The seasons play strange games in the Mediterranean, especially on its southern most shores. Beautiful springs turn suddenly into freezing winters without any hint of the soft melancholy of autumn and the sweet perfumes of summer. Such an abrupt change of season has happened in Tunisia. Out of season, a heavy dew unexpectedly covering the Jasmine flowers that bloom so vigorously in this country and are the country’s symbol. Fragile and battered but still alive, Tunisia’s jasmine flowers are there to remind us about the strength of Tunisia’s younger generation – their courage, pride and beauty. And this is what film maker Leyla Bouzid, daughter of the acclaimed Tunisian film maker Nouri Bouzid, shows us in her film AS I OPEN MY EYES (A peine j’ouvre les yeux).
Winner of the public prize at the Author Days at the 72nd Venice Film Festival, the film is set in the summer of 2010. It’s just a few months before the Jasmine Revolution, the first of the Arab Spring. Leyla Bouzid film depicts Tunisia under the regime of the former dictator Ben Alì. The climate is one of fear, paranoia and oppression.
“I didn’t want to make a film about the revolution, we must fight against amnesia and forgetting the past. This is also the role of cinema.” (Leyla Bouzid)
An 18-year old girl called Farah is the film’s main character. She’s just graduated from high school and sings in a rock band. Tunisia is her muse:
“My country, land of dust … thirsty, implores the good God … tomorrow we’ll be exiled. I dream about a spark that makes the sky red. As soon as I open my eyes, I picture those who go into exile. As soon as I open my eyes, I see people who are fading away … you hit a wall wherever you go and find yourself continuously on the move …”
At the beginning of the film, Ben Alì has been in power for 23 years. The songs of Farah’s band fall under the magnifying lens of “Big Brother”.
Farah and her friends cross the line beyond the tolerated norm and since then her troubles with the regime begin. She’s followed and attempts are made to intimidate her. Farah’s mother (played by Ghalia Benali, a famous Tunisian singer) attempts to save her daughter from the same fate as had happened to her when she had tried to oppose the regime. Unbeknown to Farah, one of the band members is a government informer.
This takes us up to the summer of 2010. Before the winds of revolution began to blow. Before 17th December 2011 when Mohamed Bouazizi, the most famous peddler in the world, set himself alight as an act of extreme protest.
Bouazizi sets fire to all of his despair. His rage burns. An unemployed graduate like so many young man in Tunisia. To survive he sells fruit and vegetables on the street. The police confiscate his stall. He hasn’t the necessary permits and above all he refuses to pay the protection money.
Bouazizi’s abject poverty makes the police’s abuse of power even more unacceptable. His gesture lights the fires of protest which are soon burning all over the Arab world. It’s a gesture that has changed the history of Tunisia forever.
Resistance to Ben Alì’s regime actually began in Tunisia some years earlier. In a flashback to 2008, the film shows us the revolt of the minors of Redeyef. Farah’s father is one of them, taking part in the 2 months of protests and strikes that preempted the Jasmine revolution.
We now flash forward to 17th January 2016. 5 years have passed and we’re now in the heart of Tunisia in the city of Kasserine, one of the country’s poorest just like Sidi Bouzid, where the Arab Spring began. Another young Tunisian, Ridha Yahyaoui, kills himself due to the same despair that drove Bouazizi to his extreme gesture.
The coastal areas in the north are generally considered to be the motor of the Tunisian economy. In the rural areas in the south, the unemployment rates is double the national average (30% with some areas hitting 50%). However, even the coastal area’s relative prosperity has been seriously weakened by the slowdown in the tourist trade after the terrorist attacks against tourists in the country. 2 million less tourists visited Tunisia in 2016 compared to 2015.
5 years have passed and it seems little has changed. According to official statistics, the lives of many Tunisians like Bouazizi has actually got worse. However, upon closer inspection, a dramatic change has taken place.
Although young Tunisians are on the streets again, their demands are not the same as 5 years ago. Corruption and economic inequalities are still widespread. The influence of the old establishment under Ben Alì is still strong. However, the people’s thirst for representation and political change has at least been met in part.
Against all the odds, the Tunisian people have succeeded in deposing the dictator who has ruled the country for the last 22 years. They have held two free and peaceful democratic elections. Most importantly, the secular and Islamic political forces managed to collaborate in order to approve one of the most advanced national constitutions in the Arab world (the only Arab country to do so until now). Due to this successful political compromise, the country won the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Above all, the country has avoided a bloody civil war and counter-revolution. This risk of this happening was very high in the summer of 2013 after a spree of politically motivated assassinations including Chokri Belaïd, the main left-wing opposition leader, and Mohammed Brami, leader of the movement of patriotic democrats.
It has to be said that one of the reasons why Tunisia managed to avoid following the same path as Egypt was due to the pragmatism of Ennahda (the political wing of the Tunisian brotherhood). This Islamic political force learnt from the mistakes made by their Egyptian sister movement and took a step back to allow the creation of a coalition government after the elections in 2014.
Another reason why Tunisia has been more successful compared to other Arab countries who attempted political and social revolutions during the Arab Spring is because Tunisia had pre-existing institutions who would foster, support and manage change. In this regard, Tunisia with its history of secular and modernizing political forces under Habib Bourguiba has long been at odds with its neighbors in the Arab world.
The country was at the cutting edge even compared to many Western democracies in social reform and women’s rights – legalizing abortion and divorce in 1965. Following the European model, the Unions (General Union of Tunisian Workers) have had a prominent role to play in the political life of the country. Together with other associations in civil society, they continued to co-exist under the and at times in opposition to the Ben Alì regime. They also played a prominent role in the Jasmine revolution.
The military also traditionally played a much less prominent and invasive role in the country’s political affairs compared to other Arab countries, most of all Egypt. Ben Alì didn’t order a brutal suppression of the protests against the regime not because his was better his peers in the region, but primarily because he know he couldn’t count on the support of the military to suppress a popular uprising.
Last but not least, Tunisia can’t boast any oil and his has kept the country safe from external interference as it’s not viewed as a strategic priority.
Today there’s only one thing that young Tunisians fear more than economic stagnation: The return to an authoritarian regime as only antidote against Islamic terrorism. This fear is anything but imaginary given the crackdown (including arbitrary arrests) undertaken by the government against civil liberties in the name of the fight against terror. Tunisia is very much on the frontline of the war against terrorism as it’s the main recruiting ground for Islamic State foreign fighters (more than 4,000 to date). Furthermore, let’s not forget that Tunisia has porous borders with Algeria and Libia.
Protests are spreading across the country but has changed since the Jasmine Revolution are the rules of the game. The revolution has sanctioned public political debate in society, even about those topics that were off limits before such as religion and women’s rights. Although nostalgia for the past is often bubbles to the surface in public debate, the idea of returning to the past is destined to stay a passing temptation. Tunisians have started the process of building a democracy and they’re not going to let this opportunity pass.
Today young Tunisians are still frustrated and angry as yesterday, but now they definitely feel more pride than before. This is the difference between Spring and Winter.