Tunisia faces long haul for restoration and recovery

“We are free to speak our minds now. We got our dignity and freedom back,” »»

“We are free to speak our minds now. We got our dignity and freedom back,” says Mehdi Kanuni, 38, a veterinarian from Tunis.

Pointing out the small, seemingly chaotic shopping square just at the end of the Rue de la Kasba, which stretches through the old city featuring a renowned souk in covered passageways, or Medina as it's called locally, Mehdi Kanuni told Today's Zaman that the revolution was about principles like liberty, freedom and dignity. His wife, Laman Kanuni, a 38-year-old business administrator, agreed with him, saying Tunisia is now a democratic country representing different yet colorful ideologies.

There are others who disagree with the Kanunis, however. A young accountant that looked to be in her late 20s, who gave her name as Sumayya, said nothing has changed since the revolution overthrew the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, exactly one year ago on Jan. 14. “The economy is down. We need more jobs,” she said, adding that she does not feel there is anything special about today, which marks the anniversary of the revolution.

Most Tunisians see themselves in the middle, however, saying they want increased economic activity, with more tourists shopping and spending money in souks, while expressing their joy at the newfound pride and honor brought by the revolution. They understand well that the country is squeezed between hope and despair. The thousands who flocked on Saturday to Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the historic political and economic heart of the capital, shared similar ambivalent feelings about the revolution. Though they were clearly happy to get rid of the decades-long dictatorship, they were also visibly worried about high unemployment, which is almost 20 percent according to official records.

To allay these concerns and a deep apprehension for the future among Tunisians, the country's new president, a human rights activist who lived in exile for the last decade, promised during his speech at the celebration to improve sputtering economic performance. President Moncef Marzouki said the newly elected government would not spare any effort to meet the expectations of the Tunisian people. “Holding former regime officials accountable, rebuilding the economy, attracting more investment and reforming the tourism sector are the demands of the people that we, as the government, will work day and night to achieve,” he said.

The broad Avenue Habib Bourguiba, aligned in an east-west direction, was jam-packed on Saturday with different ideological groups chanting their own slogans. There were no skirmishes among hard-liner Salafis, communists and others. It was, in fact, quite a peaceful and festival-like scene where families brought their kids, with many draped in Tunisian flags. “In the past, people were reluctant to show their patriotism with the waving of national flags because deep inside, it was associated with the repressive regime. But today, it is quite different. They proudly embrace and showcase Tunisian flags to express their pride and dignity. This is something new,” explained Muhammed Adil, a naturalized Turk of Tunisian origin who guided a group of Turkish reporters through the cheering crowd.

Tunisia's uprising began on Dec. 17, 2010, when 26-year-old fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest of humiliation suffered at the hands of the repressive regime. It sparked nationwide protests that ousted President Ben Ali from power and ignited a similar fire in other Arab countries. The struggle has not ended in Tunisia, however. The government, formed last month after free elections held in November, faces economic and social challenges. It needs to create jobs, attract foreign investment and stimulate tourism revenues, an important source of income for the Tunisian economy.

Many foreign dignitaries came to Tunisia on Saturday to join in the ceremonies commemorating the anniversary. Turkey, a close ally of Tunisia, was represented by Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay, who reaffirmed Ankara's commitment to stand by Tunisia during this difficult time. “I said to Minister of the Interior Ali Larayedh that Turkey, as a friendly and brotherly country to Tunisia, is ready to contribute whatever it can to the new government of Tunisia,” he said after a meeting with Larayedh.

There was an outpouring of affection for Turks here in Tunisia. Turks put their mark on Tunisia after ruling the country for more than three centuries. There are strong cultural, historical and religious ties between Turks and Tunisians. People smile and say welcome when they see Turks roaming the streets of Tunisia. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's name is a common household name. It was a blockbuster event when he made an appearance here in September, accompanied by a huge delegation of businessmen and Cabinet members.

Tunisian al-Nahda party Secretary-General and new Prime Minister Hammadi Cibali has already said Tunisia, in its own democratic transition, is following the example of Turkey, which has made highly visible democratic strides over the past decade. This resonates well in the streets of Tunisia. Jasmine, an engineering student, who was on Bourguiba Avenue celebrating the revolution on Saturday night, told Today's Zaman she would like to see her government adopting the best practices from the Turkish democratic experiment. “Turkey combines modernity with Islam and represents modesty and moderation with huge economic and political accomplishments. It inspires us,” she stressed.

There are others who voiced their support for the new Tunisian government. The head of Libya's National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, and the prince of Qatar, Hamad al-Thani, flew to Tunis to attend the ceremonies. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement on Saturday, saying the Tunisian people "will continue to inspire the region and the world." He underlined, "While the road to democracy is long and may not always be smooth, the UN remains committed to working with Tunisia and with all the nations undergoing democratic transitions to help consolidate these efforts towards meeting the legitimate aspirations of their people."

Celebrations were not limited to the capital. There were similar events reported across the nation. In the resort town of Hammamet, some 60 kilometers from the capital, there was a somber gathering on Friday afternoon. The residents of the town not only celebrated the anniversary of the revolution but also remembered their only martyr, Zouheir Souissi, who was killed by a police bullet during a demonstration in the town. Hammamet is also called the Tunisian Riviera because of its famous sunny beaches, a marina filled with luxurious yachts and five-star hotels.

“He was 54 when he got shot and was survived by a son, 18, and a daughter, 14,” Tahar Souissi, his elder brother, told Today's Zaman. “The police covered up the incident. Now an investigation has been launched into it under the new government,” he said. “We burned the police station down and later the president's villa on the coast, hidden away from sight by palm trees,” Tahar Souissi recalled.

The crowd marched from the downtown center toward Martyrs' Square, laying a wreath of flowers there. Zouheir Souissi's son gave a moving speech, and later a picture of his father was tacked to the wall of the old fortress located at the tip of the coastline to remember what happened a year ago today. “We were outraged because of what happened to my brother, and we are still hurting,” Tahar Souissi said. His brother was just one of some 300 Tunisians who lost their lives in a month-long uprising against the authoritarian regime. “Their heroism will not be in vain,” Tahar Souissi vowed.