Hope and fear for Tunisians after a journey into the unknown

Looking back, Tunisia in 2011 Last December, no one had heard of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian vegetable seller. But his death triggered a revolution in the country that prompted similar movements across the region.
A protester armed with a baguette talks to riot police during a demonstration in Tunis on January 18.
A protester armed with a baguette talks to riot police during a demonstration in Tunis on January 18.

TUNIS // When Tunisians remember 2011, certain cries will rush to mind: "Leave!" "Revolution!" "Freedom!" - yells of defiance and victory. But right behind them will come darker words, such as "confusion", "anxiety" and "fear".

The year saw Tunisians throw off dictatorship and move toward democracy, blazing a trail for other countries - such as Egypt and Libya - swept up in the revolts now collectively known as the Arab Spring.

It has also meant more uncertainty than most Tunisians have ever known.

For decades, Tunisia was a land of tight surveillance and few surprises. For millions of ordinary Tunisians, 2011 marked the start of a journey into the unknown.

Take Montasser and Meriem Jomni, young parents in the capital, Tunis.

In the past two years they had their first child and opened their own business, a café on the city's main promenade, Avenue Habib Bourguiba.

Since January, the boulevard has served as Tunisia's prime venue for marches, protests and political theatre, giving the Jomnis a front-row seat as witnesses to history.

The new era began on December 17, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in the southern town of Sidi Bouzid after years of harassment by city inspectors.

By the end of the month, President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was on state-run television, talking tough and vowing to crack down on the nationwide protests sparked by Bouazizi's self-immolation.

The new year began with the security forces opening fire on demonstrators, and Mr Ben Ali taking to the airwaves again to denounce "hooligans" while promising to create 300,000 jobs.

It was then the ground underneath Mr and Mrs Jomni and many other Tunisians began to shake.

They were shopping for groceries after the speech aired when the the managers of the store suddenly closed the shop.

"Then everyone panicked," said Mrs Jomni, 30. "I heard a manager order the bread taken from the ovens half-baked."

Outside, people were hurrying away from the city centre.

Two days later, violence reached Avenue Habib Bourguiba.

"People demonstrated, police attacked them and fired tear gas. Protestors burned some shops in a side-street," said Mr Jomni, 32. "We closed up."

The next morning, January 13, a river of protesters streamed unopposed through Sidi Bouzid chanting "Out, Out, Ben Ali!". Police fired tear gas in Tunis, and media announced that Ben Ali would make a third address.

"Everyone was waiting for the president's speech," Mrs Jomni said. "All day we never stopped listening for it."

Visibly shaken, Mr Ben Ali insisted in rare colloquial Arabic: "I have understood you."

He promised to step down at the end of his term in 2014.

"We were astounded," Mrs Jomni recalled. "Was it really him? How he had changed! A few days before he had threatened people."

The next day, January 14, thousands massed on the avenue outside the interior ministry, a grim emblem of Mr Ben Ali's 23-year rule, demanding his immediate resignation. That evening his motorcade scurried to the airport, and he flew to exile in Saudi Arabia. Tunisians swelled with relief and joy - and anxiety.

"We were happy to see him leave, but worried at the same time," Mr Jomni said.

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, left, visits Mohamed Bouazizi at a hospital in Ben Arous on December 28, 2010. Bouazizi set himself alight 11 days earlier. EPA

Mr Jomni is tall and lanky, with glasses and auburn hair that he wears swept back. Meriem Jomni is petite and stylish, her hair in a bob cut. They have invested heavily in their café, Bon App.

In the weeks after Mr Ben Ali's departure, they were dismayed to see Avenue Habib Bourguiba half-paralysed by protesters who wanted the former president's allies drummed out of the country's politics forever.

"Every Friday there was a demonstration, some group or other chanting 'Ash-shaab yureed! Ash-shaab yureed!', said Mrs Jomni, referring to cries of "The people want" that became a hallmark of Arab Spring uprisings.

Far beyond Tunisia, those revolts were gathering steam in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.

While Mr and Mrs Jomni took pride in their country's example, they worried about strikes and riots, Mr Jomni said. "I even asked myself whether one day we might regret that Ben Ali had left."

For months, turmoil persisted in Tunisia. In February clashes between protesters and police in Avenue Habib Bourguiba left three dead, prompting interim prime minister Mohammed Ghannouchi to resign.

Refugees poured into Tunisia from Libya as revolt there widened. Fighting between Libyan rebels and pro-Qaddafi forces occasionally spilled over the border.

Meanwhile, politics at home, once predictable as the sun rising in the east, got messy.

Political parties multiplied, arguing over when to hold elections for an assembly to draft a new constitution. Elections planned for July were postponed to October.

With Mr Ben Ali gone, long-persecuted Islamists emerged. Deeply conservative Salafis held prayer rallies in Avenue Habib Bourguiba, while the surging popularity of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party drew accusations from rivals that it harboured a radical agenda.

"I felt there were more important issues to debate," Mrs Jomni said. "Like poverty, the economy and stability."

In anticipation of a busy summer, the Jomnis in May installed an ice cream counter in their cafe, but business stagnated.

"We didn't have many tourists," Mrs Jomni said. "Normally in summer there are many, but not this year."

The uprising that had freed Tunisians from Mr Ben Ali's regime had also frightened off visitors, denting an economy already suffering from high unemployment and vast inequalities in wealth.

In June, financial worries led Mr Jomni to take a job overseeing the computer system of a transport and logistics company. Thus began a new, often exhausting routine. In the evenings he would go to Bon App to relieve Mrs Jomni, who in turn would go home to relieve her mother, who looked after the Jomnis' infant son, Youssef.

The Jomnis' weariness - and the gathering sense that Mr Ben Ali's ouster had created new problems - lifted in July, when voter registration opened. Like many Tunisians, neither had bothered to vote in Ben Ali's sham elections.

"Now we were living a new era, things that we had only dreamed of," Mr Jomni said. "Despite the number of parties and all their differences, it felt great."

On October 23, a half-century after independence from France, Tunisia held its first free elections.

Long lines of voters, dressed for the occasion in suits, jebbas and gowns, stretched outside of polling stations. Some stations were beseiged by would-be voters trying to register at the last minute.

"It felt like a festival day," Mr Jomni said. "For me, it was the best day. The day we had been waiting for since the start of the year."

Ennahda came first with 89 of 217 constituant assembly seats. The party has formed an interim coalition government with two secular parties, an experiment in power-sharing that could provide lessons for other Arab Spring countries.

Mr and Mrs Jomni wonder whether that coalition will have the power to make badly needed reforms. One recent evening the couple stood by their ice cream counter and gazed at a roomful of empty tables.

Outside, the terrace was full but the waiter stood idle. There was more freedom now, but also more worry, Mr Jomni said. The revolution - or whatever it is - was still incomplete.

"Was it worth it? Of course!" Mr Jomni said. "Even if it doesn't succeed, we won't regret it. At least we tried."



Published: December 25, 2011 04:00 AM


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