Chicago Student Reflects on Tunisian Revolution
by Tara Weinberg, Global Connect Blogger
Amira Kefi, 30, is a student in Chicago. She has wavy red hair and glasses, and she gesticulates wildly when she speaks. Beneath this appearance Kefi carries with her memories from her first hand encounters with the revolution in her home country Tunisia, which took place between December 2010 and January 2011. The revolution ended twenty-three years of rule by Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Kefi describes the revolution in vivid terms. "It was the first time in my life that I heard guns and saw bullets. I used to see movies and see people get killed and injured, but not in real life. I never thought that would happen in my country. The police were shooting people in the streets and using gas. It felt like a nightmare - I couldn't believe it. Personally, I thought it was the end of the world - I felt like everybody was going to die."
Waves of protest began in Tunisia in December 2010, after a vegetable seller set himself on fire in a market in Sidi Bouzid, a town about 200 miles from the capital Tunis.
"We heard it on the radio," Kefi says, "the radio [which was controlled by the government] said the man from Sidi Bouzid was in the wrong. But everybody was laughing at this radio [explanation] - everyone knew what was actually happening. After that incident, we were expecting this revolution and everyone got on top."
Many of Kefi's family and friends took to the streets of Tunis and its surroundings, protesting Ben Ali's corrupt regime. At first, Kefi says the police were wary of shooting protesters in the suburbs of Tunis where she lived.
"There was a lot of press and they were afraid," she says, "but at night, they didn't care. They shot us. My neighbor was shot at home through his window. Other neighbors were also killed. I taught at a high school at the time. In the mornings we went to work at the school, in the afternoon we went out into the streets. The next morning, one of my colleagues wasn't there - he was dead."
Amidst the chaous and killing, Kefi found inspiration in the country’s older women, who encouraged her and other young people to keep fighting.
"Women were more brave than men," Kefi says, "my mothers, old women with scarves … they were in the streets! It was so funny! If you see them, you forget about all the suffering and the people that are dead. Imagine...they left their home, their children...in a conservative country and they were shouting and protesting!"
Since the Tunisian government controlled all of the media outlets and heavily censored art, theater, music, books and other forms of media, young people in Tunisia were forced to find creative ways to coordinate protests. Many created alternative profiles on Facebook to criticize the government and organize demonstrations.
Kefi explains that in her alternative Facebook profile, she took on a fake name, indicated she was a man and used a picture of a dog as her profile photo. She would always log on from public Internet cafes so as not be traced. When Ben Ali’s government caught on to the Facebook trend, they demanded that Internet cafes record the names of everyone who used their computers. But Kefi and her friends got around this by using fake IDs. On Facebook, protesters would use a combination of the English alphabet, Arabic script and numbers to communicate with each other. This garbled language made it impossible for the government to scan Facebook by keywords when trying to track protest activities.
Under Ben Ali’s regime, Kefi says Tunisians had no space to “breathe”. Anyone who spoke out against the government ran the risk of being arrested: “We had this expression – ‘the walls can listen’ – because you could not even criticize the government with your own family, in your own home.”
This lack of breathing space made people willing to sacrifice themselves to the struggle for a better Tunisia. "People in the revolution were like, we wanna die! We are already dead! Imagine someone who has no rights to speak, to move, to do what they want."
Shortly before the revolution, Kefi applied for a Fulbright scholarship to study in the United States because as a PhD student and academic in Tunisia, she felt stifled by the Ben Ali regime. Kefi feels that academics were not valued for their work, only for the money they could bring to the government. "Corruption was in the educational system,” she says, “it really affected me.” The higher up Kefi went in the academic system, the closer she got to being part of the Ben Ali government.
According to Kefi, Tunisians of all walks of life (except perhaps those who benefitted from the Ben Ali regime) suffered under the previous regime. "If only he [Ben Ali] had let us breath a bit in politics. But we could not even offer constructive criticism. No way. Not allowed. So people were blowing, blowing, then they exploded! People exploded!"
Kefi describes the huge relief Tunisians felt as the revolution came to a close. "In the last days of revolution, everyone was breathing,” Kefi says, “The president took the plane on the 14th of January! When he quit it was like a release for everyone. Even though now the country is now in a political and social mess. But as long as that system and dictator went away, everybody has realized you cannot dump the people and treat them in that bad way but say it is the good way. They are not animals. They know what is good and bad."
Kefi arrived in Chicago in August 2011, six months after Ben Ali was deposed, with all her experiences of the Tunisian revolution swirling around inside her. Her reflections of spending most of her life under the Ben Ali regime; the trauma of watching friends and fellow activists die from police bullets; and her hopes for Tunisia’s future, mingled with her reservations about the current government’s ability to negotiate the post-Ben Ali political, social and economic instability.
"The first six months in Chicago, I wasn't able to go out. I was just in my room. I wasn't really able to talk to people. I wasn't ready to communicate. I really felt strange. It was because of what happened in Tunisia. I left the country six months after the revolution and spent thirty years of my life in a corrupted system. And when the system left, I left with it!"
Kefi and her friends are talking about how things should change for the better. They think there will be another revolution. "We are not satisfied even now with the government. We are preparing for the next revolution. It will not be violent or aggressive but something different. Logical and peaceful."
Tunisians are ready to hold their government to account, Kefi believes. She says the revolution made ordinary Tunisians politically conscious in a way they were not before. "Before the revolution we had ten million soccer analysts, after the revolution we have 10 million politics analysts,” she laughs.
Kefi plans to go home after she finishes her studies. Now that being “close to the government” means building up Tunisia, and not complicity in a corrupt regime, she is excited to be part of it.
Amira Kefi’s experience of the revolution in Tunisia sheds light on both the horror and inspiration that can be found in the uprisings that swept North Africa and the Middle East since 2010. Through her journey to the United States, Kefi also joins a long history of immigrants, political refugees, and visitors, who have brought both their painful memories and their stories of hope to the United States.