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Tunisians reluctantly remember the revolution, if at all: “it just passed out”

LE KRAM, Tunisia – When part of one of Tunisia’s only monuments to its 2011 revolution disappeared earlier this year, few people noticed.

Some residents of Le Kram, a suburb of the capital, Tunis, say the plaque with the names of eight residents killed during a protest was smashed by a person with mental illness. Others say a passing drunk was to blame.

Whatever happened, the real story is, no one bothered to fix it.

“This place has not been maintained, as you can see,” said Aymen Tahari, 40, owner of the struggling nursery facing the monument and, about two weeks ago, its self-appointed keeper. “For the first year after the revolution, there was kind of support from everyone, but then he faded away.”

A decade later, Tunisia remembers its uprising – which sparked the region’s shocking protests that became known as the Arab Spring, toppled a dictator, and ushered in the movement’s only remaining democracy – with a sort of reluctance bordering on hostility, the euphoria of that time died out a long time ago.

On January 14, the tenth anniversary of the day the dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country, there was no official tribute, only more protests against Tunisia’s endless economic decline.

More than memory, there is regret.

The revolution has met little, if any, of the hopes it raised in terms of economic opportunity, accountability and an end to corruption, many Tunisians now say. This decade of disappointment with their elected leaders is why many Tunisians supported the events of that July, when President Kais Saied ousted parliament and seized power, precipitating a political crisis that still rages in the country.

“The revolution is now history,” Tahari said. “Now we are moving forward. “

In 2019, the mayor of Kram tried to immortalize his part in this story, choosing for the location of the memorial of the killed a roundabout surrounded by a half-empty cafe, the shell of a parking lot, a car dealership and a cheap hawker stand. hand bags. In the middle of the roundabout is dried grass, and in the middle of the grass stands a black metal spike, the Tunisian flag fluttering at its end.

One recent morning, Mr. Tahari was pacing the roundabout with one of his nursery workers, discussing plans to pick up cigarette butts and water the grass.

No one had asked him. But the municipality was short of money, everyone was lacking in will, and he thought it would be a good thing to do. He said he hadn’t given much thought to honoring the martyrs, as Tunisians call them.

Not that he reduced their sacrifice. In 2011, he said, Ben Ali’s repression and corruption made revolution inevitable and bloodshed inevitable.

Yet Tunisia, once awash with number 7 clocks in honor of the November 7, 1987 coup that brought Ben Ali to power, clearly lacks monuments to those who shot him down.

Officials said such monuments had to wait for a government-approved list of the dead and injured, which was only released last March after a decade of pleas from the families of the victims over bickering over who constituted a “martyr” and accusations against this former – sympathizers of the regime obstructed the work.

The few tributes that do exist are put in place by local governments or, often, by families at their own expense.

“We weren’t interested in the details of the official list,” Le Kram mayor Fathi Laayouni told an interviewer last year. “We know our martyrs very well and we have taken the initiative to alleviate the pain and suffering of families.

The memory of the revolution is constantly contested.

Tunisia’s post-revolutionary Truth and Dignity Commission has spent years gathering evidence of crimes committed under Ben Ali and his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, only to face obstacles in prosecuting the perpetrators. After being kidnapped in 2011, a statue of Bourguiba triumphant on top of a horse returned in 2016 to its namesake avenue in downtown Tunis, the same street where thousands of Tunisians chanted for Ben Ali to “Leave!” “

Walking down the avenue, no one would guess that the square near the statue is supposed to be called January 14, 2011. There is no sign.

It would be easy to blame the supporters of the old regime in power. But many Tunisians have much more nostalgia for their ex-dictator than for the revolution that overthrew him.

If Ben Ali had continued to govern as he did in his first years in office, “he could have stayed,” said Sondes Kouni, 55, from the coastal town of Sfax, who was crossing the Kram roundabout. . She had not protested in 2011, but had finally been persuaded that Ben Ali had to leave.

Those who were killed while protesting “did not die for nothing,” she added. “But then there were some mistakes that weren’t supposed to happen.”

According to Tahari and many others, Tunisia’s post-revolution rulers had done little but enrich themselves and their friends.

Perhaps no one has a greater cause for bitterness than the families of the dead.

The black tip of Le Kram is not the only commemorative monument in the district to those killed; a simple block of marble was first erected by their families. Inscribed with the eight names, it stands in front of its larger cousin in the roundabout.

The municipality holds quiet commemoration ceremonies at the large monument, but only families come to the small one.

“We did it to keep their names,” said Saida el-Sifi, 63, whose son Chokri el-Sifi, a gas station worker, was 19 when he was shot dead during the protests. .

Adorned with at least a dozen photos of Chokri, large and small, the family home itself is a sort of monument to him. The family moved there after his death, claiming what had been state property, and hung a plaque outside the gate proudly announcing it as the home of a revolutionary martyr.

Despite attempts to evict the government, they have lived there ever since. Ms. El-Sifi considers that it is her right, having sacrificed her son for Tunisia. Now she expects Mr. Saied to keep the government’s promises made to families at the time, and never kept: bring the shooters to justice and compensate the survivors.

“I still support the revolution, but the last 10 years it has been a mess,” she said. “We really hope that Kais Saied, now president, will solve the problems, save the country and bring us justice.”

Passing the roundabout on the way back, Arbia Jneihi, 46, often stops by the name of her husband, Nouri Sikala, a carpenter who was shot while demonstrating on January 13, 2011. He was 30 years old.

“When I see her name, I go back in history, I go back in my memories,” she said. “We could have had a normal life, we could have had children. But it was all a dream.

Mr Sikala had protested because of all the official mistreatment he had suffered, she said: brutality by the police, insults at the town hall. The streets of the Kram were full of aggrieved people like him, torching the police station, burning tires. In some places you could still see the marks.

But Ms Jneihi, who has a low-level government job – one of her few survivors’ allowances – said she had joined the revolution more “to go with the flow.”

It had only brought him regrets.

“I wish he hadn’t come out. I wish the revolution hadn’t happened. In fact, at one point I wish I hadn’t met him at all, ”she said. “We had a hope, we had a dream, but it just remained a dream.”

Despite all his broken promises, Mr. Tahari says he still believes in the ideals of the uprising.

“We have shown,” he said, “that it’s the people who have the power.

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