x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Tunisians now have something to build on

Six Tunisians, of different backgrounds and political views, tackle two questions: when did they realise change had occurred, and what their hopes and fears are now.

Hichem Laaridh, 23, computer science student, part of the youth movement of the Islamist political party An Nahda
Hichem Laaridh, 23, computer science student, part of the youth movement of the Islamist political party An Nahda

The protests in Tunisia that became a revolution were driven by people from all classes and political affiliations.

Beginning in Sidi Bouzid, in the country's interior, when Mohammed Bouazizi set himself alight in protest against his treatment at the hands of government officers, the protests rapidly spread to other cities. After unarmed protesters were shot, protesters took to the streets of the capital, Tunis, shaking the decades-old regime of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and forcing him to flee to Saudi Arabia. As interim governments were formed, the people staged a sit-in in Kasbah Square in Tunis, forcing the departure of several Ben Ali loyalists and paving the way for a more representative government. After 23 years ruled by the same president, Tunisians will soon be free to choose their own leaders. This was an unexpected revolution, a change that came suddenly and that, as yet, has no clear roadmap.

Nearly four months on and with elections scheduled for July 24, Weekender brought together six Tunisians of different ages, backgrounds and political views and asked them two simple questions: to describe the moment they realised everything had changed, and what their hopes are for the future.

What was the moment you realised things had really changed?

Asma Mnaouar The real moment of change for me - the moment when people in the Kasbah really managed to change the government - was the departure of the prime minister. It was a moment when we felt that the population of young people was quite powerful. Because we were still wondering at that time. [Mohamed] Ghannouchi was the prime minister of Ben Ali and we said: "It's the same team." But when the people made a sit-in and did manage to throw him out, that was a very powerful moment.

So for me, the moment came after the departure of Ben Ali. For the very first moments we were in doubt, because we thought maybe he might be coming back, that it was only theatre.

But when we started to chase his own prime ministers, it was quite a critical moment as far as I'm concerned, because I believed personally that Ben Ali had left just to come back. We were expecting him to come back. He went very quickly, to be honest, so at the demonstration itself, the people couldn't believe it. We were watching all this on television and were not expecting this kind of a departure.

And then we were trying to find out what has gone on underneath. We were wondering, maybe he might be coming back. It might be just a scenario being made up. But when Ghannouchi resigned, we said: "The people are powerful!" It was at that moment that I was convinced it was a final departure.

Hichem Laaridh For me, the moment I felt there was a big change in Tunisia was when the very first slogan was sung: "Tunis, Tunis, hurra, hurra, wa Ben Ali a la barra!" ("A free Tunisia and Ben Ali out!") That was the very first time we could target our slogans to the president himself. I knew that it would be the end of Ben Ali. I felt it was a historical moment and I should be a part of it.

Ines Ouertam I felt there was a change at the time, a partial one, not a total one. On January 15 [the day after Ben Ali fled Tunisia] when we listened to the different radio stations and there was a kind of freedom of speech. At that time we weren't accustomed to talking in a very negative way about the president and all of a sudden everything changed. I asked myself the question: is it for our own benefits or is it for other purposes? And whether it was also real or just theatre?

I was in doubt about the whole issue. I was conflicted because we had spent several years living in a regime that was quite different. Even if we talked to each other we were always worried and were always afraid. And then all of a sudden something happens and they tell us: "You are free and we would like to know your views." And at that moment we had nothing to say.

Ahmed Bekalti The moment that really marked me, I must say, was towards the end of Ben Ali's very last speech, when he said: "I understand you, my people." I went out in the streets to see the reaction of the people, to be confronted by the reality, to look at the reaction of the citizens at that time, after his third speech.

Looking at what was going on, I felt that Tunisia was like a body, reacting in a different way and rejecting Ben Ali totally. But at the same time, there was a question whether Tunisia would be in good health or would be really ill. Maybe another disease will be caught by Tunisia. It's a big question mark - what is going to happen next.

My aim is that all Tunisian people should take part, really play a major role, in building up the country. This is the only remedy, the only solution for our country.

Hela Gharbi For me, I think it was the first time I saw the president on television giving his speech. I was shocked, I wasn't expecting him to talk or anything. I'm talking about the first speech, the first time he spoke about what happened in Sidi Bouzid and he recognised this issue. That's when people started talking. I wasn't even aware he was going to speak. I just saw him on TV and I was - wow, what the hell is happening here? I felt this was really different. I went on Facebook and I started reading all the reactions and I was thinking something is about to happen. The people were waking up, for the first time.

When you think of the future, what is your biggest hope and what is your biggest fear?

Nizar Ben Salah I hope that my own children - one of them was here a few minutes ago, I brought him from school - can live in a country where he can vote in a free way and be sure his voice will be heard. And when he goes to a newsagent, he could have a wide selection of news, diverse, varied, contradictory views. And that we would have debates on television with political leaders where people would speak in a very free way, without having to worry about their physical well-being. That individual freedom would be respected. I would like that my own children could live like that in their own country.

Asma Mnaouar My fear for Tunisia's future is that some people would use the revolution - our own revolution - for their own interests and their own aims.

What I'm worried about is what's going to happen after the revolution. Ben Ali had people who were supporters and how are they going to react? Even artists: we know very well what happened at the festival of Carthage last year, when the director was thrown out because the president imposed it. So I'm afraid of those kinds of people, who were pro-Ben Ali and now they are not reacting; they have kept silent. Maybe I respected them more [before]. But the fact that they have changed their political tendency is quite frightening as far as I'm concerned.

I'm hopeful because I belong to the world of culture, so my greatest wish would be that we spend more time to make the culture of the post-revolution. This is not going to happen immediately, but within a few years.

I believe the urgency now, what is quite important, is to come up with a few political and social reforms. My biggest worry is we will include religion in the political world. As far as I'm concerned, it should be excluded totally because we are a secular country.

Ines Ouertam My biggest worry is that everything we have gone through is going to be repeated again. Roughly speaking, I would say that those people who are quite familiar with the political life, even within these different political movements, had already worked with the Ben Ali regime and they are now more or less following the same system as they did with Ben Ali. So my biggest fear is that everything that took place in the past is going to be repeated in the near future.

For Tunisia, I hope that we can rebuild because there is a percentage that has been completely destroyed. To rebuild Tunisia in a better way in the future and all together. That is going to be a hard task but we need to do it.

Hichem Laaridh I hope that just as Tunisia's present is better than its past, that its future will be better than its present. And this cannot happen unless we have a real democratic country, a country where there is equality, rooted in its own identity and open to the innovations of humanity. And all this cannot happen unless everyone takes part.

My biggest fear is that people go backwards. I was born in the same year Ben Ali came to power; I hope I won't die in the same year he leaves!

Tunisia's citizens have done something to be proud of and that's something very important indeed. In the past, Tunisia's citizens were not proud of themselves and were not proud of their citizenship. And now we have become aware of our freedom and I hope to live in this future, in this Tunisia.

Ahmed Bekalti As far as the future is concerned, I believe Tunisia doesn't need a hero; it needs a model to follow. In that way, we can try to come up, all the people together. This is not going to be an easy task. It's not going to be that within a second everything is going to be built, that towards the end of the film everyone is going to be happy.

Hela Gharbi As far as I'm concerned, I'm dreaming of a society that will be inclusive. Unfortunately, what I'm seeing is there are many divisions taking place within the society. Certain parts of the society are excluded from the political, social and economic discourse and I believe this is one of the challenges we should address. We need to accept all the people's opinions without imposing them on others. We are in an unfinished fight. We should learn how to live together so that people can express their own opinions without having to preach to others.

I'm very enthusiastic towards what is taking place in Tunisia, but we need to be very careful to come up to a kind of democratic maturity. There is a kind of confusion between democratic ideas and accepting the freedom of other people, of the tolerance that we have had for quite a long time.

I believe we are a tolerant society and this is something upon which we should build our own future. This is my hope; this is not a dream.

falyafai@thenational.ae