By Atharva Pandit
“Ex Africa simper aliquid novi,”- there is always something new coming out of Africa- observed Aristotle while on his visit to the African continent some 2,600 years ago. As it turns out, he wasn’t wrong- there is always something coming out of Africa, and that something, in fact, could also be an actual revolution, as the nation of Tunisia has proved. Facing courageously towards the sea and the European shores, “like a little diamond-shape keystone,” as Christopher Hitchens wrote in his Vanity Fair column on Tunisia, the nation is indeed one of the brightest spots on the African continent marred by violence and blink-and-you-miss-it coups and counter-coups. There seems to be no end to it, either. Africa is a fractured continent where even the youngest country seems to be holding on to that tradition. But within all this chaos, Tunisia provides a hope – the hope of freedom and revival in a land where it is a complex and forgotten concept.
The flame of Arab Spring was sparked within Tunisia, which has now spread into several countries across the Middle East, ushering with it Civil Wars and some of the worst days of conflict in the modern world. The Arab Spring- which critics now largely declare as being over- brought a new concept of freedom into the Middle East, where common folk, repressed and burdened by the ancient ideas of dictatorship and monarchy their dictators were forcing upon them, realized that nobody else would bring them the freedom they desired on a platter- they had to create it themselves. The frustration that had been building up in such countries for years together witnessed a bursting out- and it all started with one little spark.
Mohamed Bouazizi was a common street vendor who hoped to save enough money so as to buy a pickup car. He was tired of pushing around a cart full of vegetables across the streets for some meagre sum, and he hoped that a pickup cart would help. But then, on December 17th, 2011, a policewoman confiscated his vegetables and the cart, since it was unlicensed. The sum Bouazizi was ready to pay as a fine was not enough for the policewoman, and she responded by slapping Bouazizi across his face, spitting on it and insulting his family. When Bouazizi- who was the sole breadwinner in a family of eight- reached the Municipality Office to complain about the incident, they refused to pay any heed. Humiliated, Bouazizi returned to the place where his cart was confiscated and set himself afire. Little did Bouazizi know that with self-immolation, he had set not just himself to flames, but almost the whole of the Arab World. This act of a simple and tired vegetable vendor set off a series of events which would largely be responsible for the future of the Arab world.
Bouazizi died on January 4th, 2011, but by that time a revolt was in progress in Tunisia. People were outraged. They had degrees but all they did with them was to loiter around in cafes or work as part-timers or street vendors like Bouazizi. Bouazizi did not have a degree, he had only completed his high school education, but his plight touched a chord in the whole of Tunisia, literate and illiterate alike, and, eventually, almost the whole of Middle East, catapulting the region into a revolt against all that is wrong with their society.
Bouazizi started a revolution, a change and, undeniably, a war. He was a martyr who was suddenly catapulted to posthumous fame- as a symbol of resistance against the corrupt and the oppressor, and as a symbol of hope and future peace. For the peace of tomorrow, the Tunisians seemed to be saying as a revolution had started brewing; the violence of today must be bared. If there was another way, the Tunisians were not going to look at it- for they’d had enough, and overthrowing the dictator, Ben Ali, was the only last resort available. As people suffered with unemployment and corruption, the dictator himself spared no expense at making his life comfortable- something that is the trademark of all the dictators, be it the flamboyant Gaddafi, or the recently deceased Jean-Claude Duvalier. Photos clicked from Ali’s palace- his personal lair- serve as evidence to the amount of inequality within the Tunisian society. As Ali enjoyed his Hollywood movies, DVDs of which were stacked up in his palace, his subjects on the streets tackled through everyday cases of corruption. To Bouazizi and people like him in Tunisia- which is to say almost every second person trying to make a living in the country- this was highly unacceptable. And they ended up creating the flame of a revolt that asked for equality and fairness.
But has Bouazizi’s sacrifice bore any fruits? Of course, the immediate reactions were the violent protests which erupted. However, it was important for the protesters, and those who led them, to understand that the society would still function when the oppressor was out of it- the challenge was not to let it function as it was when the oppressor was inside the society and ruling over it. The change was what they demanded, and the change was what should be brought. Three years and a regime later, it is valid to ask the question: Is the desired change visible?
“It was the central aim of the revolution to not just let a few benefit,” tells Souail Aidoudi to DW World, and he further adds, “But that aim has not been honoured.” He states that the Tunisians still have no access to work, and he remains unemployed for the past ten years. For him, nothing has changed except the government. A lot of young Tunisians having Degrees find themselves jobless, but they are not hoping for a job immediately. They are hoping for a new constitution, but even that remains to be implemented. Most Tunisians pin their hopes on the current crop of younger revolutionaries and pro-Democracy activists trying to fight the older elite which essentially want to turn the clock back to Ali’s time. For them, democracy is a wall that prevents their almost continuous looting from the society.
Most also attest that freedom is something that is entirely new for the Tunisians, and it should be ensured that Democracy not be exploited, misused or misunderstood. Tunisia has been seen to be handling it well enough- more than four dozen new radio stations have been set up and newspapers and magazines carrying the opinions of journalists and artists instead of state-sponsored propaganda are being published. The progress is slow, but without a doubt steady.
But is it enough to establish Tunisia as the modern example of an Islamic democracy? The answer can be contested and is highly arguable. It should be accepted and agreed upon that the transition process is never easy to implement, and it almost is never a smooth ride. Uncertainty certainly marks Tunisia, but that uncertainty is mixed with the latitude of hope and evolution. That uncertainty of Tunisia will take time to bloom into peace and assurance, but the progress shall be steady and continuous- and the Tunisians want it, as they proved it by electing the secularist Nida Tunis to the new regime, thus rejecting Islamist Ennahda. Indeed, it is not for nothing that Tunisia has been repeatedly called the new hope of the Arab world- a nation that is pregnant with promises yet to be realized, with optimism and unshakable belief of the people in a free, fair and an inclusive society. With such a population as advocates of change, Tunisia might well be called as the success story of Arab Spring and Mohamed Bouazizi, a fighter who shall never be forgotten.