It’s a mess that needs time to clean-up.
Ben Ali “escaped” and left us 10 years ago. Today people in their 30’s and 20’s and younger grew up connected with the outside world and not scared to speak their mind. They can’t even imagine a Tunisia without democracy, master lobbying, advocating, human rights…everything people my age did not grow up with! Youth need to slowly take the front seats and lead us through much needed transformations in almost every sector. In the meantime, we have a bumpy ride, until those unable to escape the past give them some way.