We did not know at the time that this was the start of the Arab Spring, that what was happening would lead to such a seismic upheaval in North Africa and the Middle-East and huge repercussions far beyond. The Jasmine Revolution seemed a Tunisian affair, primarily a reaction against an institutionalized kleptocracy and a thirst for change after four decades of authoritarian rule. There was violence, some deaths, but nothing in the scale that some of us later reported on from Libya and we are now seeing in Syria. There were religious aspects to the uprising, but, again, little hint of the fundamentalist resurgence and sectarian strife that was to come later.
One person who did show prescience somewhat of what may lie ahead was not an expert on geopolitics or current events. It was the mother of Mohammed Bouazizi, the street vendor whose self-immolation, so the story went at the time, had been the spark for the popular rising.
Almost a month before the first serious street protests in Benghazi, Manoubia Bouazizi said to me when I was interviewing her about her son: “The situation is not just bad in Tunisia. My husband used to work in Libya and he used to tell me about how poor many people were there despite the oil and how angry they were. I think there will be a lot of changes in other countries as well.”
I was on a weekend break in Swizerland, after a fairly arduous trip to Afghanistan, when I was asked by the foreign desk whether I wanted to go to Tunisia as the regime appeared to be in serious trouble. The airspace was being shut down but there was, by chance, a direct flight to Tunis from Geneva.
After a nine hour wait at the airport I flew into what were the last hours of the reign of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. There were street battles, much of it centred around Avenue Bourguiba, with secret police goons in leather jackets joining the gendarmerie in laying into demonstrators, some of whom ran into hotels where reporters were staying to escape. It was difficult to tell who had the upper hand overall across the country, but certainly in Tunis the opposition, we thought, may be beaten into submission.
But then Ben Ali was gone. He had fled at the frantic urging of his wife, Leila Trabelsi, was one version; the more likely scenario was that the head of the army, General Rachid Ammar, had told the President that he could not guarantee his safety or that of his family. There was no sign of peace breaking out, however. The following day there was a firefight in the city centre with helicopter-gunships overhead. No one was really in control; there were a myriad of checkpoints, some manned by security forces, others by youthful vigilantes, some in their teens, armed with sticks. None of this stopped the looting and burning, mainly of homes belonging to regime officials and the hated Trabelsi family, but the capital’s main rail station was ransacked as well.
A provisional government was established with the promise of the most wide-ranging reforms in the country’s history. One result of this was that the media was going to be unshackled, a prominent iconoclastic blogger was going to be appointed the Minister of Youth and Sport. Reporters were taking over newspapers and broadcasting stations. But the problem was how to use their new found independence after years of enforced subservience. Hamene Zhoiss, a 30 year old writer on the magazine Realites, explained: “ Most of us had not been taught in our journalism course how to ask critical questions. In my course I was openly told we could not write the fact in most cases. Look at the case of Mohammed Bouazizi, that became known through the social media, the mainstream publications did not touch it for so long.”
But the tale of Mohammed Bouazizi is a symbolic example of how difficult it is for journalists at times to ascertain the reality of a situation. At the time I went to his birthplace, Sidi Bouzid, where he had committed suicide, to find the town had become a shrine to the martyr. Last September, after covering the fall of Tripoli, on my way out through Tunisia, I went back there to find a very different story. Mohammed Bouazizi, the iconic sacrificial hero, is enmeshed in accusations and recriminations. His family had left town amid the animosity of neighbours; a plaque put up in his name in the town has disappeared and graffiti praising him painted over. The municipal official allegedly responsible for “the slap which rang around the world”, Fedya Hamdi, has claimed that the slap never happened and that she was made a scapegoat. She has since been freed from prison, with all charges dropped, to cheers from a crowd gathered outside the courtroom.
I went back to Tunisia last for the elections. But as the plane was landing, news came through of Muammar Gaddafi’s capture and killing and I, along with many of the other correspondents, diverted to Misrata. That was the right thing to do under the circumstances; but I do have a deep personal regret at not covering the first free expression of public will of the Arab Spring.
Kim Sengupta is the Defence and Diplomatic Correspondent at The Independent
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