The Scent of Jasmine

While the dictator has been thrown out the crisis in Tunisia still remains. Life has become untenable now for almost anyone who doesn’t steal, and Tunisians fear an uncertain future.

demostration in Sidi Abu Zeid (photo credit: Eldad Beck)
demostration in Sidi Abu Zeid
(photo credit: Eldad Beck)
A MODERN STATUE, GOLDEN IN COLOR, decorates the heart of the main street of Sidi Abu Zeid.
It seems to resemble a carved elephant tusk. Even in normal times, the sculpture would look strange in these gray and depressing surroundings in this town, located some 250 km south of the capital, Tunis, which, until several weeks ago, no one outside of Tunisia even knew existed.
But now the statue seems bizarre. Unknown hands have poured bright red paint all over the statue, so it looks bloodstained, and it has been plastered with handwritten posters and signs. The top has been covered with pictures of the symbol of the revolution – the smiling face of Mohammed Bouazizi, the young man from this village who set himself on fire a month ago, in front of the local government buildings, because the local governor refused to meet with him and hear his grievances.
His desperate protest became the match that lit the reservoirs of rage that had built up within Tunisians – because of the unemployment, the rising prices, the government corruption, the lack of basic human freedoms. With his incendiary death, he set off the fire that is burning throughout the country – the “Jasmine Revolution,” named for the national flower.
And the revolution, although far from complete in Tunisia, has already spread beyond its borders as young men in Algeria, Mauritania and Egypt have also set themselves on fire.
The townspeople now call it Bouazizi Square and crowds of men gather around the statue. “Don’t go near there,” warns a passerby. “It might be dangerous for foreigners.”
The men are arguing loudly about the national unity government and the future of Tunisia. The heads of the ruling party had hoped to calm the popular uprising by including several representatives of the main opposition parties in the new government.
But this hasn’t quashed the uprising at all, and most of the members of the new government resigned soon after they were nominated.
And if the energy at Bouazizi Square is any indication, things won’t calm down for quite some time. The Tunisian people have made history. Through a popular uprising, they have succeeded in ousting President Zayne Abedine Bin Ali. But that’s not the end of the story: While the dictator has been thrown out, the dictatorship remains.
Near the statue, on an empty chair, some of the demonstrators have pasted the goals of the popular uprising and their demands: Making the right to work part of the constitution; disbanding the government; disbanding the ruling party; disbanding the parliament; establishing a national unity government; establishing a legislative council. At the bottom of the page, someone has added a clarification: “The protest will not end until all of these demands have been met.”
As the agitated crowd notices me, a foreign reporter, the raging political argument comes to an end. Within seconds, I find myself completely surrounded by people who demand that I identify myself and show them my press card, which is hanging around my neck in laminated plastic. The Tunisians have expelled their president, ousted their police, and taken back their streets – but their fear of the regime is still palpable. Secret agents continue their intense surveillance. Dressed in civilian clothes, they are incognito, appearing suddenly, flashing their badges and asking questions. Every stranger is a potential agent of the regime. The men argue over whether they should talk to me or not.
One of the leaders of the group quiets them down. “He’s OK, he’s a journalist.” But no one will give his full name or identification.
This leader’s name is Ali. He’s 55 years old, an activist in one of the main workers’ unions in the country, and he’s taken a very active part in the street demonstrations. Representatives of the union were brought in to the government, but resigned a day later, due to increasing public pressure to get rid of the many ministers who still represent the ruling party. Ali has a graying mustache, wears brown traditional robes, and speaks authoritatively.  “What you see here,” he explains, “is a popular revolution.
We must fulfill the goals of that revolution. We want to completely change our political arena. The government still has its agents. We’ve suffered and we’re still suffering from oppression, unemployment, and corruption. Bin Ali and his mafia family enforced their control through the ruling party – it was an organized mafia of thieves and drug dealers. They took over the economy. The revolution will continue until all this is gone.”
“To the death,” one of the younger men calls out. “There will be more like Mohammed Bouazizi. We are all Bouazizi. There are tens of thousands like him, willing to burn themselves. We have nothing to lose.”
It’s not by chance that the revolution broke out in Sidi Abu Zeid. The small town in central Tunisia is the capital of one of the poorest regions in the country. The residents of this semiarid district barely make a living from agriculture. Along the main road to Sidi Abu Zeid, locals have set up stands overstocked with jerry cans filled with kerosene. “People smuggle the kerosene in from Algeria and sell it cheap,” a local explains to me. “The authorities are aware of this illegal activity, but don’t do anything about it. People have to make a living somehow.”
Most of the young men here are unemployed, even those who have completed some college education. The regime has boasted that in the past few years it has brought large numbers of students to the universities, but this achievement was not accompanied by the economic development that would have created employment for the tens of thousands of university graduates.
Bouazizi, 26 years old when he died, was one of these young men. Although he had an academic education, he sold vegetables in the street, without a license, in order to provide for his mother and sister. His protest started because a municipal supervisor impounded his vegetable cart and insulted him.
“The whole system will collapse in the end,” Ali predicts. “The popular dissatisfaction is too strong. The masses are with us. We feel better already. We don’t have any tactical plans for continuing the struggle, we are just interested in popular justice and economic development.”
ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STREET IS A MILITARY base, surrounded by tight security. The soldiers make sure to monitor the goings on in the square. President Bin Ali came from the army, although in the past few years, he had based his repressive regime on the police and turned Tunisia into a police state. This is one of the reasons that the army has supported the popular uprising against the president.
Immediately after he left, policemen from all the ranks took off their uniforms and hid them. Those who had to come to work – border control policemen, for example – wear civilian clothes, so as not to be recognized in the streets, fearful of becoming targets for the people’s revenge.
I throw out a question to the crowd that surrounds me. “Do you trust that the army will allow you to achieve your goals?” “It’s a people’s army,” most of them respond.
“Not exactly,” says Monji, a 53-year-old math teacher. The crowd protests – the Tunisians are fighting for their freedom and dozens have died in the past few weeks, but there are still some things – such as the sanctity of the army – that are above criticism.
Monji persists. “We don’t trust the army. Everyone is imagining that everything will change in one day. But that depends only on the people. This is a completely new situation for us and for the entire Arab world. In the past, the army revolted in the name of the people – in Egypt, Syria, Mauritania. Here, the people gave the army an opportunity to be with us.”
Adnan is a lecturer in statistics, one of the few who has had the opportunity to work in a position commensurate with his academic training. He’s 30 years old, a representative of the “Facebook generation.” Social media has allowed this younger Tunisian generation to organize quickly under the radar of the regime, exchanging information and ideas and creating the solidarity that brought them out to the streets. Adnan holds to a clearly-articulated political platform. He waits for his turn to speak. Like the others, he wants to get his story out, in the hope that the world powers will support the Tunisians and not betray them by cooperating with Bin Ali.
“We will be able to advance only if the Tunisian citizens get their basic civil rights,” Adnan says. “Why was the regime so strong? Because for years we gave in to everything it did. People were afraid.
They were resigned to the situation.
The party is still alive in people’s heads. They are still… not free to think,” he says.
“The ruling party draws its power from the people’s fear, which was instilled by the secret police,” Adnan adds.
“That party has more than 2 million registered members.
Most of them joined the party because that was the only way to gain certain benefits – work, housing. We’re sick and tired of this. People revolted because they want respect. Our central challenge is to create a new political mentality.”
Given news of people immolating themselves elsewhere in the Arab world, some say that Tunisia has become an inspiration to others fed up with oppressive regimes. Adnan is not sure he agrees.
“You can’t copy changes,” Adnan responds quickly. “The Tunisian people aren’t giving anyone an instruction manual for change. Every people must find its own way, suitable for its own circumstances. The story of Bouazizi is just one of many similar stories that have contributed to what has happened.
“What frightens me is the position of the West,” Adnan continues.
“The West talks about freedom. So why are they demanding all sorts of guarantees from us for everything and waving the red flag of the ‘Islamic threat’ in front of us. We don’t intend to become an Islamic state. We want to find the golden mean between Islam and freedom,” he argues. “ You can’t build a secular state that is based solely on the police. The West is controlled by its fear of the Islamic extremists. But our Islam is very different. For us, Islam is religion and not politics. We’re not like Iran.”
ON THE ROAD BEHIND US, A PROTEST MARCHES by, shouting slogans and carrying signs. Most of the signs show the “No Entry” symbol. Every day, at 9 a.m., hundreds gather on the main road in front of the municipality and the government offices. For hours, they march back and forth along that road. They say they don’t intend to stop until all their demands are met, even if the authorities use force against them, as has already happened more than once.
But how will they be able to run the country, if all of the existing systems are taken apart at the same time? “We need to make a distinction between the bureaucrats and the politicians,” Adnan responds.
“The politicians are corrupt.
The ruling party destroyed politics. We don’t believe in this new government,” he adds. “But we are civilized. We aren’t looking for conflict, we’re looking for equality. We are a united country. We respect the army and are only demanding to have a democracy here. We want real freedom, not games.”
Salam, a 37-year-old unemployed man who studied law, demands to speak. It’s important to him to say that the international community must put the deposed president Bin Ali and his corrupt family on trial in the international court in The Hague, because they continued to rob Tunisia right up until the final moments of their rule. The Tunisians seem to have an ongoing competition, not only for telling stories about the extent of the corruption of the President and his wife’s family, but also for inventing punishments for the “royal family.” Someone yells out, “I want to see Bin Ali hang, just like they hung Saddam Hussein.”
“No, no, we don’t want to hang him,” Adnan responds, almost apologetically. “We want justice. If the West wants to help us, it has to freeze all of the assets of the presidential family.
They stole everything, even our cultural heritage. They filled their palaces with archeological findings that they stole from the museums. We want our past back. In school, they taught us about two periods in history – the period before Bin Ali took control from the father of modern Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, and the period that followed. But we have a long and rich history.
Why do the Jews return to their history? So that they will be able to build themselves a future. We want to do the same.”
Most of the protesters weren’t even born when the “Bread Riots” broke out in Tunisia in 1984. For them, the events of the past few weeks aren’t merely a struggle for freedom, they are an opportunity for an intense emotional adventure. And they are making the best of it. Anyone who wants to – even small children – sets up an improvised checkpoint at the entrance to the street where they live, stopping cars by waving sticks or metal bars and looking threatening. Everyone wants to check everyone else – ID cards, purses and bags, suitcases. Yet the prevailing atmosphere is calm; the selfappointed guards quickly smile and apologize for the imposition. Tunisians aren’t a violent people – the elated sense of power, followed by a quiet calm, are part of the dignity and freedom that they are demanding, after years of living under tyranny.
At the edge Sidi Abu Zeid, a plume of ominous black smoke suddenly appears. The young men run to see what’s happening.
Even though the Tunisian revolution started in this backwater town, there have not been any incidents of destruction like those that took place in Tunisia’s coastal cities and in the capital, Tunis. Here, one doesn’t see burned-out villas, pillaged factories, ransacked banks or burned cars. The presidential family didn’t own any property in Sidi Abu Zeid; the town is simply too poor.
The smoke, it turns out, is coming from an old car lot. The owner decided to burn a few tires, for no apparent reason, and certainly without any connection to the revolution – after all, at some point, the town has to return to its routine, even if the revolution is still going on.
ON JANUARY 14, A FEW HOURS BEFORE BIN ALI fled, the authorities imposed a general curfew. Tunis, the Mediterranean capital known as the “Paris of the Maghreb” seemed to resemble Beirut during the long years of Lebanon’s civil war or even the streets of Gaza during one of the intifadas. The broad boulevards of Tunis, with its cafés, restaurants, stylish shops – and with its chaotic and noisy traffic – are usually open until the early hours of the morning; but now on Doctor Habib Tamer Street, the central alley in the Sidi Bu Said tourist district, overlooking the shimmering bay of Tunis, the cafés are shuttered tight. Avenue Bourguiba, the central thoroughfare, is empty, except for tanks and patrol units.
Nervous policemen stop passersby at gunpoint. A young policeman explains that many Bin Ali loyalists are still in the area; early on in the revolution, one of them hijacked a taxi, threw the driver out, and tried to get away with the passengers as hostages. Security forces are trying to gain control over these loyalists, many of them trained as elite fighters who are willing to die in order to protect the advantages they enjoyed under Bin Ali. “They [the loyalists] want Tunisia to become like Iraq or like the Palestinian Territories,” says Ibrahim, an unemployed tourist guide. “Bin Ali and his men want to get back to power, but we will not let them. Life will slowly get back to normal. In a week, all will settle down.”
In the back alleyways of Tunis, local inhabitants have armed themselves with anything they could find. Most of them brandish huge wooden sticks to which they have attached sharp metal objects. Residents have set up barriers on both sides of their streets. They search everyone carefully, but, once assured that they have asserted their control over “their territory,” they relax, shake hands, and smile, explaining that they are merely checking to see if the occasional stranger is carrying concealed weapons. “There are some Israeli agents here, trying to create chaos,” explains an elderly, mustachioed, self-appointed guard. Another, who gives his name as Osman and says he is 20-something and unemployed, explains, “We are keeping our streets safe from the gangs of Bin Ali, who attack innocent people in their homes and steal whatever they can, from the soldiers, from everyone. We want our life back.”
People appear fearful. There has been, especially at the beginning of the revolution, extensive looting – by Bin Ali loyalists, by common people who raided food stores, by young criminals. Shops that were not looted stayed closed for days, and food became scarce, as did gasoline. A “crisis economy” developed quickly, with inflated prices. Long queues stretch outside bakeries – people are buying as much bread as they can. Just in case. Life in Tunis was expensive before the revolution – it has become untenable now for almost anyone who doesn’t rob or steal.
And Tunisians are fearful of the future, too, wondering if it will be possible to make a peaceful and secure transition from the fallen dictatorship to the still-unknown form of government that must follow. Some semblance of normalcy does seem to be returning to the country, as work at government offices and public establishments is gradually resuming, and schools and universities are expected to open soon.
But sporadic fighting continues. The revolution is not over – nor is it clear where it’s headed.