While neighbouring countries are tackling tough challenges, Tunisia is sipping its future towards democracy without even looking back once. The statement of Riad Chaibi, spokesperson of the Ennahda Party that got 41 percent of the votes in October’s election that atheists and gay people are a reality in Tunisia and they “have a right to exist” is a true example of this hope.
In summer, I had the chance to speak with people in the capital Tunis; to ask and see what the new life is bringing to people. Even months after the uprising, there were remains like manifestations on the walls, guns on the streets and tanks on the roads. I first had a short chat with Mohamed, who works as a taxi driver in the city. I then enjoyed a vivid discussion with Fidaa, a young feminist activist who was among those who lived through the January happenings. Then, I spoke to Lobna, the owner of the smallest store I’ve ever visited in my life. I wish for all of you to now meet Mohamed, Fidaa and Lobna — the lead roles of this piece.
Even months after the uprising, there were remains like manifestations on the walls, guns on the streets and tanks on the roads.
Can you please tell me a bit about yourself and what you do?
Before working as a taxi driver, I wasn’t working. I was unemployed. So I decided to learn how to drive. I took the exam and passed it. I looked for someone who had cars, so I could drive one of them. Because this is not my own car.
What are your hopes right now? Is there anything you are hopeful about? Anything you look forward to? For yourself or for your family.
I hope that in the future I will one day own my own car. That I’ll drive a car that’s mine. And for my family, I wish that we will be able to live in peace. To live in freedom; that’s what I wish before everything else.
Do you believe in those politicians who’re replacing the old ones? Do you see a risk that today’s politicians will take the power and become the next big guys?
The people who are going to take over the power will really have to pay attention to what they’re doing. They’re so controlled by us, the people, so they’re afraid that the same people could do the same thing to them. They know that we really want our freedom.
Can you please share your name with us?
It’s Fidaa. Kind of a symbolic name actually. It means “dying for your country”. For your cause. For someone you love so much. I was named Fidaa because I was born on the day the Palestinian militant Abu Jihad was assassinated in Tunisia. He died for the cause of Palestine on April 16, 1988.
How do you feel about the uprisings? And the international coverage and attention, are you happy about that?
It depends. When they try to understand what’s happening and try to see if they can do anything to help, then it’s good. But if they don’t even bother to understand, if they come with ready-made solutions, and if they try to convince us that what they’re bringing is the thing to do, that doesn’t make me happy at all. I believe that we should come up with our own democratic transition for the situation we have. What we have is not the same that happened in Spain or in South Africa. We should have our own solutions for it.
Have you personally witnessed anything like this before? Your parents, or your grandparents?
They witnessed the independence. It wasn’t long ago that got our independence from France. In 1956, my grandparents lived through the whole thing. Older people are relating what’s happening today to those days. The feeling, the enjoyment. Today is similar to that period.
There are so many people who have lost their lives during this period. Have you met closely with those who lost their beloved ones?
Not long ago, I was in a press conference where they were talking about the mothers of our martyrs and how frustrated they were because they could actually identify the people who had killed their sons. Those people are still at the policemen. This is sad and frustrating. I really cannot imagine how the families feel.
However, getting beaten up was very common during that period. You kind of get used to it. I saw a friend of mine getting beat up. It happened in front of me. For that, you just need a couple of days, then you recover. And go out on the streets again. The police didn’t change after the revolution. The way they think is that they have to do their jobs. They’re trying to pretend that they’ve changed. But that’s going to take a while. Changing the police forces is going to be the hardest thing I believe.
Last night I went downtown in a taxi and the driver was an enthusiastic man named Mohamed. He showed me a massive white building which apparently is the central prison where Ben Ali’s family members are now. Ben Ali himself is not there, but I feel that the life he is living now is not any different from what his family is going through. Do you feel more free now that they’re locked up?
It’s amazing to think of that. What they used to do when the political prisoners were in there, was to just drive by it. They were living their lives. But the thing is that the truly responsible people are not in yet. So this is not enough. We wish that they get what they really deserve. The main crime Ben Ali was charged with is financial corruption. But I believe that what he did to people — his oppression — is worse than financial corruption. So it’s good that some are in prison, but for sure it’s not enough.
What do you wish for your country? Elections, the new constitution, the referendum. How’s all that going to be completed?
It’s not easy to get over 50 years of dictatorship. Ben Ali was not the only dictator we’ve had — first the French colonisation and then years of dictatorship after that. So what I dream of now is not really a democratic state, but rather a democratic society. What I wish for is people to get over the fears in their heads. Because even if the police is not there, people have fears. The real challenge is people being democratic in their families, with their kids, their wives, their parents, and their neighbours. And being open to changes. This is what I wish for. If that changes, everything else will become easy. When the mentality changes, politics won’t be that hard.
What about yourself and your family, what hopes do you have?
One of my wishes has already come true. My father is a politician who’s been involved in the opposition forever. He’s a lawyer and the civil police used to threaten his clients and get into his office regularly. Once, in 2006, they burned down his office. They gave both him and us a really hard time. Now he’s free to do whatever he is convinced of. He’s not having any problems, he’s still politically active and is doing much better now. And I know that he wasn’t the only person living through that; there were hundreds of people like him. A lot of them were in exile and couldn’t come home. It’s amazing to see them live a better life now. They fought for it and finally it happened. But I know that change takes time and democracy will not happen overnight. We have to be patient.
That was my wish and it came true.
Could you give me your name?
So Lobna, you run this place?
Yes. It used to be my grandmother’s place, now it belongs to my uncle who lives in England. I run the place but it’s not mine. My grandmother died, but the place is dedicated to her and bears her name.
Did you feel the pressure of the political happenings back in January? It’s actually right behind the street where you’re located.
No, I didn’t feel that.
What are your hopes for Tunisia today?
Goods are very expensive. And the prices have changed. They should put the normal prices back. It was better before; now, the goods I buy are all very expensive. Since January 14, all prices has gone up.
Do you also have less customers?