Snapshot of a New Tunisia: An Uneasy, But Hopeful Calm


Note: This PolicyMic Contributing Writer has been living and working in Tunisia, where he lived in an apartment outside of the capital Tunis. He has temporarily relocated to Europe for safety reasons. The following represents his first-hand account of the current situation on the ground for the past week.

LIVE UPDATE #9 (January 19, 2011): (Written from the Tunisian Airport) It was 5.30 in the morning and people were sleepily drinking their coffees, with a soft murmur rising up from the departures hall. Suddenly screams pierced the air as people scrambled for safety, overturning tables to use as cover. A girl running past fainted with fright. Within seconds, hysteria had consumed the airport. Down below, some of the men positioned themselves for a fight while others ran for cover, convinced shooting would follow.

It turned out to be a false alarm. A man running to catch his flight – a rather normal occurrence at an airport - triggered the panic and unwittingly caused the army to draw their weapons. But, such a scene offers a perfect window into the delicate emotional state of the Tunisian people only a few days after the revolution.

When I asked a local Lebanese restaurant owner at the airport whether or not he was scared, he responded with the quip, “Are Israeli planes overhead? Are bombs falling? Then no. Come find me if they do.” This bravado is natural for the Lebanese who have suffered through decades of civil war and strife with Israel. For Tunisians, however, checkpoints, curfews, and armed militias are a new phenomenon and are rattling the country.

Still, reports throughout the city indicate that Ben Ali's supporters are dwindling in number as they realize that the strongman president will never return. For others, such cognizance is welcome news and comes on the heels of the arrest of the powerful former security chief, Ali Seriati, who was believed responsible for overseeing the torture of thousands. While the arrest represents a necessary victory for the new government, it will also surely ignite a spike in short-term violence as hardcore regime loyalists become increasingly desperate.

Such apprehension was enough for the U.S. Embassy - which has been grossly negligent, even bordering on reckless, in keeping American citizens apprised and safe - to issue a draw down of embassy staff and offer flights for U.S. citizens to leave the country.

The belated measure proved wise as accounts of clashes, shootings, and more tear gas continued to spread. Protestors again took to the streets, objecting to the inclusion in the new government of any former ministers from Ben Ali’s ruling party – an imprudent mistake.

This, along with the continued worry of food shortages, remains the biggest concern to Tunisia’s long-term stability. Obviously difficult to accept the remnants of an oppressive past, Tunisians must strive to keep their passions in check and be sensible rather than emotional in forming their new government. While the top officials under former President Ben Ali were brutal and corrupt, mid- and low-level bureaucrats were likely loyal to the deposed President out of necessity and fear than political suasion. More importantly, these are the officials who know how to run the country, an especially critical factor given that many of former President Ben Ali’s policies on issues like education and women’s rights were quite progressive and beneficial to the people.

Four days into the new era, it is clear that Tunisia is not out of the woods just yet. Optimism however, is rising and on the day the new government is to be formed, Tunisians seem as determined as ever to return back to the calm and tranquility it has been known for.

LIVE UPDATE #7 (January 17, 2011): During the first few nights of post-Ben Ali Tunisia, the military response to looting and robberies has so far been fairly strong. The streets remain mainly deserted as the military has stepped up its searches for looters. Anxiety is high and violence continues, but a sense of optimism that security will be improved is at least somewhat palpable.  

This morning, a Facebook message status update read “Woke up to sunshine, birds chirping, and kids playing outside. It's a new day in Tunis.”

It may be a new day and security may, indeed, be (briefly) improved, but a new uncertainty has emerged.

While the optimism is an encouraging sign, the concern is that the sense of hope could soon dissolve as quickly as it manifested. As the sun peaked over the outlying hills, concern is growing over the lack of food.

Designed to maintained order, the curfew has unintentionally choked the capital’s food supply chain. Unable to move food during the usual early morning hours, few products are reaching the local corner grocery shops. Those trucks that do brave the checkpoints arrive mostly empty, unable to reach their local suppliers. The larger supermarkets are facing the same problem if they even brave the looters to open at all.  In other cities throughout the country, locals and residents face the same problem given that few farmers or drivers are willing to leave their family and risk making the long journey. As food runs low, riots and tension will undoubtedly skyrocket.

Clearly already at a tipping point with the government’s (or former one, at least) inability to provide basic services, a food shortage will only further engender doubts about the merits of the revolution. Already in interviews with foreign press (a big deal in itself for Tunisians), some residents have begun to lament the lack of order that was the predominant characteristic of Ben Ali’s regime. For all the unjust and abhorrent deeds that the former president committed, Tunisia in some ways benefitted from his rule. Tunis was a beacon of calm and stability in a tumultuous region. Abject poverty is almost non-existent and the standard of living is relatively high. With Ben Ali gone, stability is no longer preordained like in the past. In the short term, the same applies to food. If groceries cannot be delivered and stores not open, Tunis will find itself embroiled in a major crisis that, unjustly or not, further undermines the government’s credibility and puts forth another hurdle that the new government, whoever that may be, must overcome.

With no short-term answers in sight, the siege mentality is gripping the city with long bread lines and huge crowds gathered outside patisseries. Residents swarmed the few open fruit and vegetable stands, brave enough to withstand both the onslaught of panicked Tunisians and the threats of violence. People in and around the city walked several miles upon news of an open stand only to find most of them closed or empty.

The allure of gun battles may be grabbing the media’s current attention, yet it is the lack of food that should deserve the most consideration. For both the interests of people and longevity of the government, re-opening the ports and feeding the people must take priority.

LIVE UPDATE #6 (January 15, 2011): Twenty-four hours after what was not only the most significant day in Tunisia’s history, but also a watershed moment for the post-colonial Middle East, the mood on the streets remains hopeful but uncertain. Undoubtedly, not the jubilation that many might have expected after successfully deposing a brutal authoritarian regime, the Tunisian people have assumed a quiet, business-like approach to going about their business and are further stocking up on any available supplies - signs that the revolution is far from over, but that people are more focused on looking ahead than reliving the past.

The biggest concern for most Tunisians now is whether the second and potentially more volatile phase may be just beginning. A night after wide spreading looting and arson, the military - under the command of interim President Mohammed Ghannouchi - was out in full force with military checkpoints throughout the city and helicopters roaming above attempting to restore order. The military tightened its grip on the city and looters, making it difficult to navigate the city, but people seemed determined to carry on. Nothing more symbolized this spirit then the scene at the palace l’independence were municipal workers were seen quietly removing huge banners of Ben Ali.

Such nondescript acts and the fact that there have been relatively few displays of public emotion seem strange following such an historic and liberating event. Several protestors did publicly burn pictures of Ben Ali and tear down his posters, but the lack of ceremonious and organized public gatherings (such as the now famous destruction of Sadaam's statue in Baghdad) indicate a strong desire to focus more on fixing the underlying conditions that fueled the revolution.

For many here, the Jasmine Revolution wasn’t defined by Twitter, Facebook, or Wikileaks. Certainly, those helped open people's eyes and were key to sustaining the moment. But, unemployment, corruption, and despotism are the themes that continue to carry the day. Ultimately, the success of the revolution will not be simply ousting former President Ben Ali and ending his 23-year oppressive reign, but rather, enacting and bringing real democracy to Tunisia. The concerns of jobs, food prices, and freedom of speech must be dealt with and resolved promptly and responsibly.

The ability to establish even a semblance of representative government will depend on the ability to secure the streets and assure the public that their wishes are indeed being carried out. Democracy may be a messy process down the road, but before Tunisia can even begin to travel down that path, a sense that normalcy has returned must be established. Doing so will require a somewhat join effort by the military and ad hoc militia who are springing out throughout the city to stop the looting and fear. The next 72 hours will go a long way towards securing that outcome and realizing the dreams of the Tunisian people.

LIVE UPDATE #5 (January 14, 2011): Shortly after receiving a frantic phone call that a friend had been shot (Note: he will be OK), plans were put in motion to move him to my apartment. Tunis’ city center was unsafe, overwhelmed by violent protests and deadly clashes. My apartment, the theory went, was in one of the surrounding neighborhoods, and therefore, safe from the chaos that was consuming yet confined to downtown districts.

12 hours later, with my friend recovering on the couch, that theory was proven wrong. In what is one of hundreds of stories depicting the volatile and tumultuous nature of the anarchy, roving gangs of armed men stormed my apartment complex, smashing storefronts and ransacking the courtyard. After a tense hour or so listening to the continuous shattering of glass, the rioters, satisfied by their destructive capabilities, left as quickly as they had come, charging down the street and out of view. Not long after, smoke was seen pluming up from the center of Tunis.

As night fell and the curfew took effect, Tunis drifted into an eerie calm as residents waited for what was to come …

It didn’t take long to find out. By sunset, reports were surfacing that President Ben Ali fled the country (he has yet to find a host to take him in) in a military coup. Rioters and looters commemorated the occasion by torching the main mall owned by the President’s extended family. As the mall burned, rioters become emboldened, and clashes have once again broken out around the city under the cover of darkness. Reports indicate that the protests are turning more violent, with friends describing break-ins and automatic gun fire.

With police nowhere to be seen (or possibly even participating in the violence, according to many reports) the army has taken control under the command of acting President and former Prime Minister Mohamed Ghanouchi. Yet, Tunis now feels more like Baghdad, with reports of runaway looting, robberies, and even physical assaults on the ground, while helicopters patrol the skies overhead.

Certainly a pressing concern, but rioting may not be the worst of Ghanouchi’s newfound troubles. Facebook pages have sprung up calling for him to step down, with one such page entitled, ‘Step Down Ben Ali’ boasting over 5,000 members and growing quickly.

It seems many here see the former prime minister as an extension of the old guard and will not accept his leadership, even if it is just for 40 days. Rumors are proliferating on the Internet that a potential challenge from inside the police security force will test Ghanouchi’s hold on the military.

Could a second coup be on the horizon?

LIVE UPDATE #4 (January 14, 2011): On a truly historic day filled with more bloodshed and massive protests, an uneasy calm hangs over the capital only hours after President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali fled the country during a military coup. After weeks of violent clashes in the country, President Ben Ali appeared on television Thursday night announcing sweeping reforms in a last ditch effort to maintain power. His olive branch though, was too little too late, as the tide of revolution swelled and the people smelt blood.

For many Tunisians, his promises of more freedoms – both individual and for the press - were simply not enough. As one observer wrote, “The blood of 50 innocent people was not spilt so that we can now access Youtube. Ben Ali must go.”

Breaking the promises of a cease-fire made during his unprecedented live address to the nation the night before, protestors today were met with live bullets, tear gas, and snipers, who fired from rooftops. Undeterred, the protestors – tens of thousands strong – continued throughout the day. By late afternoon, giant clouds of smoke could be seen climbing into the sky in what was a sure indication of continuing clashes with police forces.

By nightfall, the writing was on the wall. In one last desperate act as president, Ben Ali announced emergency law with orders to use force if necessary, in order to keep people off the streets. While the decree may have prevented public gatherings, it did not stop the tanks. As the twilight settled, the sun had set on Ben Ali’s 23 year iron-fisted rule.

Unlike the previous night when a cacophony of victory honking and whistles filled the air following Ben Ali’s concession speech, so far Tunis is eerily quite. The curfew remains in place as Tunisians nervously wait what will happen next.

While no doubt an historic day that many of Tunisia’s people have longed for, the question now looms whether the revolution has truly come to an end. The lawless ransacking of shopping centers which sprang up spontaneously throughout the day continued into the night, with looters and rioters defying martial law to further express their pent-up frustrations and anger at the President and his extended family over the past few weeks. (Reports surfaced that the target of these attacks were the Monoprix and Carrefour supermarkets which were owned by the first lady’s extended family).

Looking ahead, the biggest question yet to be solved is whether or not the Tunisian people will accept the new acting President Mohamed Ghannouchi. As the former Prime Minister of Tunisia under Ben Ali, many see his intern rule as a continuation of the reign of cronyism. As anger continues to boil over in the streets, it remains to be seen whether he will be able to calm nerves and gain the trust of the people.

On a night that should have culminated in widespread celebration, the streets remain oddly empty, devoid of any sign of a return to normalcy. Will tomorrow be the end or will a new phase of the revolution manifest?

To be continued…

LIVE UPDATE #3 (January 13, 2011): BREAKING NEWS: The streets are alive with celebration. Curfew has been broken as people are flooding the streets with joy over the news that President Ben Ali will not seek reelection. A cacophony of victory-honking (da-da .... da-da-da) and whistles is filling the air; however, such euphoria may be a bit premature.

The President has yet to announce that he will step down, only that he will not seek re-election. Therefore, the question remains, what exactly are people celebrating? It is true that Ben Ali promised more free speech, and that he ordered a military cease fire. However, is that enough? Did these protestors who risked their lives only hours earlier do so for the ability to watch Youtube? Doubtful.

If Ben Ali is in fact waving the white flag as many suggest, then what is next? More importantly, who is in charge? There are already indications that the police may not follow the cease-fire order. Even if they were to do so (a dubious assumption), who takes power with Ben Ali out of the way?

A hopeful night in Tunis may soon dissolve into further bloodshed, uncontrolled looting, and total uncertainty. Let's hope for the best.

LIVE UPDATE #2 (January 13, 2011): BREAKING NEWS: American shot on main Tunisian thoroughfare as riots turn violent and spread. When I asked whether or not shops would reopen, my friend replied, “It’s Tunisia, not Somalia.” While that may be true, after today it certainly feels like a war-zone, as violent protests engulf wide swaths of the city.

Tunisians awoke this morning to more troubling reports (through social media, of course) of skirmishes throughout the night, setting off a siege mentality at local supermarkets. Hundreds of residents gathered outside closed supermarkets before forcibly overpowering the feeble guards and storming inside.

While people readied themselves throughout the city, downtown Tunis exploded with fresh chaos and bloodshed. In what is now being viewed as a full-on revolution, Tunisian protestors clashed with police on several of the city's busiest streets. Plumes of smoke were seen rising over the downtown area as military police on motorbikes (similar to images from Iran after the 2009 elections) beat back hundreds of protestors with clubs, tear gas, and even bullets.

Reports from the scene portrayed a sense of mayhem and spontaneity, with protests and clashes ‘jumping’ from street to street at a moment's notice. Quiet side streets suddenly burst with crossfire and the acute burn of tear gas. Protestors set fire to several banks and supermarkets owned by the first family and have erected large blockades - using overturned cars or heaps of burning tires - throughout many of the streets leading downtown. Currently, several streets remain impassible by car, which many protestors hope will impede military vehicles ahead of tomorrow’s major planned rally.

Elsewhere in the city, snipers were spotted on rooftops as the military continued to roll into Tunis overnight with tanks and trucks, signaling an even larger fight is looming.

Throughout the day, explosive outbreaks popped up periodically as momentum for the uprising has continued to grow. Word that the wealthy suburbs of Carthage and La Marsa are no longer immune to violence has prompted many families to move into hotels. Other residents are reporting roving gangs of young men who have attempted to enter and ransack homes. It is unknown whether such individuals are police or hooligans using the chaos as cover for looting.

Tonight, the 8:00pm curfew remains in place, and reports suggest that widespread electricity cuts are possible to quell any nighttime gatherings. Tomorrow, a day of national strikes and protests has been called, leaving many residents with the uneasy feeling of even more violence on a larger scale to come.

BREAKING NEWS (January 12, 2011): Reports are coming from the wealthy suburbs in Carthage and La Marsa, where numerous residents have heard gunshots and unidentified gangs are breaking into and entering homes. Whether these mobs are government forces rounding up opposition, or ordinary citizens eager to use the cover of disorder to loot from wealthier homes, this escalation is the most violent and aggressive action yet ands suggests that the revolution is turning nasty quickly – a bad sign for President Ben Ali’s chances of hanging on to power.

Revolution, it seems, may be afoot. What started out 3 weeks ago as a protest against the lack of jobs and a general feeling of hopelessness has turned into a full-on revolt against the government and its iron-fist rule. The movement -– triggered by a recent college graduate who, in an act of despair, doused himself in gasoline and set himself ablaze (after police shut down his fruit stand) -– has spiraled out of control and has swelled to the usually calm capital Tunis and surrounding coastal cities.

Moved by his tragedy and horrified by his images, the people have turned on the government, challenging the lack of freedom of the press and free speech. Now the movement no longer seems a protest about jobs, but a rebellion against the entire government and a strong push for change. People want their freedom and finally are emboldened enough to fight for it.

Today is the first day that you could really sense the tension. Reports have surfaced of widespread protests in the heart of the city (some several thousand strong), vandalism, the torching of a chain of supermarkets owned by the first family, and an imposed curfew with orders of arrest if disobeyed. (My own Monoprix that I shop at, a supermarket owned by family of the wife of President Ben Ali -– was closed after apparently being vandalized).

Vendors and shop owners are not only closing, but boarding up their shops as well, signaling a resignation and expectation that protests will only grow in number and violence. As for me, I am fine. Classes at the institute have been cancelled for the week, and I will remain firmly entrenched here in my apartment in the suburbs of Tunis. I have plenty of food, and as of now, Twitter, Facebook, and email have not been shut down. While I remain safe, however, others have not been as fortunate. So far there have been reports of 50+ killed, numerous injuries, and an untold number of arrests. The use of force, the President's live TV address – in which he promised to somehow create 300,000 new jobs in 2 years – and the palpable tension on the streets indicate this could be the long-awaited showdown.

Nothing reflects this mood more than the fact the President’s entire family, including his wife, have all left for Dubai. (An interesting side note: Rumor has it they were barred from entering France, Italy, and Canada, where citizens of Tunisian decent were vehemently opposed to the presidential family’s attempt to be granted asylum in their country).

Lastly, not only have there been protests here, but the unrest in Tunisia seems to have triggered similar emotions and has served as a rallying cry for the opposition in Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco where riots have all been reported. It remains to be seen if the link is indeed real, but it would be quite something if this tiny little North Africa jewel (as they like to call themselves), were to become the epicenter of some sort of pan-Arab revolution against the moderate Western-friendly regimes in the Arab world.

As a removed and impassioned observer fascinated by Middle Eastern politics and interested in a career in journalism, I am riveted by the irresistible rumors, gossip, and conspiracy theories that pop up on Facebook and in texts. To think that I might be the midst of history is exciting. Yet at the same time, I am aware that this could change at any minute. While foreigners are not a target now, we have seen in Egypt and, more recently, in Iran in 1979, how such sentiments could flip instantly.

For now, I will stay home, watch the news, and wait. More updates to come – Friday is the big day of reckoning.

Photo Credit: Stephen Chemelewski