Newfound freedom gives one Tunisian hope for change

This article was first published in the American Observer.

Tunisians fight for freedom: Young people demonstrate in front of a municipal theater in Tunis on Jan. 22. (Photo by Fahd Daghrir)

Fahd Daghrir first joined the demonstrations that racked through Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, on Jan. 14. It was the day that President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled with an iron fist for 23 years, fled the country.

The 29-year-old design engineer said that day gave him hope for a new beginning for his country, for freedom.

President Ben Ali led one of the most repressive regimes in the region. An interim government is now in power as Tunisia makes its first steps toward democratic elections.

“To be honest, when I go to the street … I was not an optimist [that anything would change],” said Daghrir. “I just want to scream and that’s all. But when I saw the crowds there, when I saw people there … by protesting and by screaming on the street at this time we free ourselves. We feel that something will be different.”

A revolution born on Facebook

The demonstrations first erupted in December in the Tunisian city Sidi Bouzid after a young, college-educated fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire to protest the poor economic conditions. The young man died, and within weeks, the protests spread through the country and into Tunis as people also began to rally against government corruption.

Daghrir said everything began for him on the day he learned via Facebook about the street vendor. And although he said at that time no one predicted the ensuing demonstrations would lead to the ousting of Ben Ali, he excitedly followed the flood of news coming through Facebook and Twitter — “each post, each video and each article,” he said.

“The impact of the information of the videos seen on Facebook or links we followed on Twitter was very, very big,” he said.

Taher Kahel, a Tunisian hair stylist and hair salon owner in Washington, D.C., who has lived in the U.S. for 30 years, said that the uprising for him was completely unexpected. Kahel said that about 18 percent of Tunisians were now on Facebook, which had never happened before.

Although the flood of information coming through Facebook was something new for the Tunisian people, Daghrir said, sharing information about the country’s unrest via social media wasn’t without precedent. He said people posted videos to Facebook two years ago when there was a small uprising in Gafsa and again last August when there was a confrontation between the police and people in Ben Guerdane, but the videos didn’t spread like wildfire as they did after the event in Sidi Bouzid. (Some news outlets reported that videos of the first two events were not posted to Facebook.)

Immediately after Sidi Bouzid, Daghrir said, the government didn’t recognize the potential for social media to organize people. But as the regime caught on, people began to take note of some problems on the social networking sites. For example, some Facebook groups and pages used to organize the protests were blocked. But by using virtual private networks (VPNs) and proxies, Daghrir and others were able to work around the system to post and access information.

“Here in Tunisia,” Daghrir said, “as most of us are young and most of us are always in touch with new technology,” people were able to work around the censors. “This was the gun that we use against government,” he said.

Bloody Weekend

Daghrir said he’ll remember all his life the “bloody weekend” when as many as 14 and possibly more than 25 demonstrators were killed by police in Kasserine and Thala on Jan. 8 and 9.

“The Sunday morning when I heard the news I said to myself this can’t be continued and for sure now this is the begin [sic] of the end,” he said in an e-mail.

It was soon after that weekend the protests came to Tunis. That week Daghrir couldn’t go to the office, so he spent much of his time sharing videos, pictures and links about the protests that were then happening all over Tunisia — not just in Tunis, but in Sousse, Sfax and Kasserine.

On Jan. 14 there was a general strike in Tunis. Daghrir went out and joined the thousands of protestors.

The army was deployed all over the city, he said. It was the same army that had refused Ben Ali’s orders to fire at the protestors, a breakdown in authority that would contribute to the dictator’s flight from the country later that night.

“Army is with the Tunisian people this is for sure and I can understand this. In fact my father is a higher officer in the Army,” Daghrir said in an e-mail.

Daghrir joined a group of protestors in front of the interior minister building. “It was the symbol of terror in this old regime,” he said. “And we know that inside of this building we have some people arrested there. And we know that inside this building we have suffering there.”

He returned home and tried to follow the news on TV with his family. Outside, shopping centers were on fire or looted. Daghrir said he called the police, who said they could not help them and said the people must defend themselves.

A state of emergency was declared in the country and airspace was closed. “[The] situation is really out of control,” Daghrir said in an e-mail.

But that night Daghrir saw on television that the prisoners were released and learned that Ben Ali was leaving the country.

“We felt at that time that … this is the new beginning of the new freedom that we will live next month and next year,” he said.

Daghrir said he hopes one day that the new government — “our government” — makes memorials to all the people killed and all the people jailed in the demonstrations.

Protests on Jan. 22, 2011. Photos by Fahd Daghrir.

A new beginning

The following day was different, Daghrir said. “B. Ali is out and we can really breath [sic] now!!!!” he wrote in an e-mail. “It was the first day with freedom!”

He said some protests are still going on now, but they’re not as big as before. And he said that Tunisians will not give up the revolution on the Internet.

“Every day we have new videos. We have links,” he said.

And now, he said, there is a feeling that the Internet is more free. For websites like YouTube, “We have access directly, no problem with that … The blocked websites, the blocked groups, they start [sic] working again, they start again uploading videos.”

But the main difference between then and now, Daghrir said, is that “we feel people are free now.”

There are some people who “still have the old way of thinking, the old mind,” he said. “They still believe that one day we will come back to the old regime and we will live in it forever.”

People with that mindset have lived most of their lives under the regime of Ben Ali and of Habib Bourguiba before him, Daghrir said. “They don’t believe that we will change 180 degrees.”

But the younger people are no longer scared, he said.

“They feel they can do everything that they want according to democracy,” he said. “[They] think that we can do something, we need to do something, because everybody looking to us here in Arab world.”

Daghrir said that he agrees with people who believe in change. “Now [the people] feel freedom,” he said. “And when they feel freedom, I think it will be easy to them to express those ideas. And in fact, those ideas can grow up our economy, can grow up our society, and can have a new breath to our young people, to our administration, to our schools, to our children.”

He said in an e-mail that it’s unclear yet who the political candidates will be in the elections that are expected to be held, but “for sure, I will not support Islamic party or the communist party.” He said in the meantime he’s confident about the transition government and their ability to establish security and a good economic environment.

“Now we need to build or country, we need to build our economy, and we need contribution from foreign press, and in fact from U.S. press,” he said.

“I like very, very much the U.S.A. and I like very, very much the home that you live your life,” he said. “And for me, what you can do for us Tunisian people is to talk about Tunisia in a good way and to talk about the next future months and the next future years about Tunisian people.”