Tunisia and revolution

Zitouna Mosque in Tunis in 2003.

Zitouna Mosque in Tunis in 2003.

Photo By nick miller

I visited Tunisia in March 2003, days before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Tunis was an exciting but calm, easygoing capital city.

This is no longer the case: After a month of rioting, including many mind-boggling acts of self-immolation, chaos has overtaken Tunisia. President Ben Ali, whose authoritarian, single-party rule lasted 23 years, fled the country last week.

Protests began to spark up across the country in December. Young and unemployed students, the suburban middle class and the poor were fed up. By the new year, students were protesting and even the lawyers began to strike. Demonstrations occurred daily across the capital. Prayers called for the return of an Islamic state in Tunisia. Power plays ensued.

On January 14, Ben Ali fled and Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, a West-friendly academic, declared himself acting president.

But he’s still a member of Ben Ali’s party, so the riots continue. Tunisians are done with government as usual.

What’s interesting is that similar protests—including people setting themselves on fire—have taken root in Algeria and Egypt.

No one knows if this sentiment will fade or spread. All they do know is that conditions similar to those in Tunisia exist worldwide.

The New York Times was quick to note last week that these events in Tunisia once again reaffirm the West’s total lack of understanding when it comes to the Arab world, that America’s pretense of having its thumb on the world’s pulse is a dangerously bogus illusion. The Times wrote:

“The change in Tunisia confirms that the average Arab is similar to the average American: a Joe 6-pack who believes in freedom and dignity. Many in the media had been selling Arabs as the enemy of freedom.

“No war on terrorism, no neocon, no ideology, no think tank, no military force in Iraq or Afghanistan, has achieved what the people of Tunisia have done.”

I remember the Tunisia trip surprisingly well. One day, my girlfriend and I rented bikes—horrible, rusted mountain trekkers—and rode nearly 15 miles along the coast to some more remote towns where no tourists often visited.

On the way, we stopped for a drink at a store/house in the middle of nowhere. I can’t recall ever being more dehydrated—we forgot water bottles!—and a man ran out from the shop and handed me and my girlfriend two glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice, which was warm but pulpy and sweet.

He said he’d never met an American before. But he knew I was damn thirsty.