Tunisia: a revolution for dignity and freedom that can not be colour-coded

29 January 2011

The term "Jasmine revolution" does not capture the meaning of the Tunisian revolt. This was a rejection of politics as usual, of big and dirty business, of EU and US-supported dictatorships.

The fashion over the last few years has been for colour-coded revolts and movements (orange in Ukraine, green in Iran, yellow in Egypt). Yet the Tunisian revolution cannot be colour-coded, in more senses than one.

A minor reason may be people’s disgust with the former regime’s favourite colour, purple, which adorned its buildings and pictures of Ben Ali himself. The country is also known in the Arab world as “Green Tunisia”.  But no green was in sight during the revolution. Rather, the only dominant colour was the country’s flag: red and white. In fact, on all the demonstrations that toppled the Ben Ali regime, the visual impression was that the national football team was playing a crucial game.

Media commentators have referred of course to Tunisia as the Jasmine Revolution. Jasmine is a national obsession in Tunisia. Songs linking Tunisia and Jasmine, by the legendary Hedi Jouini, for instance, are part of the collective memory. The flower along with sun and beaches are lovely images, which managed to enter the marketing machine of mass tourism and mark the country.

It is also a reassuringly safe way of referring to Tunisia's upheaval: it caters to the exotic imaginary, and invokes lab-incubated revolts.  However the term does not capture what this revolt means or the way it came about. This was a rejection of business as usual, of big and dirty business, of EU and US-supported dictatorships.  For when Tunisians rose up, everyone was caught napping: analysts, Middle East policy academics, western governments, traditional media and even the western public, comforted by the smell of Jasmine coming from this Mediterranean resort.

This was a home grown movement whose intensity and speed surprised everyone. As Ezzedine Rebhi, a retired French teacher from Kasserine, explained to the French paper Le Journal de Dimanche the only thing blooming in Tunisia now is Tunisian youth.  This same creative youth of the Tunisian revolution immediately rejected the colour-coding by changing the local song

The smell of my country
Is roses and jasmine
It pleases the eye.

to the more poignant

The smell of my country
Is gas and gun-powder.
It burns the eye.

As accounts of Ben Ali and his allies emerge, the stink of corruption mixed with the stench of death are released. Kasserine, in central Tunisia, bears witness to both and debunks the soft gloss on a revolution that is perhaps best described by Tunisian francophone poet Abdelwahab Meddeb as “Beautiful because it is just and just because it is beautiful”. 

During the past month, beauty was everywhere: flowers on friendly army tanks, candle vigils on the steps of the national theatre, phrases of freedom spelled out by university students using their bodies, songs of protest, acts of solidarity, women ululating in demonstration, poetry, rhyming slogans.  

When I arrived in the town on the morning of January 23, exactly one month after leaving the place, it felt like landing in a liberated city: no policeman was in sight, images of Ben Ali and his purple–colored posters have vanished, acts of solidarity were visible and so was a look of subdued pride.  

Family and friends have been describing the changes to me on skype and by phone, but reality was different. The city smelled of death, and across it, death was on display: in the graffiti; in the daily procession of  enlarged photos of 17 of the 50 residents killed in cold blood ; in the local youth club “recaptured” from the former ruling party, RCD, and renamed Martyrs Club; and in the cemetery located on the Southern outskirts of the city .  

Kasserine is a city of global memories and local death.  But, it was equally clearly, a victorious city.  For in Kasserine, I sensed immense pride and exuberance even, of a victorious youth. And nothing encapsulates this regained dignity more than the slogan sprayed in black paint across white walls in the city centre: “Raise your head up, you are in Kasserine.”  This was a defiant reversal of “Smile, you are in Tunisia”,  the slogan propagated around the world by tourism posters, usually featuring a boy in traditional Tunisian dress offering a bouquet of jasmine.  

To call this a “Jasmine Revolution” falls within the same attempts, coming from those caught napping, to reign in people’s will to break out of all chains, including foreign control and images designed for public consumption or exotic comfort.  

There is something to fear about this revolution: it said NO to western official duplicity about democracy in the Arab world; it gave an authentic voice to people’s dignity; it ushered in the age of citizenship in Tunisia and across the Arab world, after decades of dehumanizing oppression and neglect.  Should it succeed, it will be the beginning of the end of consent and servile acquiescence.  In the words of their poet, Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi, an oracle proclaimed in the early 1930s, the Tunisian people have chosen life and freedom and fate has responded:

If people choose life one day,
Fate will surely respond.
Night will dissipate
And Chains will be broken.

Tunisia is waking up to a “new morning”, to quote its poet again. Something magic is blooming in Tunisia, irrigated by blood and suffering, but also by human dignity and yearning for freedom. No one denies that this has been the most surprising of revolutions in recent memories. For this reason, everyone feels the need to catch up.  The knives are out already, and colour-coding is a symptom of that.  Tunisians call it the revolution of dignity and freedom. And thus it shall be named.        

Mohamed-Salah Omri is Lecture in Arabic Literature and Fellow at St. John’s College, the University of Oxford.