“I am free” declared Slim Amamou in a Tweet that was shared around the world hundreds of times within minutes. Slim is a Tunisian blogger who was jailed in Tunisia in the midst of massive anti-government demonstrations he was vocal about like many other tech-savvy Tunisians.
On January 6, he wrote messages on Twitter indicating the police were after him. He elevated his “threat level to Orange” in one of the tweets, then in another he said that the police are lurking around his house and that he received a call in the office. His silence on Twitter was broken only by a message he sent out via Google Longitude indicating he's in jail. News of his arrest spread like wildfire among those following the Tunisia uprising closely on the social networks. Early Thursday, an Egyptian activist sent out a plea to journalists to highlight Slim's plight. What happened between the earlier tweet and Slim's message of freedom is where the real story lies.
Since December, Tunisians didn't give up and shrugged the fact that western and Arab media snubbed their uprising for weeks. They carried on with the little they had, unarmed against an armed police force that didn't hesitate to shoot at them. They paid with their blood - As of this writing more than twenty people have been killed and scores more injured. In my last blog post on December 30, I wrote about President Zein El Abedine Ben Ali's speech in which he threatened to “punish the rioters.” Despite the presidential threat, and despite the fact that no independent media outlets were getting the world any accurate and balanced reporting on the situation, Tunisians carried on with their uprising. They documented their actions using their mobile phones and shared what they have through a Tunisian online community that quickly gained support from Arabs and their friends in the Middle East, Europe and around the world.
Tunisians, with their consistent and loud voices were able to attract the attention of some of the world's media and clinched some global reactions. Most importantly, their resilience brought their President of 23 years to speak again today and make promises that some have already described as “too good to be true.” Mister Ben Ali who ruled his police state with an iron fist and never allowed dissent or any expression of opposition, promised today to allow people to express their political dissent and demonstrate peacefully. He said he already ordered that “prices of essential goods such as, sugar, milk and bread” be reduced immediately. He promised freedom for all media outlets. He insisted, “There will be no shutting down of Internet sites” and he rejected “any kind of censorship against them” as long as they don't violate Tunisia's principles and ethics he said. Mister Ben Ali also told his nation that he is no longer interested in seeking more terms in the presidency. “There is no presidency for life, no presidency for life” he repeated. He then thanked all those who “urged me to run in 2014” but made it clear that's not something he will pursue. Instead, he said, he would like to see “a true national participation in responsibility and government.” He then moved on to say that “Tunisia is for all Tunisians. All its citizens love her and for that, “let its people's will remain in her hands.”
Today's speech was loaded with reasonable and positive rhetoric. It makes one wonder what took President Ben Ali twenty three years to think it, feel it and utter it. For those who have been monitoring the situation since mid-December when a young grocery seller torched himself and started what is now very close to being the first genuine popular uprising in the entire Middle East, the answer is simple: ‘Tunisian People Power'
For the Arab world, a dream to many, a nightmare to a few, an envy to some and certainly without any doubt a life lesson to all.
I believe the most powerful line came at exactly 4 minutes and 54 seconds into the speech, “From this day forward, the door is open for freedom of political expression including the staging of peaceful demonstrations, civilized demonstrations.” In one line, the authoritarian leader admitted guilt of past intolerance and introduced a new stance on freedom of expression. This new stance, coupled with his body language, tone of voice and fresh rhetoric are proof of what ordinary Tunisians were able to achieve in the past few weeks.
Now we wait to see what Tunisians will do with the change they successfully imposed. Will they accept their president's plea or do they have bigger designs and the right people in line to implement them? Will new leaders emerge out of this people's cry for change?
To say these are interesting times for the Arab world is an understatement. Depending on where things go from here, these could be historic times. If not, and despite the bloodshed and loss of life, Arab activists have qualified them as the best of times for freedom-seeking. They will remain as such at least for a while.
Symbolic lines from today's Ben Ali speech:
- “I understand you.. Yes I understand you. I understood everyone, the grocery man, the needy, the politician and those asking for more freedoms. I understand you and I understand everyone.”
- “We have to put our hands together to stop the violence.”
- “The change that I'm announcing here today is in response to your demands. I am deeply hurt by the latest events. My sadness and my pain are deep. I spent fifty years of my life serving Tunisia in various positions and twenty three years as the head of the nation. I spent every day of my life giving this country. I gave sacrifices which I'm not going to enumerate. You know them all.”
- “As far as the political demands, I understand you. Yes, I understand you.”
- “The new committee overseeing fraud will be independent. Yes, it will be independent.”
- “I will work on supporting democracy and activating pluralism.. Yes, supporting democracy and activating pluralism.”