On Friday afternoon 14 January 2011, my husband, our two small children, and I were packing and preparing for our flight the next morning to Tunisia. Although our personal and professional lives had taken us to Europe, South America, and Southeast Asia, it had been ten years since I set foot in the Middle East during a BYU study abroad to Syria. Now, having completed a contract with an Italian company, we wanted a warm, laid-back place to spend a few months working on a new business idea. Tunisia had it all: gorgeous beaches, low cost of living, Roman ruins, original Star Wars sets, and political stability. Political stability, that is, until the day before we were supposed to fly out.
Nationwide protests against unemployment and government corruption had reached the capital a few days before, but that morning our contacts in Tunis had assured us the situation was reasonably stable. Then, at around 5:30 p.m., we received nearly simultaneous calls from our Chicago-based Tunisian landlord and his brother in Tunisia. The government had fallen, the president had fled the country, and military gun battles were taking place with rogue police in the streets. In case we were still undecided, the airport was also closed, rendering our imminent flight not only inadvisable but literally impossible.
Things started to calm down after a few days. The people continued to demand a full democracy, but peaceful strikes and protests began to replace angry riots and violence. My husband and I decided we would give it a few weeks to make sure things settled down. After all, who was flying into Tunisia, except daredevil journalists and exiled opposition figures ready to hit the streets, when most tourists were still trying to get out? In the end, though, we couldn’t wait. Seven days after deposed President Ben Ali took off from Carthage International Airport, we touched down in Tunisia.
“Our plane was full of jubilant Tunisians exercising their newfound right to freedom of speech.”
Family, friends, and strangers were horrified with the subsequent adventures I recounted on my blog, but we delighted in the opportunity to experience the effects of a historic grass-roots revolution firsthand. Our plane was full of jubilant Tunisians exercising their newfound right to freedom of speech. The man next to us was a young Tunisian studying in France. He had taken a week off from his studies to fly home and participate in the revolution. Most of the conversations I had with Tunisians during those first few euphoric weeks were celebrations of new adventures in democracy, as the government continued to make unprecedented changes and the shock waves reverberated through Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.
Life in Tunisia immediately following the revolution had its inconveniences along with its excitement. When we approached an airport taxi, baggage in hand, and asked him to take us to the central train station, he informed us there was a general transportation strike to protest against members of Ben Ali’s party who were still running the government. However, taxis did not join the strike until the following day. And if the strike wasn’t enough, the central train station had been burned anyway. “Did you want me to take you straight home?” he asked. Well, when he put it that way, we did.
“Home” was Borj Cedria, which Middle East specialists will recognize as the headquarters of the PLO during the tumultuous 1980s. Post-Tunisian-revolution it remained a bit of a scary place. When we arrived, our landlord was still going out every night to man the barricades against marauding rogue police, who were drive-by shooting from ambulances and causing general mayhem. Because ex-President Ben Ali had made his career in the police force, many police elements remained loyal to him after his exile. This resulted in a void of trust in the police force. Security was high, with frequent checkpoints and a policeman in every roundabout, but each policeman had to be guarded by a machine-gun wielding soldier.
We now live down the beach from the burned-out shell of the president’s family mansion in the coastal resort town of Hammamet. For months, our family remained some of the very few foreigners here. We’ve already extended our original four-month stay, and will probably end up lengthening it to at least a year, as we continue to soak up the sun and the revolutionary atmosphere, while we explore forming an NGO dedicated to helping Tunisians start small businesses. Unemployment is still high, the security situation is occasionally tense, and the economy is looking at a hard year due to the devastated tourist season. However, Tunisians remain mostly optimistic, justly proud of their revolution, and committed to their slow-but-sure transition to a fully functioning democracy.
“In a situation of uncertainty, unfamiliarity, and danger, they are showing their true quality.”
Most impressive to me is this: In the midst of all the excitement and difficulties here, several ordinary Tunisians have risen to heroic heights. Behind, but not beneath, the demonstrators who braved bullets and tear gas are the quieter heroes who manned the barricades, protecting their neighborhoods during the weeks following the president’s departure. And there is the military that won enthusiastic support for refusing to fire on its own people and then stepped modestly aside to let democracy flower.
Tunisians face their challenges with grace and compassion. They are on the vanguard of freedom and want to see it through, both for themselves and for the rest of the region. A few months after the revolution, as neighboring Libya convulsed in chaos, many families in the south of Tunisia opened their homes to the refugees streaming over the border. In a heartwarming display of solidarity and public-spiritedness, some Tunisian volunteers traveled as many as eight hours to the improvised camp, welcoming the exhausted and traumatized refugees with fresh water, sandwiches, and smiles.
The Tunisian revolution is something to be proud of, not only for its odds-defying political success but for the courage of so many ordinary people who are stepping up to take responsibility for making the world around them a better place. In a situation of uncertainty, unfamiliarity, and danger, they are showing their true quality. Democracy may be a new experience for Tunisians, but from what I see, they have civic-mindedness and good citizenship down.