Somber Tunisia Marks 10 Years Since Ben Ali Ouster in Lockdown

Despite some gains from the revolution, a pall of disenchantment hangs over the country, marked by extremist attacks, political infighting, a troubled economy and promises unfulfilled

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A Tunisian youth who was injured during the revolution shouts anti-government slogans during a sit in, Tunis, Tunisia, January 14, 2021.
A Tunisian youth who was injured during the revolution shouts anti-government slogans during a sit in, Tunis, Tunisia, January 14, 2021. Credit: FETHI BELAID / AFP

Tunisia on Thursday commemorated the 10th anniversary since the flight into exile of iron-fisted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, pushed from power in a popular revolt that foreshadowed strife and civil war in the region, known as the Arab Spring.

But there were no festive celebrations marking the revolution in this North African nation, which was ordered into lockdown for four days starting Thursday to contain the coronavirus, with demonstrations banned.

The tree-lined Avenue Bourguiba, the main artery in the capital city of Tunis, which became a center of the uprising, was deserted except for a lone citizen standing in front of the once-dreaded Interior Ministry. Police set up checkpoints around the city center, inspections papers of pedestrians and vehicles and turning some around.

About a dozen people injured for life who have held a sit-in since mid-December seeking official recognition, and compensation, as victims of the revolution tried to march onto Avenue Bourghiba but were pushed back by police.

“After the political lockdown, it’s the turn of the health lockdown,” shopkeeper Ahmed Hassen said before the anniversary, adding with a smile that the situation looks like “the revenge of Ben Ali.”

Ben Ali ruled for 23 years over a system that instilled fear in many Tunisians, deprived of a free press, free speech and other liberties. He fled to Saudi Arabia on January14, 2011, amid a snowballing rebellion marked by violence, rampant pillaging and incessant calls to “get out.”

Ben Ali died in 2019 in exile.

Some citizens questioned the timing of the four-day lockdown.

“Do you know why they did this quarantine and curfew? — because the situation is very tense and has nothing to do with the health situation,” said a man in a market identifying himself only as Rami. He suggested, like some others, that authorities fear “perhaps (people) will revolt in light of the situation.”

The revolution was unwittingly sparked by a desperate act of a 26-year-old fruit seller, Mohammed Bouazizi, who set himself ablaze on December 17, 2010, to protest police humiliation in a town in the neglected interior of the nation, Sidi Bouzid. His death unleashed simmering discontent and mass demonstrations against poverty, joblessness and repression. That in turn ricocheted beyond Tunisia, triggering what is known as the Arab Spring uprisings with crackdowns and civil wars in the region.

In Tunisia, joy and revenge marked the start of the post-Ben Ali era, with protesters tearing down the omnipresent posters of Ben Ali and invading the luxurious home of the president’s brother-in-law, Belhassen Trabelsi. The Tunis train station was burned down, tear gas flooded Avenue Bourguiba and other neighborhoods of the capital and helicopter gunships flew low over the city. More than 300 people were killed. Nevertheless, the chaos was contained.

A budding democracy grew out of the aftermath of the Ben Ali era.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a congratulatory statement Thursday that Tunisia stands as “an example of an inclusive democracy” with rights “constitutionally respected.” The U.S, “views Tunisia as a partner of choice.”

Despite gains, a pall of disenchantment hangs over the country, marked by extremist attacks, political infighting, a troubled economy and promises unfulfilled, including development of the interior.

Despite guaranteed rights, numerous democratic elections, protests flourish, especially in the central and southern regions where the jobless rate among youth reaches 30% and the poverty level is above 20%. According to the Tunisian Forum of Economic and Social Rights, more than 1,000 demonstrations were counted in November alone. Months of sit-ins paralyzed oil and phosphate production, a key resource, for months, putting holes of billions of dollars in the budget.

Tunisians have held numerous democratic elections, for mayor, parliament and president, notably putting a constitutional law professor, Kais Saied, into the presidential palace in 2019.

The Tunisia of today “joins advanced countries” as far as democracy is concerned, said Najib Chebbi, founder of the Progressist Democratic Party, the main political opposition under Ben Ali.

“The Tunisian people have political rights, but are still waiting for their demands for dignity and work to be fulfilled,” he said, alluding to the revolutionary slogan of demonstrators crying out, “freedom, jobs and dignity.”

Analyst Slaheddine Jourchi said that what has been accomplished in the decades since the revolution “is far from answering the population’s demands, especially expectations of youth — the backbone of the revolution.”

“The revolution needs a deep evaluation,” he said.

For Chebbi, the opposition leader of the past, “Tunisia sits on a volcano and risks going off the rails.”