Little noticed by the outside world at the time and initially unknown even to most Tunisians due to regime censorship, the events of December 17, 2010 turned out to be among the most consequential in Tunisia’s modern history. In the marginalized interior town of Sidi Bouzid, street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire outside the governor’s office to protest the abuse, corruption, and injustice of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s police state. Bouazizi’s act of despair was the spark that inflamed the discontent that had been building up in society for years. His self-immolation triggered a youth protest movement for dignity, rights, and justice that soon spread throughout the country, drawing in Tunisians of different ages, classes, and political colorations and posing an unprecedented challenge to Ben Ali’s 23-year rule. On January 14, 2011, in the face of mass demands for his resignation, Ben Ali fled the country, never to return, and his dictatorship crumbled. Tunisia then embarked on a transition to democracy, a complex process that is ongoing to this day.
To mark the occasion of a decade on since إندلاع شرارة الثورة (“the spark that ignited the revolution”), POMED asked nine Tunisian colleagues to reflect by responding briefly to the question, “What does this anniversary mean to you?”
Director, Columbia Global Centers–Tunis
Ten years ago was the beginning of a new chapter in my life—when politics, which had been a distant and repressed hobby, became my daily occupation and that of most people around me. Political freedom, something I had always missed in Tunisia, suddenly spread and established roots across the country. Revolution, an almost mythical concept, was happening before my very eyes. For some reason, everything that happened to me since December 2010 seems to be the day after yesterday, yesterday being those fateful days of December 2010. The Arab Spring and its aftermath, a long decade now, looks like a moment in time that has not ended and does not seem to end.
Director, Jasmine Foundation, Tunis
These past ten years have been dense with historic moments as well as hope, hard work, anxiety, and determination. The death of Mohamed Bouazizi opened a new path for Tunisia, a path toward long-standing dreams for greater freedoms, dignity, and new institutions that represent Tunisians and enable them to become the makers of their own history. Throughout this decade, Tunisians have had some remarkable achievements, including holding several peaceful, democratic elections and peaceful alternations of power. We also lived through moments of tremendous fear that we might lose our path—but each time we worked through the fear to construct democratic solutions such as power-sharing, dialogue, and managing our conflicts within political institutions. We have much work to do to make our democracy sustainable and to turn the demands for dignity and social justice into reality—by transforming our economy and institutions to enable human potential, providing the conditions for a dignified life, and achieving more just development of our regions.
Program Director, Al-Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center (KADEM), Tunis
If I have to answer this question standing before scholars, academics, politicians, fellow civil society representatives, and journalists, I would say this is the time to assess our collective efforts toward democracy. How can we improve our institutions for better governance, additional rights, a more equitable society, improved public services?
If I have to answer this question standing before the tomb of a victim of the revolution, I would say I am sorry, I had different dreams. I am sorry for thinking that the right to vote will help improve the conditions of your loved ones. I am sorry for thinking that a liberal constitution will bring you justice. I am sorry for thinking that freedom of speech will help you get rid of the corrupt. I am sorry for still thinking that democracy is a shared virtue, not just an instrument used by spoilers.
Legal researcher and activist, Tunis
Ten years, from age seventeen to twenty-seven: we should have reaped the fruits by now!
When the revolution began I was seventeen. I remember the feelings of anger, worry, and sadness on the cold December evenings in Medinine when my family would gather around the computer. We monitored testimonials on social media from revolutionaries in cities and villages that confronted police violence. Information was scarce and so was freedom. The following days the slogans burst through streets, universities, and institutions. Our great hope and our great pride came when we defeated fear and there was no turning back.
Like others, I was aware that our dream of a safe and just nation needed more effort and more sacrifice. I became overwhelmed with feelings of disappointment and despair as I watched how the weakest and most vulnerable groups paid the highest price. We made important achievements, but what we did not accomplish was a free country that supports justice nationally and internationally. Our generation is really tired but we will not stop trying, because our country deserves it.
Independent political analyst, Tunis
The tenth anniversary of December 17, 2010, is an occasion to commemorate the end of a dark era and reflect on what happened. Ten years ago, a small group of organizers took the ruling elite, the reformist opposition, and the rest of the population by surprise by starting what many still describe as an ongoing revolutionary process. They transformed the tragedy of an individual into a national cause.
However, those who took control of state institutions after Ben Ali left and things started to calm down were not the revolutionaries who wanted systemic change. Instead of transforming the system, the new political actors who grabbed power after the regime’s collapse integrated the old regime’s informal networks of power and interests. In addition to using their financial resources for electoral mobilization, they relied on them for policy-making. They adopted the same ideas and policy orientation as the Ben Ali regime, guaranteeing continuity with the pre-revolution period. That is why many Tunisians think, a decade on, that nothing has changed. The approaches to change adopted by post-2011 political elites were too legalistic and much less structural. Systemic change is yet to come.
Founder and Executive Director of Mobdiun – Creative Youth, Tunis
December 17, 2010, is when democracy in Tunisia and in North Africa began. Far from a celebration, I see this day as a commemoration for people who lost their lives to free us Tunisians here and abroad. Ten years later, the struggle for jobs, freedom, and dignity for all is ongoing.
Many Tunisians have the feeling that the revolution failed them. But I don’t. I just realize how hard it is to deconstruct decades of authoritarianism and dictatorship. How vested interests can still prevail over the rule of law. How suppressed feelings of being left out can transform into resentment and prepare for violence. Every day, I find hope in the new generations of youth who were children when our liberation started. Those who don’t know fear or censorship. Those who dream big and ignore the obstacles. Those who believe, as I do, that a just, modern, and progressive Tunisia is possible. My hope comes from all of us dreamers and doers who are not letting go and keep fighting every day, making our contributions until our dream Tunisia comes true.
Gardner Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, D.C.
The tenth anniversary of December 17, 2010, is a grim reminder that the socio-economic conditions that prompted Tunisia’s popular uprisings remain unresolved. Regional inequalities, neo-liberal economic restructuring, and the unbroken rule of the old political and business elites remain immense challenges to Tunisia’s nascent democracy. These issues have in fact intensified in the past 10 years, placing the country on the precipice of a social and economic crisis worse than the conditions that ignited the 2010-2011 uprisings.
At the same time, this anniversary is a celebration of the power of the people to depose dictators and choose their destiny. After I witnessed the 2008 mining basin protests in my home region, Gafsa, hope for revolutionary change seemed unrealistic. But today I can walk in the streets of my city and hear unrestrained political commentary, experience a vibrant civil society, and meet young women and men eager to effect concrete change. In the past 10 years, Tunisian citizens have proved that, in the words of our national anthem,
إذا الشعب يوما أراد الحياة
فلا بدّ أن يستجيب القدر
ولا بد لليل أن ينجلي
ولا بد للقيد أن ينكسر
When the people will to live,
Destiny must surely respond
Oppression shall then vanish
Constraints are certain to break.
Program Associate for Civil Society Partnerships, Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), Tunis
I strongly hesitated before answering this question. It is difficult to describe my reflections and emotions on the 10th anniversary of the revolution without considering the current political reality.
The 17th of December 2010 brought great hopes of a genuine possibility of change, but unfortunately very few became a reality.
Words often fail me when describing my gratitude for this day. Yet, I am just as bitter and disheartened that 10 years later Tunisian citizens are still asking for social justice and dignity while suffering from socioeconomic- and geographic-based disparities—the same problems that pushed them into the streets in the first place.
I do cherish the steps Tunisia has taken in building democratic institutions, but I think it is time to acknowledge that these institutions failed to meet the expectations of the 2010–2020 era. I truly wish that the next 10 years will not be as disappointing.
Program Coordinator, International Republican Institute, and Fellow, United States Institute of Peace, Tunis
Ten years ago, as each day passed, what had seemed unthinkable was slowly but surely becoming a possibility. Ten years later, I can only remember all those who sacrificed their lives, throughout the years, for the freedom we now enjoy. Protests across the country were escalating, and as I witnessed firsthand the general strike and the mass protest on the 12th of January in Sfax, it became apparent to me that a whole regime was crumbling. Today, Tunisians face several hardships—mainly a difficult socioeconomic and political situation, along with a growing wave of protests—and some are starting to reminisce about the past. The road is still long, and much work still needs to be done. However, I remain hopeful about the future. The gains of this decade—freedom of speech, free and fair elections, political pluralism, to name a few—should not be taken for granted.
Photo Credit: Scotch 79 via Wikipedia