TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisia on Thursday commemorates the 10th anniversary since the flight into exile of iron-fisted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, pushed from power in a popular revolt that foreshadowed strife and civil war in the region, known as the Arab Spring.
But there will be no festive celebrations marking the revolution in this North African nation, which was ordered into lockdown to contain the coronavirus.
The tree-lined Avenue Bourguiba, the main artery in the capital city of Tunis, which became a center of the uprising, may well be deserted if citizens respect orders to stay home. Demonstrations and gatherings are banned for four days starting Thursday, although there was no guarantee the rules would be respected.
“After the political lockdown, it’s the turn of the health lockdown,” said one shopkeeper, Ahmed Hassen, who said smilingly that the situation looks like “the revenge of Ben Ali.”
Ben Ali ruled for 23 years over a system that instilled fear in many Tunisians, deprived of a free press, free speech and other liberties. He fled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, 2011, amid a snowballing rebellion marked by violence, rampant pillaging and incessant calls to “get out.”
Ben Ali died in 2019 in exile.
The revolution was unwittingly sparked by a desperate act of a 26-year-old fruit seller, Mohammed Bouazizi, who set himself ablaze on Dec. 17, 2010, to protest police humiliation in a town in the neglected interior of the nation, Sidi Bouzid. His death unleashed simmering discontent and mass demonstrations against poverty, joblessness and repression. That in turn ricocheted beyond Tunisia, triggering what is known as the Arab Spring uprisings with crackdowns and civil wars in the region.
In Tunisia, joy and revenge marked the start of the post-Ben Ali era, with protesters tearing down the omnipresent posters of Ben Ali and invading the luxurious home of the president’s brother-in-law, Belhassen Trabelsi. The Tunis train station was burned down, tear gas flooded Avenue Bourguiba and other neighborhoods of the capital and helicopter gunships flew low over the city. More than 300 people were killed. Nevertheless, the chaos was contained.
A budding democracy grew out of the aftermath of the Ben Ali era, but a pall of disenchantment hangs over the country, marked by extremist attacks, political infighting, a troubled economy and promises unfulfilled, including development of the interior.
Despite guaranteed rights, numerous democratic elections, protests flourish, especially in the central and southern regions where the jobless rate among youth reaches 30% and the poverty level is above 20%. According to the Tunisian Forum of Economic and Social Rights, more than 1,000 demonstrations were counted in November alone. Months of sit-ins paralyzed oil and phosphate production, a key resource, for months, putting holes of billions of dollars in the budget.
Tunisians have held numerous democratic elections, for mayor, parliament and president, notably putting a constitutional law professor, Kais Saied, into the presidential palace in 2019.
The Tunisia of today “joins advanced countries” as far as democracy is concerned, said Najib Chebbi, founder of the Progressist Democratic Party, the main political opposition under Ben Ali.
“The Tunisian people have political rights, but are still waiting for their demands for dignity and work to be fulfilled,” he said, alluding to the revolutionary slogan of demonstrators crying out, “freedom, jobs and dignity.”
Analyst Slaheddine Jourchi said that what has been accomplished in the decades since the revolution “is far from answering the population’s demands, especially expectations of youth — the backbone of the revolution.”
“The revolution needs a deep evaluation,” he said.
For Chebbi, the opposition leader of the past, “Tunisia sits on a volcano and risks going off the rails.”