How revolt sparked to life in Tunisia
One of the most repressive Arab regimes, Tunisia was thought to be less prone to revolt than its neighbors. But economic, social, political, and demographic currents converged to create a combustible atmosphere.
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It was after those deaths that Ben Ali's regime truly started to crumble. "Killing people made the anger grow and grow, especially in Kasserine," says Chourabi. "The government thought that by killing some people, they would get frightened and stop protesting. But it was just the opposite – they just spread."Skip to next paragraph
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"In those days, we started to really feel that a revolution can happen," adds Jafar Chemli, a Tunis high school student.
Ben Ali's mistakes
As the protests spread and more demonstrators were killed by police, Ben Ali made strategic mistakes in trying to curtail the rebellion. His first speech to the nation, on Dec. 28, was a stern warning. He spoke of the economic impact, said protesting was unacceptable, and threatened to punish the demonstrators.
After that first speech, says Mr. Chemli, "For the first time in my life, I heard people insulting Ben Ali in the cafes and on the street."
On Jan. 10, at the beginning of what would be his last week in power, Ben Ali called the protesters "terrorists," but offered his first signs of being shaken by the unrest sweeping over his nation: He promised to create 300,000 new jobs by the end of next year. But Tunisians scoffed, and the protests grew.
Two days later, he fired his interior minister, who had overseen the violent police attacks on protesters. It was too little, too late. The following day, he was practically on his knees in one last desperate attempt to cling to power.
In a televised address, he spoke to Tunisians for the first time in colloquial Tunisian dialect, promising not to run for reelection in 2014, to conduct investigations into corruption and the killing of protesters, and to allow more freedoms.
Immediately after his speech, the regime turned off its Internet filters that had blocked sites like YouTube for years.
But his plea of "I understand you" fell on deaf ears.
On Jan. 14, thousands of people gathered in Tunis, demanding that he leave.
Mr. Ben Slama was one of them. He left a note at home for his family, telling them this was something he had to do. "For once, we got to do what we have been willing to do for years. I felt peaceful after that, because finally we have done something we should have done years ago."
By evening, Ben Ali was on a plane to Saudi Arabia, and his prime minister had assumed the presidency.
The world will likely never know what finally nudged him out the door that Tunisians had opened wide, but many credit the Army with that role.
The Army chief, Gen. Rachid Ammar, is said to have weakened the president's foundation when he refused to order the Army to open fire on protesters, as the police were doing.
Where does Tunisia go from here?
Ben Ali's departure did not end the struggle. Tunisians are now working to construct a government and a democratic society on the ruins of his 23 years of autocratic rule.
The first week was rocky, with five opposition ministers dropping out of a new unity government and protesters demanding that Ben Ali's whole corrupt system – including his heavily influential RCD party – be removed and the country given a clean slate.
"There is no head of a mafia without a mafia, and that is why we're fighting the current government," said Najah Mahjub, part of a group of protesters who cheered as men tore down the RCD's logo at its headquarters in Tunis. "They have to make us forgive 23 years of corruption."
Indeed, protesters are determined to succeed, despite the fact that the revolution has yet to produce a clear leader who can harness the power of the popular uprising and bring about real change. Having been freed from their fear and found the power in their hands, they are not about to give it up.
"I don't want my brother's blood to have been spilled for nothing," says Samya, Bouazizi's sister back in Sidi Bouzid. "And to demand that, we can use words and violence. I can immolate myself tomorrow if they try to steal these rights from me."
Tunisia in brief
This Berber land was occupied over the centuries by Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Spaniards, Ottoman Turks, and finally the French. It became an independent nation in 1956.
• How big it is
Slightly smaller than Wisconsin, with roughly the same population as Beijing (10.6 million).
• Who lives there
Mostly Muslims; 1 percent are Christians; 74.3 percent are literate, and 2 out of 3 live in an urban area.
• Who's in charge
Has had only two presidents: Habib Bourguiba, who ruled for 31 years, and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who took power in a 1987 coup. Legislature: an appointed Chamber of Advisers and an elected Chamber of Deputies.