The Jasmine Revolution

The sweet smell of jasmine conjures up memories of Tunisia–”of white-washed, blue-trimmed villas draped in jasmine and bougainvillea, or a teenager selling tiny nosegays to men and women lounging in cafés. Inhale that heady jasmine perfume and one can almost forget that those crowds of highly educated young people sipping coffee and mint tea have little else to do–”since they can’t find jobs–”and that a teen flower seller’s family may depend on loose change to survive.

Tunisians have dubbed their recent unarmed uprising the Jasmine Revolution, a name that now evokes the exhilarating promise of freedom of expression and real democracy. While others have called the revolution that rocked Tunisia the Wikileaks Revolution–”because leaked U.S. diplomatic cables described Tunisia as a "police state" and criticized corruption in President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali’s government and family–”Tunisians didn’t need Wikileaks to tell them there was trouble in their seaside paradise. Rising inflation coupled with high unemployment was making life increasingly hard, and economic woes in Europe affected the nation’s vital tourism industry. Officially, Tunisia’s unemployment rate is 14 percent, but probably much higher in rural regions, and the percentage of college graduates without work is probably double the national average. More than a million Tunisians, or 10 percent of the population, have emigrated, mostly to Europe, in hopes of finding work and a better future.

Underemployment in Tunisia is also a problem, one that worries students and graduates alike. Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old university graduate, could not find a job in his rural central Tunisian hometown of Sidi Bouzid. He took out a loan to buy a used cart, bought some fruit and vegetables on credit, and began to hawk his wares. Police confiscated his cart and his produce his first day on the job because he did not have a permit. When Bouazizi argued that he couldn’t afford a license, police slapped and beat him. On Dec. 17 he picked up a gallon of gas, went to the gates of his governor’s fancy home, poured the gas over his body and set himself on fire. He died three weeks later.

Days after Bouazizi’s shocking act of self-immolation, street protests erupted in his hometown–”and spread like wildfire. By Christmas thousands of unarmed Tunisians, especially young people inspired by Bouazizi’s courage and desperation, had taken to the streets throughout the country, where they were met by police equipped with tear gas, live ammunition and clubs. The day after protests spread to Tunis and Sousse on Dec. 27, President Ben Ali, who had ruled his country for 23 years, finally addressed his people, blaming the clashes on a "minority of extremists and terrorists" and warning that the law would punish protesters. Students began tearing down photos of their ruler.

On Dec. 29 Nessma TV, a private news channel, became the first major Tunisian media outlet to cover the protests. Labor unions, lawyers and opposition groups soon joined the students, and commercial and judicial strikes took place on Jan. 6. Tens of thousands of protesters filled the streets of the capital, Tunis. Ben Ali’s government responded by cracking down even harder on activists, journalists, bloggers, lawyers, artists, and even a rap singer, and firing sympathetic cabinet ministers.

On Jan. 13 the president again tried to extinguish the flames, promising not to run for re-election in 2014. He went on to promise early elections and the release of political prisoners. Firing his interior minister, Ben Ali said he’d investigate the killing of some 80 protesters by security forces–”but the demonstrations continued.

The next day the president imposed a state of emergency, dissolved the government, and closed Tunisian airspace, newspapers, universities and schools. He ordered his army to shoot into the crowds of protesters. Unlike the police, however, the soldiers refused. Instead of following orders, army chief of staff Gen. Rachid Ammar suggested that Ben Ali leave.

So, on Jan. 14 the president and his entourage flew to Malta, which denied him refuge, then boarded a plane to France, which also refused to let him land. Finally Saudi Arabia agreed to allow him to stay for an unspecified period of time. Ben Ali’s wife, Leila, and children already had fled to Dubai, allegedly with 1.5 tons of gold worth more than $56 million. Much of the family’s $5.59 billion fortune is believed to be in France and Switzerland, where officials say they’ll freeze "suspicious" assets.

Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi took over as interim president and formed a new coalition government, but Tunisians weren’t happy that it included several members of Ben Ali’s cabinet. The speaker of parliament, Fuad Mebazaa, tried to form a unity government, but the verdict on that is not in.

For weeks Tunisians held protests outside their embassy in Washington, DC to show solidarity with their families back home. On Jan. 14, as news broke that Ben Ali had fled, the protest turned into a celebration. People left bouquets of flowers along the embassy’s fence and cheered and waved as cars passed by honking. "Ben Ali just didn’t get it," said one protester, Najeh Sassi. "It’s not just jobs and corruption. He was the problem. We applaud the military, which wouldn’t take part in the violence. They’ve stayed neutral and made sure nothing got out of hand. The military will calm things," Sassi predicted.

"The best part of this revolution is that it came from the people," he added. "There was no one outside making it happen and no opposition inside."

Another protester, Sami Belhoula, said he was worried, "I hope it stays civilized and the violence stops. The police brutality got ugly–”how could people fire at their family members? I hope they prosecute the guilty, the people who gave the orders to shoot protesters."

"I have too many things to say," Hakim Ben Alaya said. "We are celebrating a Tunisian revolution that only took four weeks. Tunisia can be the model for other Arab counties in need of freedom," he said. "This is historic."

Majim Habib, who said he’d escaped from prison after being sentenced for a political crime, has lived in exile for years. "I haven’t seen my three children in 18 years," he lamented. "At last I’ll have a chance to go home."

As the gathering ended, Ben Alaya concluded, "This was a one-person revolution, the Jasmine revolution. Mohamed’s human rights were abused. He couldn’t express himself except by self-immolation. Our message is that one person, one person, can change history."

Several hours later, U.S. President Barack Obama applauded "the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people" and appealed for calm and "free and fair elections" in the near future. "The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold, and we will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard," Obama said in a statement issued by the White House.

It may have taken only four weeks to change the government in Tunisia, but its citizens have been preparing for this day for decades. Over the years on visits to Tunisia, discussion often turned to the inevitable question, "What happens after President Ben Ali?" The answers were the same from teachers, students, bureaucrats and cab drivers: "Tunisia is so much more than one man, it’s 10 million Tunisians. We know how to make things work." Many Tunisian men and women are highly educated, hard-working and genuinely motivated to make sure their country is a success story, a model for others to emulate.

As one sign protesters left propped against the embassy fence declared, "Free at last!" But it also warned, "Be aware next president!"