Four years ago, I traveled to the small, North African country Tunisia. At the time, my step-sister and her husband lived in the capital city, Tunis. Also at the time, and unbeknownst to us, revolution was bubbling in the southern Tunisian cities.
By January 15, 2011, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country, after dissolving the government the previous day. My pleasure trip had suddenly been turned upside down, as I was now inside a country that the Canadian Foreign Affairs Ministry deemed unsafe to travel to. As I explain in the following post, my family and I are now living in a situation unheard of in Canada, where the eruption of protest is going to cause us to flee as well.
Never in my life has media played such an important role in the general outcome of my actions, as it has in the last 30 hours.
On Thursday evening, Tunisian President Ben Ali addressed the nation in an effort to calm the protests and stop the bloodshed. In office since 1987 (he rewrote the constitution to allow him to remain in power), he promised that he would not seek re-election when his term ended in 2014, as well lower the cost of basic food staples, and remove restrictions on media. This was the act of a desperate man clinging to power, and attempting to cool a pot that had long since boiled over. Although relief spread throughout Tunisia last night, it was not a sense of complete accomplishment. Rather, it was more of a feeling of astonishment; that the actions of the people had caused a direct change in their autocratic government. While this was certainly cause for celebration (as evidenced by the cheers and car horns honking in the distance), it was also cause for an outsider’s concern: the people were not satisfied with just his reign ending in 3 years. They wanted a change in the government, and they wanted it now.
There was talk of a General Strike as ex-pat friends of Anika and Nolan’s were texting, phoning and posting their plans of evacuation long before Ben Ali appeared on TV. While their houseguest Kris scrambled to book a flight out on Friday, we reserved to delay our decision until morning, and get a sense of what was going to transpire. This path was going to eventually lead us to a dead end.
Morning dawned on the 14th of January, 2011, and the majority of shops were closed. The few businesses which remained open were a handful of cafés (Tunisians are crazy for coffee), and small convenience stores. As we toured around, it was clear that Ben Ali’s TV address had not sufficed. People were milling about, no doubt tense from the increased presence of the army. Kris had been successful in booking a flight and continuing his vacation in Milan, Italy. After lunch, we dropped him off at the airport and returned home.
By mid-afternoon, news and images about increased protests in the city center flooded the TV screens. Soon after, it was announced the president had dissolved the government and parliament, and called for elections within 6 months. Enough was enough, it was time for us to get out. Nolan and Anika continued their search for possible destinations for the 3 of us and their dog, Charlie. With no government, and the country being run by the one man that the people didn’t trust, uncertainty prevailed. We no longer believed we could live safely here.
All the while, more news was flying in. Anika and I sat in the living room, BBC World News on TV, and computers in hand.
As reports regarding riots and looting streamed in, Nolan secured us an Air France flight to Marseilles on Saturday afternoon.
Just after 4pm, a state of emergency was announced. This elevated the Canadian Foreign Affairs travel advisory to Tunisia (don’t go unless you absolutely must, or as I termed it: Threat level Maple Syrup).
I was reading that the president had left the country, and that the military seized control of the airport, effectively closing any air travel to, and more importantly, from, the capital. Air France canceled the flight (completely removed it from their system, in fact) and there was no one in charge. We were stuck.
The protesters succeeded in bringing about change. They effected the removal of what many perceived as a dictator, and were apparently rejoicing in the streets. I was witness to a major political and societal change, and wanted to join in their celebration, except for the fact that there was no leader. These demonstrations were not planned by a political party, had no affiliation (aside from anti-Ben Ali), and could not we quelled with one person’s wish.
We were at the mercy of whoever was going to make the upcoming announcement on state TV. Up on the roof, jubilation mixed armed altercation was heard. I could see the black smoke from a fire in the distance; later flames. The sun was sinking in the sky as the tension was raising on the streets. What was going to happen tonight in Tunisia?
Shortly before 6pm, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi appeared on TV to announce that he would be assuming temporary control of the nation until the elections could be held, declaring Ben Ali unable to exercise his duties. The PM as well promised to “respect the law and to carry out the political, economic and social reforms that have been announced”.
Upon hearing this, a strange feeling overcame me; I am in a nation undergoing a revolution.
The unrest continues into the night, with the curfew still in effect, and gunfire and retaliation echoing nearby.
There is absolutely no way to know what kind of Tunisia I am going to wake up in tomorrow, whether or not the airport will be reopened, and when we can leave if it is. We are not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot. A lot has to happen to assure that this country will remain functional. However, the news is a step in a positive action, and the people of Tunisia have set an enormous example to the people of the world, most notably the oppressed, Arab-speaking nations nearby.
Tonight, I remain in a country with an undetermined future, with no way out. This wave of change can still tide towards the extreme. Yet, I am happy to be here, sharing in this monumental experience. Once again, this trip has brought the unexpected. With plenty more to come.