I still remember the flags of Ben Ali, the Tunisian dictator, that used to cover the Tunisian streets. I was very young and used to visit my country during the summer breaks. However, I still understood what went on in Tunisia and how Ben Ali, along with the police, oppressed the population.
In January 2011, everything turned. A few days after I left Tunisia after having spent the winter break there, nation-wide protests broke out against the government. The revolution caused Ben Ali, the dictator, to flee the country as Tunisia transformed into a new democracy. The Tunisian Revolution set fire to North Africa and the Middle East as it inspired a wave of uprisings and civil wars called the Arab Spring.
Seven years later, Tunisia is democratic but socioeconomically broken. I now live here and am surrounded by people who have experienced a dictatorship, a revolution and the birth of a democracy before even turning eighteen. I decided to ask them for their stories, with the hope that they could give others insights and a view into what it’s like to live under a dictatorship. Here are their voices and perspectives.
Disclaimer: The interviews are edited for length and clarity.
Dina (17) about internet censorship and the power of protests.
During the revolution, I remember going out with my uncle on the fourteenth of January to the avenue, and there were a lot of people there demonstrating. I was so impressed because I had never, ever seen so many people in my life. In one way it was terrifying, but it was also freeing. People were singing, dancing and sharing very nice moments, but at the same time, it was a very serious gathering. People were demanding their rights and I remember that it was very, very important to me. When I took time to look at the whole picture I was completely amazed. I was like, ‘this is unity and something special.’ I also remember seeing a lot of soldiers– they were right there with their tanks and weapons, not doing anything. They weren’t fighting back, they were actually encouraging us. Everybody feared was that the army would turn against the people and that didn’t happen, instead, they were extremely supportive.
Something that changed after the revolution was the internet. During the dictatorship, we had Facebook but we didn’t have Youtube and a lot of other websites due to censorship. Youtube was a whole new world to me after the revolution and we discovered that WattTV, what we had instead of Youtube, was extremely censored and filtered. You could only find like ten videos for everything you searched for. Watching Youtube was so liberating because I could see what other people were doing in other parts of the world. TV changed completely as well, the content was entirely different before and after the revolution.
All in all, Tunisians are used to a certain kind of dictatorship. Sure, we got a whole lot of new freedoms that we didn’t have before, like freedom of speech and free media, but most of Tunisian history is just a big dictatorship. The democracy has only gone on for seven years and we’re still in chaos, we’re still trying to find our place. The democracy is something very new and we’re only seven years into the change. So for me personally, the two periods of democracy and dictatorship were very different.
Elias (16) about how ignorance meant safety.
I didn’t really get the full scale of the dictatorship since I was just a kid back then. My parents didn’t really inform me much since they didn’t want me to speak out when I was with my friends and then get in trouble. So, I wasn’t really told what was happening in my country until the revolution happened. When my parents told me about the reality, I was shocked because I didn’t know that I lived under a dictatorship. I didn’t really have it as bad as many people did and I was shielded, so it was just a big realization for me to discover how bad people were treated under Ben Ali. It’s good that we’re a democracy now but it’s also hard since the democracy is so new and we’re a third world country, so we’re still developing.
Yasmine (18) about how the president charmed kids and the chaos during the revolution.
Since I was pretty young during the dictatorship, I liked Ben Ali because he used to do festivals with hot air balloons where everything was purple (the president’s color). He had a personal holiday on the 7th November when we went to festivals instead of school, so that was fun.
Then when the revolution came, I remember that my dad and the men from my apartment building had to sit outside every night to protect the building and make sure no one came near it. It was scary and we couldn’t go out. We didn’t have bread or food either. The pizza shop in my area stopped selling pizzas and started giving out bread to people since there was no food. I lived in an apartment and there was a Carrefour market under us that people came and attacked. At 3 AM, they had to get us all out of the building because it was going to fall apart since they broke down Carrefour. It didn’t end up falling, through.
Personally, nothing really changed before and after the revolution but I can tell that there is more freedom of speech, people can say things and not get arrested. Before I also didn’t know anything about politics or anything that happened but now I am aware of it. I also think that kids today who are the age that I used to be then (about ten) are more aware of politics since it isn’t censored anymore.
Adam (15) about the positive side of the dictatorship.
I had a few bad memories from the revolution because I’ve seen people get kidnapped and I’ve seen a lot of things, so it was harsh as a child. I liked the dictatorship more because Tunisia used to be organized. For example: traffic. People used to respect the rules and the law. Even though he used to steal money and all, the country was under control. Since he left, we can see that people don’t care as much about following the rules or laws anymore but he was forcing people to respect them. That’s the negative part about him leaving, but the positive part is that poor people are getting their money back.
Amine (16) about the situation’s multiple layers.
I was living in Hammamet at the time, outside of Tunis, but I remember some remarkable stories. Everything was pretty much going fine, although most Tunisians knew that Ben Ali was stealing money from the population and all of that stuff. We didn’t really bother to do anything in the beginning, because you know when you look at something and things seem okay right? Like, you know the statement: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If you looked at our economy and everything, most things were going fine but deep behind the scenes, everything was collapsing.
Ben Ali was stealing so much money from the economy and his family was doing the same thing. Since most of them were taking money out of the country, it would, in the long run, destroy our economy. On the other hand, I wouldn’t really know if having him stay or leave would have changed anything, to be honest. Yes, what he was doing was bad but the country wasn’t completely devastated. Now, after the revolution, it is.
Youssef (15) about how his perspective of the dictatorship changed with age.
Honestly, when I was younger, I didn’t really think a lot about Ben Ali. I didn’t know or see that he impacted our country much. The revolution wasn’t much of a change because I wasn’t an adult and I wasn’t working, I was just going to school and being a kid. I feel like as I got older and I looked back at what he did, I saw the negative and positive effects that he had on Tunisia. I really disagree with people who say that Ben Ali should come back because I feel like the country is slowly rebuilding. Our economy is getting much better and as a whole, it’s improving a lot.
I didn’t really know what was happening during the revolution; after Ben Ali left, I knew that he stole a lot of money and that he was a very bad dictator. After I got to know everything about him, I really disliked him.
Hassen (15) about propaganda and how a man involved with Ben Ali was hunted down in his yard.
There used to be flags everywhere of Ben Ali and purple flags as well, especially on national days. Purple was the color of the president. In school, the cover of our notebooks needed to be purple. I used to go to a Tunisian school, and if you didn’t buy them, you got in trouble.
I remember an experience from the revolution when I was in my house: my dad and my driver were upstairs guarding the house. One of them had a gun. I could hear gunshots outside. When they were there, a man related to Ben Ali came and hid in our garden (we have a big garden). Then the police came to the house and looked for him as they shot. I was young though and watched TV the whole time it happened.
Picture: Khaled Abdelmoumen via Flickr