Tunisia: The fire within

"There was energy and magic in the air as Tunisians went to the polls... and they are not quite done writing their history."

Election workers count ballots in Tunisia 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi)
Election workers count ballots in Tunisia 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi)
The funny thing about history is that it is rarely seen as what is happening.
Rather, it is usually seen as what has happened.
When 26-year-old Muhammad Bouazizi arrived at the municipal government’s gates in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia on December 17, 2010, and set himself ablaze in a desperate act of defiance, he did not know he would be making history. When the men, women and children of his country took the streets in mass protest following his death, they, too, did not know they would be making history. But in October 2011, when I arrived in the capital city Tunis as a television reporter covering the country’s first free vote, I knew I had stepped into history-in-the- making. Present tense, not past.
On the morning of the ballot, eager Tunisians awoke early, only to spend much of the day in long queues at polling stations. They were unwavering. I spoke with several of them, as they emerged from ballot boxes proudly displaying their inkedstained index fingers. Most were ecstatic, even if uncertain what they were doing.
Indeed, it was confusing. Tunisians were casting their votes for one of many parties contesting an election that would see a national constituent assembly created, one tasked with rewriting the country’s outdated military- era constitution, and one (they now hope) that will ultimately pave the way for a future government.
On the day of the vote, one particularly great anecdote emerged when Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of the formerly banned Islamist Ennahda Party, went to one polling station. Leading in the polls and surrounded by his entourage, he headed straight to the front of the queue, only to encounter an offended crowd. Those lined up yelled out at him to wait his turn. One pointed to the end of the queue and reportedly told Ghannouchi, “democracy starts back there.” This was to be a perfect day, and nothing – and no one – would ruin it for them.
PERFECT OR not, there was clearly something magical in the air that day, an anything- is-possible optimism, a recognition that the whole was bigger than the individual. For what had “sprung” here one year earlier was still “springing” across the region and, most notably, next door in Libya. Just days earlier, Muammar Gaddafi had been captured and killed. The juxtaposition between the two journeys – Libya and Tunisia – was evident, and one most Tunisians noted with pride.
It was highlighted to be me by Moncef Marzouki, the human rights activist and leader of the Congress Party, as we walked down a leafy Tunis street while his volunteers distributed campaign stickers to lastminute swing voters. Marzouki spoke of a unique potential embodied in Tunisia and in Tunisians. His Congress Party went on to secure the second biggest victory in the election, only to then join Ghannouchi’s Islamists in a coalition.
Ah, how history redeems itself. It was, after all, Marzouki’s 1991 public criticism of then-president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s heavy-handed – and, according to Marzouki, illegal – crackdown on Ennahda that landed him in the hot seat. Ironic that 20 years after defending the group’s right to be, Marzouki found himself a legitimate contender in real elections, and then joining them in governance. Not for his own sake, but for the sake of Tunisia. Such was the optimism of that day. It was palpable.
I decided to visit Sidi Bouzid and the spot of Bouaziz’s self-immolation. The adjacent square has been renamed to honor him. As has a square in the capital. As has a square in Paris, just across the sea. Concrete slabs on both sides of the Mediterranean now serve as a testament to the impact one man had on multiple continents.
Coming to the square that day, I repeatedly thought of the word “tsunami.” It is hard to claim that the dramatic effects of Bouazizi’s act could have been predicted. But his death – or that of someone just like him – could have been.
Pressures from the economic crisis that begin in the US with the housing market and banking collapse, which dominoed across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, strained the economies there. The areas particularly hurt where those where millions of North African migrants worked and sent remittances back home. As work slowed, so, too, did the funds.
Many returned home that season with little to no money at all, welcomed back by families depending on them. The shame was too much. So essentially, Americans defaulted on sub-prime mortgages that many should have never received in the first place, and a few years later, the ripples were being felt across the ocean. Tsunami. The disaster that follows the earthquake. The burden of globalization.
But there is always the clean-up effort. The mass protests, the civil unrest, the ousting of Ben Ali, the inspired movements elsewhere, the vote in Tunisia – that has been the rebuilding. And as is often the case, when an old decrepit building finally collapses, it is replaced with something much better, grander and stronger.
Bouazizi was the catalyst that reminded the people of Tunisia that they have a voice. They have spoken, and they are speaking. And while we might not always like what they are saying – or what the Egyptians will say, or what the Syrians will say, or what the Libyans will say – we should at least start by listening. For the fire that started it all in front of those gates still burns inside these people. And they are not quite done writing their history.
The writer is an Israeli-American television journalist who has reported from all over the world, including Tunisia, Turkey, Afghanistan, Qatar and Bahrain.