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A year after Ben Ali, Tunisians still seek ‘dignity’

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2012-01-14

Tunisians are commemorating the anniversary of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s ouster with official and unofficial ceremonies. But many Tunisians are still waiting to see the dreams of the world’s first Arab Spring uprising fulfilled.

*Follow FRANCE 24's live blog on the anniversiary of the fall of Ben Ali from 10am (Paris time)

Exactly a year after Tunisian strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali boarded a Saudi Arabia-bound plane with his family, ending more than 23 years of autocratic rule and sparking the Arab Spring uprisings, Tunisians have plenty of reasons to celebrate.

The tiny, relatively homogenous North African nation has been spared the bloody turbulence that wracked Libya and now Syria. Tunisians have elected their own government and the post-revolutionary segue has been relatively smooth – unlike in Egypt. Ben Ali’s dreaded secret police has been disbanded and the country has defied dire predictions that it would descend into chaos.

So when Tunisian officials called on the people to “blow the first candle” of the Dignity Revolution - as the uprising is dubbed across Tunisia - they probably weren’t expecting the call to be received with such high levels of cynicism.

On the eve of the January 14 celebrations, Alaa Talbi, was dismayed as he strolled down Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the grand central promenade in the heart of the Tunisian capital of Tunis.

"When I went on Avenue Bourguiba and saw all the flags and posters announcing that such a ministry, such an office, such a bank, was celebrating January 14, it reminded me of the holidays of the old regime,” said Talbi in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from Tunis.

Reigniting the spark that triggered the uprising

Instead of lighting candles commemorating the anniversary, a handful of Tunisians have set themselves on fire over the past week.

On Wednesday, a middle-aged woman died after setting herself on fire in the eastern Tunisian city of Sfax in the fourth case of self-immolation in a week.

Her death followed that of an unemployed father of three in the central Tunisian town of Gafsa. Ammar Gharsallah, 40, had been staging a sit-in outside the local government headquarters for weeks before he doused himself with gasoline while three ministers in the new Tunisian government were visiting Gafsa.

Gharsallah was demanding a job, or as Tunisians see it, his right to live with dignity. His death was eerily reminiscent of the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, the vegetable vendor whose December 2010 suicide is widely believed to have sparked the Tunisian - and subsequent Arab - uprisings.

With unemployment rising and the country’s critical tourism sector taking a hit following the uprising, life is getting harder for many Tunisians. Jobless figures jumped from 600,000 in 2010 to 850,000 in 2011 in this country of 10 million people.

Official and not so official commemorations

Post-revolutionary Tunisia’s mixed track record could possibly explain the vagueness of the official commemoration schedule for the first anniversary of Ben Ali’s ouster.

January 14 has been declared a national holiday. Arab heads of state invited to the anniversary ceremony include Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of Libya’s NTC (National Transitional Council), and the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani.

A far more poignant commemoration by the families of the victims of Ben Ali’s repression is slated to take place outside the Saudi embassy in Tunis.

The former Tunisian strongman is currently living in exile in the oil-rich Gulf nation, from where he has had several convictions for embezzlement and fraud handed down against him in absentia.

Families of the victims of Ben Ali’s repression are using the occasion to demand Ben Ali’s extradition.

The largest anniversary commemoration in Tunis takes place outside the headquarters of the UGTT, the Tunisian trade union which played a key role in organising demonstrations against Ben Ali.

But the heart and soul of the January 14 commemorations is along the broad, tree-lined Avenue Habib Bourguiba, where, 12 months ago, thousands of Tunisians braved arrest and worse to rise up against a then seemingly omnipotent dictator.

Tunisians may be despairing that their revolution did not immediately improve their standards of living – as they had hoped. But they are keenly aware that their bravery provided a beacon for the region’s democratic transition.

Talbi, the student of history, is determined to mark the historic day by retracing the steps he took exactly a year ago.

He plans to have his morning coffee at the same Tunis café, then walk down the same streets he did a year ago, before finishing on Avenue Bourguiba, outside Ben Ali’s dreaded Interior Ministry building.

"This is not to celebrate a victory. On the contrary, we want to demonstrate that we intend to continue the revolutionary process. We must show we are ready to take to the streets again,” explained Talbi.

Date created : 2012-01-13

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