When the Revolution Reached Tunis....


Font of all Knowledge
Jun 7, 2011
When the Revolution Reached Tunis

Bernard Yaros | 26 September 2012 | 0 Comments

By Sam Clayton
On Monday morning, January 10, 2011, the news raced through Facebook. It was recounted in grim detail in the international press as well. More than twenty unarmed protesters had been killed by Tunisian state police in the south of the country, mostly in Kasserine, over the weekend. The news stunned and sobered a once placid nation that had spent weeks unsure of what was coming.
Everything was different after that. The energy in town was thicker and full of meaning. Strangers caught my eye on the street, with concerned looks in their eyes. My students greeted me in class with grave expressions, and were finally willing to talk. When I inquired about their opinions, some continued with the same scripts of how the rioting was about regional unemployment in the south. But other students shook their heads and spoke clearly and without fear – in voices I had not heard before.
“The protests are no longer about unemployment. The protests are against the president.”
Amid muffled gasps, I proceeded carefully.
“And how do you feel about that?” I asked and waited out the silence.
“I support the protesters.”
On Tuesday the 11th, we closed the school in the evening amid low-grade panic. Students began receiving calls from nervous

Protesters fill Habib Bourguiba Avenue, calling for President Zine el-Abidine to step down.​
parents to get home immediately due to reports of riots in the city. In silent bolts, they started leaving the classrooms, some without explanation. We went around from class to class and calmly told the rest to go home. They were already halfway out the door.
That night, Facebook was a virtual explosion of activity. The majority of our Tunisian friends had changed their profile pictures to Tunisian flags in solidarity with the protesters, and started openly posting against the government. They knew these acts were potentially very dangerous for them and many considered it their “no going back” moment. The rumors of government hacking, monitoring, and profile shutdowns of Facebook accounts riddled the terrified posts. (Later we would find out it was all, in fact, true.) All I saw was a sea of red squares and white crescent moons speckling my screen. The reality that a full-scale, national revolution was in fact taking place was suddenly upon us.
On Wednesday the 12th, they imposed a 6 o’clock national curfew, and our evening classes were cancelled. The city center where I lived was tense, and covered military trucks drove through the streets with soldiers in the back. In the afternoon, I walked the six blocks up to Habib Bourguiba, the main boulevard to get extra cash, but the ATM machines were not working. Masses of people were streaming through the streets without speaking. Ninety percent of shops were closed, including major supermarkets. I saw a cluster of about 20 people crowded around one of the small corner groceries, the shutter pulled halfway down. An earnest man in a blue hardware apron was handing baguettes to people with raised hands and pointing to others like a silent auctioneer to find out what they needed.
On the sunny morning of Thursday, the 13th of January, I walked north from Centreville through a deserted city, to work. At school, I visited with Sarah, our assistant director. She had lived in Tunisia for 35 years since her days in the Peace Corps, when she had fallen in love with her Tunisian husband and stayed. Her children, whom she talked about often and wistfully, were away at college in the States. Blonde, practical, and kindhearted, she was like a hardworking Midwestern farmer with an overlay of JFK social values and a heart of gold. She could also burst into effortless Arabic or French at any moment, often weaving all three languages together without even noticing it. It felt comforting in her office, almost maternal. She was shuffling and re-shuffling a pile of blue folders, visibly upset.
“If things get more serious, will you leave Tunisia?” I asked her, hoping that the insights of an expert would help me put the whole thing in perspective.
“Oh no. This is my home,” she said quickly and then stopped.
“I would know if it was the right time to leave,” she said in a measured voice and with a peaceful smile. On the last word, she made a little bow with her chin and closed her eyes.
I waited in my classroom for my students to arrive. Twenty minutes later as I started to gather my things, the door opened and my student Aisha, a woman of thirty-five with a black overcoat and dark, wavy hair, entered. She moved in slow starts like a scared rabbit. When she realized that no one else was there, she seemed even less sure of her surroundings and stopped moving all together.
“Do you want to have class?” I asked gently.
“No. No, I can’t stay.” Her eyes were glassy and her voice was like a person stunned by grave news.
“Okay. No problem,” I reassured her, feeling relieved but also alarmed by the real fear of a local professional person.
“You should go home. Now,” she told me quietly as she took my hand. She then turned and walked out.
I went to the office to tell Sarah what had happened. She was hanging up the phone.
“That’s it. We’re closing the school. I’ve just heard that there are riots here in Lafayette. Sam, will you go around to all the classes and calmly tell everyone to go home?”
I ran between the three buildings, up and down stairs, mostly encountering eerie, empty rooms. Every so often I’d open a door and a group of heads would all turn to me in a start, like I had discovered their safe house. The only cool customer was my friend, the beautiful Nadine, of Lebanese and Tunisian background who was teaching beginners. As I popped my head in, she turned around, her long blond hair swirled around her, like a pop video. She said one of her usual lines in her dead-pan New York accent:
“What you cookin’?”
I met up with Sarah on the first floor of the annex as she was talking to Avril. As we parted, Sarah gave us hugs and said:
“Be careful. And stay at home.”
Ten minutes later, Avril and I were sitting in Schilling, my favorite café, eating Kefteji, my favorite Tunisian dish, and talking about what we should do. Avril lived in Lafayette, less than a 15-minute walk away, directly where the riots had been reported. I lived on the other side of Lafayette, in the city center, but had to go through her area to get there. Usually a conscientious and energetic person, Avril was strangely calm, almost dazed. She even suggested that she could walk home alone. The taxis had disappeared.
“No. Avril, you’re coming home with me. Are you crazy?”
“But I’ll need to stop by mine to pick up a few things,” she said in her Irish accent.
“Fine. We’ll stop by there on the way, we have to go through there anyway.”
We headed toward her apartment, through the little park called Place d’Afrique and onto Rue de Palestine. Suddenly, I heard my name called by a loud, deep voice, and I looked over to see my friend Sofien bounding down some building stairs. Well over six feet tall and built like an American football player, he was soon standing in front us in a giant, new gray suit, a little awkwardly, like he was dressed for the prom. He was one of my law students I had taught and grown to love over the last few months of 2010, and he had just found his first job. He mauled me with a big hug and two kisses and asked us if we were safe.

A man calls on President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to leave power on January 14, 2011, in downtown Tunis. (Photo credit: Sam Clayton)​
I asked him what he was doing and he said he had left work and was going to the protests. I asked him if he was going to protest in a lawyer’s suit and tie. He grinned and held up a backpack full of clothes. Then he became serious and told us that there were religious conservatives involved in the protests in Lafayette, who were trying to manipulate the crowds, and that he, as an atheist and a secularist, felt he needed to be there to counteract them. The news shocked me. It was the first time I’d heard anyone say anything about religious extremists in the entire situation. He went on to say that they had not been a part of the uprising in general, but were trying to use the instability of the situation to gain influence. I wondered if it could possibly be true in Tunisia.
After urging us to take care of ourselves, he hugged us and bounded away like a superhero. As he ran, he turned and yelled to me not to tell Rahma, his girlfriend, what he was doing.
As we got closer to Avril’s apartment, the mood on the street became very strange. The atmosphere of normal people doing normal things was completely absent. There were few cars on the streets, and the ones we did see drove at very high speeds. We could see clusters of people on street corners, and others running. There were sporadic cheers from a large unseen crowd in the distance. The palpable energy in the air was of tension, excitement, anger, and fear, and it felt like anything could happen at any moment. I wondered if we were making a huge mistake.
We rushed into her apartment building, which never had any lights, and ran up her three flights of curved stairs in the dark. The moment we burst into the tiny apartment, the “nun’s quarters” we always called it, Avril began rifling through her cupboards like we were escaping the Stasi, grabbing anything she thought she might need and shoving it into a large black bag. I paced back and forth along the tiny hard floor between her door and her kitchen, pressuring her.
“C’mon Avril.”
“I know. Sorry, I’m just trying to grab a few things.” She sailed around to the fridge and opened it, bending down and grabbing for all the food she could carry. When she stood up, arms full, we laughed, at the bizarreness of our predicament.
Her little street was deserted, so I mentioned that I wanted to get money out of the ATM if they were working. We darted around Champion (an indoor mall) and onto the short road that connected Rue de Palestine to Avenue de Liberté. The first bank machine read ‘Out of Order,’ with small white receipts scattered all over the ground, so we ran across the street to the other one, which worked. I withdrew 400 Dinars ($300), which was my bank’s weekly limit, and wondered if I had missed the last opportunity to withdraw or transfer the rest of my money that I would need if I had to leave the country.
We stood in the street. A short heavy woman in a beige overcoat was rushing past us talking on her phone. Two young men were standing nearby, looking over. We weren’t sure which road to take to Centreville. Rue de Palestine was quiet but somehow ominous, and Liberté was more crowded and frantic and festive, but peaceful. It was clear something was happening there, down a ways toward downtown. We looked at each other for a moment, and both knew that we wanted to have a look, if only for one block, just to see what there was to see.
“Do you want to go down Liberté then, just for a moment?” I asked with a cringe.
“Don’t you tell a soul what we’re doing Samuel. We’d just get so much trouble for it, d’ya know like?”
“I promise.”
Liberté was like a street carnival. People were walking and half-marching toward downtown, the same direction as us, while others were gathered around in groups, mostly men. Some were talking in hushed tones while others were yelling to each other from the other side of the street. The occasional car sped a short distance and turned off. After two blocks we could make out that the mass of people was thickening greatly, and soon realized they were being detained at a metal barricade crossing the street. We tried to see if there was another side road before the barricade, for us to turn left on, back toward Palestine, but couldn’t make it out.
As we approached, we heard people yelling, and then saw a military truck and police vans parked in the middle of the road behind the barricade. I looked to the left and realized that that the roadblock and whole situation was happening directly outside the grand, white stone synagogue.
A lone man was behind the barrier in the middle of the street. The official vehicles and tall leafy trees were his backdrop, the silent synagogue to his right. He was facing the crowds, as if on a stage. In his hands was a flagpole with an enormous, blood-red Tunisian flag at the end of it. He was waving it in slow-motion, a look of solemn defiance in his face, in proud, majestic sweeps. We stopped and watched the inexplicable scene, suspended, with the fascination of children witnessing something dangerous and secret.
In the next instant gunshots ripped through the air. Avril and I fell into each other in the first jolt of confusion, clusters of gunfire echoing around us. Soon the same instinctual knowledge registered with us as with everyone around us, that the government was not above shooting and killing its own people in the streets. At the same moment, canisters were shot into the street and white clouds of tear gas immediately emerged at an alarming speed, engulfing the areas directly in front of us. Like a herd of startled animals all changing course at the same instant, the crowd bolted. We turned and ran in the mob, clamoring to each other and running in panic. Lightning fear passed through my body as I sprinted. And I could see Avril, several steps in front of me, running with the wild speed of a deer tearing across a clearing in absolute terror.
We followed numerous people into a side alley at the first possible opportunity. It dead-ended immediately into another little alley parallel to Liberté, so we tore to the left like in a maze. Suddenly, we heard shots in front of us and saw canisters thrown in from the end of the alley directly ahead, from the Rue de Palestine side, the gas immediately spreading. We realized with dread that they were coming from that side too. Spinning around we saw the way behind us dead-ended after about 20 meters, which meant we were literally trapped in a little stretch of alley.
The irrational fear of death descended on every person at the same moment. We watched ten men hurl themselves again and again against a locked apartment building door trying to get in. People were running in every direction. Avril and I looked back toward Liberté, only to see people continuing to run by, away from where we had been. I grabbed her and made for an apartment door, not knowing if taking cover in a strange stairwell was the right or wrong thing to do. The tear gas was now tingling in our eyes and throat, but not enough to overwhelm us. Finally we stopped, paralyzed in the middle of the small alley, and waited.
After a unending frozen moment the energy shifted suddenly. Some people came from behind us, who had been hiding, and hurried around the corner where the tear gas had been thrown, and seemed to make it. We followed them and looked around after them. When we didn’t see anything, we quickly made our way across Palestine and back towards Avril’s apartment. When we got to her building one of the main doors was open and the front hall was packed with people taking refuge. Avril asked in her limited French if it was possible to get down to Centreville. Two men said yes, that if we stayed all the way to the right, near the freeway, we could make our way all the way down.
We made the snap judgment to keep going, like we were on some kind of quest and couldn’t give up. We cut over about three blocks and started making our way down. We saw people running and hurrying with handkerchiefs and other articles of clothing over their mouths. Soon we passed the important modern buildings of the African Development Bank and saw that they were being evacuated. Well-dressed professionals from many African countries were hurrying out of the building with briefcases and climbing into beige SUVs with looks of deep concern on their faces, talking into cell phones. I looked for my student who had called on Monday to cancel his classes until further notice, but I didn’t see him.
As we walked, we talked in halted, manic chatter. At each intersection, we scoured the streets to our left for trouble but couldn’t see very far because tear gas had formed a hazy fog in the distance that also rose above the buildings. Avril gave me a tissue to hold over my nose and mouth. We tried to make sense of what we were seeing, of what was happening at that moment in Tunis. Some kind of widespread social breakdown was happening right in front of us. I had the feeling that we were watching the unraveling of reality.
We came to another barrier and were directed by police over to Mohammed V, a main thoroughfare. As we approached Avenue Habib Bourguiba, which we needed to cross to get to my apartment, we saw that there were police and military, and their vehicles, all around the square where Big Ben met Bourguiba. We had no choice but to walk through it, and hope we would have no trouble. We crossed the square looking straight ahead. Officers stared directly at us, the two very conspicuous foreigners carrying bulging bags into Centreville instead of out of it, but did nothing.
When we were almost to my apartment, we stopped in the only corner grocery we had seen. I went in a panic and tried to buy as much as I could, including bulk bags of pasta and cans of tomato sauce. But Avril, in her state of peculiar denial, only laughed at me.
“What are ya gonna do with all that Samuel? Don’t be silly.”
Just as we were reaching my apartment, I felt the vibration of my cell phone in my pocket. The text from our friend David, contained 4 words.
“Stephen has been shot.”
I stared at it in silence.
“What is it Samuel?” I told Avril and we hurried inside the building, completely bewildered.
As we entered my apartment, I called him back and found out that Stephen, also a friend and co-worker, had been shot in both legs, also in Lafayette, only minutes after we had been there.
My roommates Kirsten and Faeez arrived in the panic of the same news and the four of us tracked down the rest of the details. Stephen and Holly had been on the roof of Stephen’s apartment watching the action, which was on Liberté one block up from the synagogue. But they had gone down to the street to see more, and Stephen had been taking pictures. When the shooting started, again at people who were unarmed and non-violent, Stephen was shot in the upper left thigh, by a sniper. The bullet exited on the inside of his thigh and then entered his other thigh, where it stayed. When Holly reached him blood was soaking his beige khaki pants and running down his legs to the ground.
With the help of a young stranger named Cyrus, from Ghana, who had been standing nearby, she was somehow able to get him into a car, shooting and tear gas still going on around them, and evacuate him through the chaos of the streets and to the Charles-Nichole Hospital. She stayed with him there until they treated him and released him, which was soon because they were overcrowded due to other casualties and injuries. Our friend Djamel, who had made his way to the hospital through the protests to help and translate, managed to get them back to his small apartment, where Stephen would spend the night. Because the apartment was so small, Holly and Cyrus, who couldn’t get back to Lafayette where they lived, came to us. When they arrived, they looked like beleaguered refugees, and Stephen’s blood was partially covering one of Holly’s shoes.
As the curfew set in, there were six of us huddled in our apartment, three residents, and three displaced people from embattled Lafayette. We squatted in the living room, our laundry hanging from the lines strung around us, checking our laptops for news of the announced speech by president Ben Ali. When it came, it was from a man who seemed to understand just how serious the situation was. He talked, for the first time, directly to his people in the local Tunisian dialect instead of Classical Arabic. He vowed to stop shooting protesters with real bullets, and promised he would not run again in the next election, that he had dissolved his government. He announced that he had lowered the price of sugar and bread, and lifted the ban on freedom of expression, including blocked websites like Youtube. The moment he said that, it was like a wand was waved, and suddenly status updates started appearing on Facebook from friends. “It works!” and “I can use Youtube!”
The moment the speech finished we heard a distant cheering coming from Habib Bourguiba, like the Tunisian people were won over by his concessions, like the conflict was somehow possibly over. A certain crestfallen malaise fell over the room as we asked each other if Tunisians would really fall for it, really take back Ben Ali. But in a few minutes, the counter message started to spread, that the cheering crowds had been planted and paid by the government, and that the majority of Tunisians remained unswayed from their goal to bring down the dictatorship.
A massive demonstration was planned for the following day, January 14th, intended to cover the entire grand avenue of Habib Bourguiba, and protest directly in front of the despised Ministry of the Interior, a symbol of state repression and torture for Tunisians. But many friends and normal Tunisians had expressed that their parents would not let them go or that it was too dangerous. Now with the prospect of the Tunisian people possibly being split over Ben Ali’s offers, I went to the main invitation page for the event on Facebook. It was pulsing with activity and new postings. Every time I clicked refresh the number of attendees rose by several hundred, like a massive groundswell welling up, quickly approaching a staggering 10,000 people. Goose bumps covered my body.
The next day was going to be epic, but the outcome was far from clear. Even though Ben Ali had announced otherwise, I imagined
the very real possibilities of snipers on buildings, of police shooting into the crowds. Privately, I knew I couldn’t miss such a historic, inspiring demonstration happening only a few blocks from my apartment. And that knowledge filled me with dread. I knew now what could happen in the streets.

I went to bed that night daring to hope that the Tunisian people would somehow get their freedom. And wondering if a foreigner, an accidental tourist like myself, would see it happen.
Sam Clayton lived in Tunis from January 2010 to August 2011. He is originally from Seattle, USA and is an English teacher and a teacher trainer by profession. For the past 9 years he has lived and worked internationally in countries such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Germany, Spain, Vietnam, and Tunisia. He currently lives in Berlin, Germany. He considers his time in Tunisia one of the most important experiences of his life and continues to send his best wishes and hopes to the Tunisian people.


Font of all Knowledge
Jun 7, 2011
Lisa Bryant
September 29, 2012

Tunisia's Youth Bitter at Revolution Fallout

Unemployed Tunisian graduates hold signs as they shout slogans during a demonstration in Tunis to demand jobs and call for the resignation of the ruling government, September 29, 2012

TUNIS — Young Tunisians were at the forefront of the country's 2011 revolution. But today, many are unemployed and bitter about its fallout.

Twenty-five-year old Tarek Zeid wants to become a computer engineer. But his only job prospects right now are wrapping up Tunisian carpets at a tourist shop.

Like tens of thousands of Tunisians, Zeid was on the streets in early 2011, in demonstrations that ousted former strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. But today he says, the revolution hasn’t brought many benefits.

Zeid says unemployment is too high. Hopes for democracy aren't panning out.

Nor is Zeid alone. Among many youth here, there is a sense of bitter disappointment - or at least impatience for results - after Tunisia's revolution.

Some of the young bloggers who spearheaded the revolt have become successful in business and media. But roughly one-third of young, working-age Tunisians are unemployed.

In many ways, says former education minister Hatem Ben Salem, they are an invisible generation.

"The ones who made the revolution are the young Tunisians," he said. "You never see them anywhere today. Not in the government, nor in the institutions. Nowhere. They are nowhere. They are the lost part of this revolution, although they were the biggest part of it."

Last year, thousands of young Tunisians voted with their feet, . setting off for Europe on rickety boats. Fewer are making the dangerous crossing this year. But earlier this month, for example, a boat carrying 100 Tunisians sank off the Italian coast of Lampedusa.

Others, like 31-year-old Kamel Ayari, pass their hours in cafes, hoping their fortunes will turn.

Ayari says he's applied for lots of jobs, both before and after the revolution. Employers always promise to call. He's still waiting.

"Failure to reform"

Part of the problem, says former minister Ben Salem, is the government has failed to reform the education system. He also blames the ruling Ennahda party for making promises it cannot deliver.

"When you say you will create 500,000 jobs in Tunisia, that's a lot. You could never create such a number of jobs in such a short time," he said.

But Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi says the government is slowly turning the economy around.

Ghannouchi says unemployment is slightly down. Government statistics also show Tunisia's economy grew 3.5 percent during the first half of this year - compared to negative growth last year.

Still these upbeat statistics don't comfort university student Hajer Ben Jemaa. Ben Jemaa says she voted for Ennahda. She hopes the party will help Tunisians like herself find jobs.

But shop worker Zeid says he has lost all faith in the current government.

Zeid says he hoped Tunisia's revolution would bring freedom. But today, he says, the only time he feels free is at the stadium, during a football match.


Font of all Knowledge
Jun 7, 2011
The Missing Piece of the Puzzle

Editor in Chief | 29 September 2012 | 3 Comments

By Fares Bouhadiba

The news channels on September 10th streamed images of an Italian coast guard boat filled with young Tunisians plucked from the rough seas. Only half of them survived the ordeal. Those survivors, dazed and exhausted, speak to the cameras that await them on shore. They all say the same story of unemployment, desperation, families to feed, and hopelessness. Precisely the same reasons for which a young man burned himself almost two years ago, and thousands took to the street bringing down dictatorships and starting the wave of change now known as the Arab Spring.
The government seems uninformed, and slow to react. On that same day, fate deemed that there be a large collective wedding in Ksar Said, where grooms and brides glorified the Ennahdha party which, in a thinly veiled attempt to shore up its waning popularity, footed the bill. What many people saw as a pre-election ploy backfired, making the government look detached from reality and insensitive. The evening news bulletins flashed both events back to back. The jubilance of the wedding, painfully contrasting with the tragedy of the sunken boat, drove the families of the missing, sick with anxiety, to uncontrollable rage.
Behind the human tragedy lies a story of paralysis by a government that doesn’t seem to be able to get the economy going and the jobs created.
From the beginning, it seems that there has been a huge misunderstanding between the people of Tunisia and the government they voted into power.
While people are screaming for jobs, the government talks about sacred values. While we desperately need investments, we debate endlessly how modern art can be offensive to believers. While droughts plague the southern regions, the Constituent Assembly is discussing the equality of men and women. In the process, the doubling of the unemployment rate in less than a year seems to be of no concern to our appointed representatives.
The country is now drifting towards a dangerous slope. There is an urgent need to start afresh, and put first things first. For that, we have to go back to where it all started.
The Arab spring came about because someone could not get a job. Not for religious reasons. Not because of an unsatisfied thirst for democracy. Therefore, the utmost priority is to address the causes of the explosion and focus on ways to create employment. The revolution must be completed. But what can be done to get investments going again?
One has to realize that unless domestic investments resume, no foreigner will even consider putting his money in Tunisia. The conditions have to be ripe so that local businessmen, who are today staying on the sideline, feel comfortable enough to resume capital spending and therefore start the engine of investment and job creation. It would be futile to try to attract foreign investors when your own business community is sitting on its hands. The key is the confidence of local entrepreneurs. Without increasing the confidence of these domestic businessmen and entrepreneurs, no jobs will be created, and there will be no foreign investment.
Once confidence among local investors has been restored, foreign investment will return. Tunisia, however, must take the initiative for this to happen. It consists of presenting foreign investors, institutional as well as corporate and private, with a convincing value proposition. For that, we should dispatch our best and brightest technocrats scouting the world, with well-designed and profitable propositions, that would convince them. Everything should be on the table. Fledgling banks, companies requiring revival, direct industrial investments.
But only when the local business community feels safe enough to resume investing can we expect money from abroad to return. Unless we realize that the key is the local investor, nothing will happen, and we will return to where we started almost two years ago. This is Tunisia’s future. This is the missing piece of the puzzle.
Fares Bouhadiba is a Tunisian student currently living in Dubai.
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