x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Tunisians declare 'Our revolution was about dignity and freedom'

A fortnight after the overthrow of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali,the people of Tunisia say that his downfall was much less about socio-economic issues and more about state corruption.

People walk on the balcony overlooking the pool as they visit the burnt and looted house that belonged to the nephew of ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Hammamet, some 60 kms south-east of Tunis.
People walk on the balcony overlooking the pool as they visit the burnt and looted house that belonged to the nephew of ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Hammamet, some 60 kms south-east of Tunis.

HAMMAMET // Two weeks after the revolution, a crowd of unemployed and poor people broke into the seaside house of Belhassen Trabelsi, a brother-in-law of Tunisia's ousted president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and stripped it bare.

Dozens strolled through the door, thrown wide, and strolled out again carrying plunder. Inside, others were yanking out wiring and snapping crystals from the chandeliers.

"This belonged to the Trabelsis, but now I'm going to sell it so I can eat," said one man, struggling to liberate a small marble column from a wall-end.

In the garden, a travel agent named Yassine Hajjem was watching men uproot flowers. He was not taking part in the looting. But two weeks earlier, he had joined protests that originated among the rural poor and helped drive Mr Ben Ali from power.

Revolution last month in Tunisia bridged long-standing social gaps as the country united to throw off Mr Ben Ali's repressive kleptocracy. While deep economic divides remain, many Tunisians are savouring newfound solidarity.

"I went to the street to say no to dictatorship, and to say to protesters in the south, 'We are with you'," Mr Hajjem said.

Protests began in December in Tunisia's southern hinterland over unemployment and state corruption. But they ended last month in Tunis, the capital, with calls for Mr Ben Ali to step down after 23 years in power.

"This revolution wasn't fundamentally about socio-economic issues; it was about dignity and freedom," said Meher Khachnaoui, 31, a landscaper from the town of Sidi Bouzid, where the protests began, who now lives in Tunis and joined demonstrations there. "Politics was a red line. But making economic demands encouraged people to make political demands, too."

To many foreign observers, Mr Ben Ali's Tunisia was a tourist playground with high living standards, a growing economy and advances in women's rights. But beneath the surface were high unemployment, secret police, tapped phones, a censored internet, jailed dissidents and state corruption. In recent years, Mr Ben Ali's family obtained control of many major businesses. Belhassen Trabelsi, a brother of Mr Ben Ali's wife, Leila Trabelsi, owned an airline, a hotel group and more, according to US diplomatic cables leaked last year by the online whistleblower Wikileaks.

Corruption "permeated the whole system, and it will take a long time to wash out", said Michael Cracknell, secretary general of ENDA Inter-Arabe, a non-profit micro-finance provider that works throughout Tunisia. "Tunisians abroad have been loath to invest in Tunisia because every time a worthwhile company was set up, the Trabelsis demanded a share."

According to the US cables, few major business deals in Tunisia took place without members of Mr Ben Ali's family getting involved. In 2004, the World Bank said that Tunisia's growth rate, then of four per cent, could have reached six per cent to seven per cent were it not for corruption and nepotism.

Meanwhile, investment was concentrated in coastal cities, fuelling unemployment in the interior. In 2008, riots seen as a precursor to last month's unrest broke out in the city of Gafsa over joblessness and allegedly corrupt hiring by the state phosphate company.

The Gafsa unrest failed to spread due, in part, to a state-imposed media blackout, said Fahem Boukadous, then a reporter for Al Hiwar Ettounsi television who was jailed for covering the riots.

However, that was before Facebook took hold in Tunisia, said Mr Boukadous. "Today, the flow of information is so fast that it's like having a reporter in every street."

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THE DOWNFALL OF BEN ALI

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Thus, when an impoverished vegetable seller in Sidi Bouzid named Mohammed Bouazizi set fire to himself in December after local officials confiscated his produce and slapped him in public, news of the incident spread like fire.

Mr Bouazizi's suicide struck a chord with millions of middle-class Tunisians frustrated by the economic ravages of Mr Ben Ali's family and the high-handedness of his regime.

"It was a gesture of despair, for human dignity," said Habib Redissi, 26, a self-employed online marketer from La Marsa, an upmarket suburb of Tunis. "Afterward, each one of us was a kind of Bouazizi."

From then on, Mr Redissi stayed up every night watching news of protests stream in via Facebook. A turning point came last month, he said, when police fired on protesters in the towns of Kasserine and Thala, killing 21 according to a report last month by Human Rights Watch.

Several days later, on Friday, January 14, thousands assembled in Avenue Habib Bourguiba, Tunis's central boulevard, demanding Mr Ben Ali's departure. They came from homes, from shops, from offices, from theatres and cafes and even government agencies.

"Before, the protesters had been the poor and desperate," said Naoufel Meddeb, a businessman who took part in the demonstration. "But that day it was the petit-bourgeois, people who didn't need to be there, but who came."

That night, Mr Ben Ali fled the country. An interim government is now tasked with organising new presidential and legislative elections in the coming months.

Last week, Mr Redissi was watching TV news of anti-government protests in Egypt with his family. Growing excited, they recalled the protest in Avenue Habib Bourguiba.

"An old man fell down as if he'd fainted, and the crowd drew aside for him to breathe," said Mr Redissi's sister Sinda, 29, a pharmacist. "But he was laying there singing the national anthem with tears in his eyes."

Then the whole crowd had sung the national anthem together, she said, words that suddenly had meaning after long years of emptiness.

jthorne@thenational.ae