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Tunisia one year after: the beginning of change

When a young vegetable vendor set himself on fire on Dec. 17, 2010 in the town of Sidi Bouzid, no Tunisian could have imagined that a month later, the longtime dictator President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali would be ousted.

grafitti reading Vive le peuple or long live the people

Long live the people

Frustrated and humiliated, Mohammed Bouazizi doused himself in fuel and set himself alight. His deeply symbolic act sparked a chain reaction of protests in the small Mediterranean nation. A wave of demonstrations, brutally struck down by police, extended across the country - supported by parts of the Tunisian general labor union UGTT. Initially, the protests only spread to Tunisia's inland areas, but by the end of December they reached the capital Tunis and, in early 2011, the country's universities.

"The country was like a cooker that was under too much pressure," said a young protester at the time. The combination of unemployment, corruption and oppression created an explosive mixture, which the Ben Ali regime initially underestimated and then couldn't get under control.

On the evening of January 13, 2011, after tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Sousse and Sfax, Ben Ali tried to change the course.

"I made mistakes," he said in a televised address. "Now I have understood you." He announced that no more live ammunition would be used and that Internet censorship would be abolished. Tunisia is still today speculating about what occurred in the next 24 hours.

On the morning of January 14, tens of thousands of Tunisians protested in front of the Interior Ministry. Despite the curfew and closed-off airspace, two planes took off from Tunis-Carthage airport in the evening. The presidential family left the country, shortly thereafter the visibly nervous Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi declared on state television that Ben Ali was temporarily unable to hold office. On January 15, an initial interim government was put into place - the first of many.

The rifts become visible

"If we had known that this entire system actually consisted of a cardboard facade that collapsed as soon as you even gently tap it, we would have dared to take action a lot earlier," said Skander, a computer scientist in his mid-30s.

But the Ben Ali regime was able to instill fear in the population for years, leaving them to believe that the police state was almighty. Regular protests against the authorities had already taken place in the impoverished mining regions in Tunisia's inland since 2008. But the police were still able to regionally contain those uprisings and knock them down. The fact that the protests this time spread to the entire country was also thanks to the power of social networks, which despite massive censorship were able to replace the traditional state-controlled media and spread information about the protests around the country at lightning-speed.

voters getting ink on their fingers

Tunisians were able to vote freely for the first time in October

One year after Mohammed Bouazizi's self-immolation, Tunisia has taken an enormous step forward. In October, the first free elections were held, a month later, the newly elected Constituent Assembly took up its work. Its task is to create the basis for the country's further development within a year.

But within this year, the rift through Tunisian society has become visible. It was hidden as long as the Ben Ali system had a common enemy. The elections in which the moderate Islamist party Ennahda won 89 seats - some 40 percent of the Assembly's mandate - express the fragmentation of the secular opposition. Most parties had focused their campaign on the economy and creating jobs. The constitutional project only played a secondary role in the campaign.

"We're losing sight of the most important thing," says the philosopher and Islam Studies scholar Youssef Seddik, who had run in the election as an independent candidate. "What kind of a state do we want Tunisia to be in the future? How do we want to live?"

Time for vigilance

The Constituent Assembly, which will also present a new interim government, is faced with major challenges. For 2011, the Tunisian central bank forecasts zero economic growth, nationwide unemployment is at 18 percent, in some regions within the country even more than 50 percent.

Moncef Marzouki

Veteran rights activist Moncef Marzouki was sworn in as interim president on Dec. 13

"Ennahda won the elections, because they promised the people what they wanted to hear: work and stability," Seddik said. But many of Ennahda's voters can relate little to the party's religious convictions, the 68-year-old said. He views the supposed Islamization of the country relatively calmly.

But not only the economy needs a boost. The interior and justice ministries are in need of reforms. They are still home to the former powers. The reformation of the feared police apparatus is also only progressing very slowly. Many Tunisians are therefore afraid of a counter-revolution. Seddik said the people must remain vigilant. He refers to the French Revolution, which required years to stand on solid ground.

"Behind almost every revolution there is a question mark for a relatively long period," he said. "But I am optimistic. The old system has been toppled and the people dare to voice their opinion without having to be afraid!"

Seddik said he was convinced this was the most important step toward democracy.

Author: Sarah Mersch / sac
Editor: Rob Mudge

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