14 January 2011 17 December 2010. – Mohamed Bouazizi sets himself on fire, the Tunisian Revolution is en route. His answer to years of police bullying, racket, and administrative abuse. He only wanted to sell his vegetables in the street in order to feed his own family. In Sidi Bouzid people are angry. Enough is enough. Protests start. First there, then the movement spreads quickly, enhanced by social media calls, and soon it hits the capital. A caravan that left from Sidi Bouzid rallies Tunis, gathering thousands of people on the way.
13 January 2011. – The infamous ‘Fhemtkom’ speech of Ben Ali – ‘I understood you’. Not sure what he understood, but whatever it was, it only made the people madder.
14 January 2011. 18h43 – A friend calls me. “He fled! He fled! He fled’ cries the hysterical voice on the phone. Everyone is astonished. 23 years of dictatorship and 27 days to end it. The first stone of what has since then been called the Arab Spring was set. It is winter in Tunisia, Jasmine has not yet bloomed, and the country is flooded with exhilarating emotion. One thought is in every mind : WE DID IT.
Since that crucial day of January 14, a lot happened. The Arab World fell in turmoil. Egypt on the 25th of January, Yemen on the 27th, Libya on the 17th of February, Morocco on the 20th, then Syria tears itself apart… And this list is not exhaustive of all the places that breathed the intoxicating scent of jasmine.
As pointed out by Duncan Pickard in his excellent article Tunisia’s elections: a test of commitment from Oct. 20th, 2014, Tunisia has gone through at least six peaceful transfer of power since the revolution. While other countries fell into civil wars and military coup, Tunisia remained peaceful.
Of course the country had its own challenges to face. Two political assassinations, two great figures of the opposition fell – Chokri Belaïd, shot in front of his house the morning of the 6th February 2013, and Mohamed Brahmi, five months later, also shot outside his home in front of wife and children on the 25th of July. Countless protests. Slow economy. Security issues. Apparition of terrorist groups. Political uncertainties. But we had and still have hope. And an unshakable love for the Tunisian Nation, that seems to be the element never taken into account by foreign political analysis on the future of the country.
There were also historical moments. On the 23rd of October 2011, Tunisia held the first free democratic elections of its young history, to elect a Constitutional National Assembly (ANC in French for Assemblée Nationale Constituante). A wave of emotions, happiness and pride overwhelmed the country. The outcome of the scrutiny unsettled some. The Islamist party Ennahdha won the elections with 37,04% of the votes. What people tend to forget was that 62,96% of the ANC was not religious, there were democrats, republicans, socialists, liberals, secular groups. This and the natural pragmatism of Tunisians resulted on reaching consensus after heated debates on social questions mainly. Three years later, on the 26th of January, 2014, the new Constitution is enacted and it is today the most progressive and human rights protective constitution of the Arab World.
Yesterday, Sunday Oct. 26th 2014, another historical moment in the consolidation of democracy, a test in the eyes of the world of this newly acquired political freedom. The second free elections, this time in order to elect the members of the National Assembly. Will Tunisians convert the try? Or will they collapse like their neighbors and other sister Arab Nations did? Will they remain peaceful, a peace that was questioned because the Tunisian nation was not following the path that everyone else took? Will everyone play the democratic game by the rules?
All foreign analysis on Tunisia few days before the elections were negative, skeptical at best. To cite an example, the New York Times published three negative and quite biased articles in a row, such as Carlotta Gall’s ‘At birthplace of the Arab Spring, discontent opens a door to the past‘ or David Kirkpatrick’s ‘New Freedoms in Tunisia drive Support for ISIS‘ – the title itself tells a lot on the writer’s conflict here. In a way, it is understandable. Tunisia is the exception of the Arab Spring. In terms of political developments, but also in terms of society, population and culture. It is a society that has more depth and is more complex than what international analysts know of. Very few actually took the time to make proper research and study on the country. Most come for a few days, perhaps few weeks, missions to cover one topic specifically. This gives a limited vision on the country. Thankfully there are still excellent authors such as my good friend Monica Marks, who lately denounced the narrow vision of international media on Tunisian politics in this very good article, ‘Beyond Islamism vs. secularism, towards new coalitions?‘.
Yesterday I was a national observer for the elections in a polling station in Aubervilliers, France, a northern suburb of Paris. I witnessed the electoral process from A to Z for the Tunisian citizens living abroad. There have been a few incidents, all concerning people that did not find their names on the lists, hence were not able to vote. This seems to have been the case for all polling stations abroad, but not in Tunisia. Apart from that, I witnessed a very well organized election procedure. The officers of the polling station were all extremely professional and following the rules of transparency to the point where the vote counting had a theatrical aspect. When we had the results, people of all parties, political and non-political, congratulated each others for the great work we put together during this electoral marathon. People were simply plain happy about the peaceful outcome.
I also witnessed the incredible emotions emanating from voters when entering the polls during the day. People were happy, people were smiling, I saw tears. People were proud to vote. A friend in Strasbourg, responsible for a polling station had a citizen coming to exercise his right to vote by himself : both his arms were amputated. He insisted that he did not need help, he used his feet to tick a box and fold the paper. People took flights to be able to vote in the polling station they were registered at. Newly weds went to vote with their wedding dresses. A 105 years old woman went to the polls and voted. A man had a suit made out of the Tunisian flag specially for voting day. Tears, smiles, in Tunis people were hugging strangers in the streets, overwhelmed by the emotions. In Tunisia, politics divide and elections unite. The sens of nationhood is great. At the end of the day, 51,8% of registered people voted. Not as much as in 2011. The youth was notably absent. However the people that did vote – and that is about 3 million people – were deeply convinced of the importance of this right. The right to vote. The right to express an opinion. People were kept quiet for too long, and they will never let anyone take their voices away anymore. This is what outsiders don’t take into account. This is why I will always stay positive when it comes to Tunisia’s future.
I believe in this Nation, and I am not the only one.
If Tunisia is great at something, it is at surprising the world – and itself at the same time. When Hannibal marched on Rome with his elephants, when lady Kahena stopped the Arab invasions, when abolishing slavery in 1842, when granting women the right of abortion in 1972, when being the spark and the beacon of hope of the Arab Spring. We surprised the world in 2011, in 2013, and we do it again today. Will the world finally understand: Tunisia does not follow paths, Tunisia makes its own path.