Where the Arab Spring Began

“Are you Zionists?”

My colleague Armin Rosen and I were supposed to be conducting the interview. Instead, we were put on the defensive before we could even ask our first question.

“Of course not,” I said.

“Nope,” Armin said. “I don’t have a Zionist bone in my body.”

We were at the headquarters for the UGGT, Tunisia’s biggest labor union, in the small city of Kasserine just down the road from Sidi Bouzid where the revolution—and the region-wide Arab Spring generally—began at the tail end of 2010 when fruit vendor Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest crooked and onerous government regulation.

Four men sat in the union office with us. Armin and I wanted to hear about what happened in the early days of the revolt against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s autocratic regime, but they were in no mood to share such information with Zionists.

Our translator Ahmed Medien, a young and—shall we say—more cosmopolitan journalist based in the capital, Tunis, sat with us.

“What if we were Zionists?” I said, directing my question to Ahmed as much as to our interlocutors.

“They wouldn’t talk to you,” he said.

I was annoyed and tempted to say, never mind then, we’re done here. How would they feel if I opened an interview by asking if they were terrorists? Part of me wanted to get thrown out of their office, not because I itch for fights on the job, but because I learn as much from one interview that goes off the rails as I do from six that are predictable. But I don’t sabotage interviews. That’s up to the folks on the other side of the table. And anyway, conversations like this one that merely go wobbly, rather than implode catastrophically, can also be more revealing than typical ones.

Did I lie when I said I wasn’t a Zionist? What’s a Zionist, anyway? A person who thinks Israel has a right to exist? If so, then, yes, I suppose I’m a Zionist, or perhaps just a Zionist sympathizer since I am not Jewish. But these working-class mustachios in Tunisia’s back-of-beyond have another, more phantasmagorical, definition of the notorious Z-word. I’m certainly not a Zionist as they define one. Neither is Armin Rosen.

“We are not against Jews,” said the man behind the desk in whose office we sat, “but Zionists didn’t go to Palestine to coexist peacefully with Arab nations. They went there to take land from Palestinians and kill them. This is not a country that wants to peacefully coexist. This is a country that wants war between Arab nations.”

This is nonsense on stilts, of course, and since he and his colleagues wanted to know if Armin and I support that, then, no, neither of us lied, not really, when we said we weren’t Zionists.

Tunisia is moderate and even liberal compared with other Arabic-speaking countries, but the place still suffers from a heady case of Israel Derangement Syndrome. More than half the people I interviewed complained about Israel at least once even when I didn’t ask about it. Not a single one of these people—not a one—based their complaint in reality. They were jousting with a fantasy Israel that only exists in their minds.

The only thing that filed the edge off is the fact that nearly every Tunisian I interviewed supports a two-state solution and eventual normalization. I was slightly surprised by this, actually. The possibility of one day establishing normal relations with Israel is a hot controversial subject in Tunisia right now. A loud populist movement has been agitating to ban diplomatic relations in the new constitution. (The totalitarian Salafists have gone even further and declared “war” against “the Jews” at public rallies.)

But even the Islamist Ennahda party recently went on the record against the idea. I interviewed two officials from the party and both calmly said the constitution is not the place to regulate relations between states. Most secular liberals and leftists I asked about this were embarrassed and batted it away dismissively the way Americans would if asked by foreign journalists about 9/11 “truthers.”

These unrefined union guys in Kasserine displayed none of the moderation common in the European-like capital.

Tunis, Tunisia

This crowd hates Israel the way Egyptians hate Israel. All support the ban on normal relations with the perfidious Zionist Entity even if peace breaks out years from now. None of them are Islamists. They’re old school Arab nationalists.

After marinating in cosmopolitan Tunis for a few weeks, the attitudes I smacked into in the conservative countryside startled me. For Tunis is an exceptional place. “People here have always been looking westward for democratic political models,” secretary of state Hedi Ben Abbes told me at the ministry of foreign affairs. “We are very close to Europe on the one hand. We are also in Africa. And we’re in the Arab world. This is a privileged position. We look upward and downward, eastward and westward. It makes us open-minded.”

Tunisians who live near the beach really are open-minded, but inland such individuals are harder to find. Coastal people everywhere in the world are reminded constantly by their geography that their own country ends, that there are others out there with different customs and ways. Coastal people also tend to have regular contact with foreigners.

Tunisia's north coast, just a short boat ride from Italy

I have been keenly aware of the existence of China and Japan my entire life because I look toward them and think about them every time I visit the beach in Oregon where I live. I can only imagine how much more keyed in to Asia I’d be if China were only a few dozen miles across a narrow sea rather than thousands of miles across the Pacific. Italy is so close to Tunisia—the Mediterranean bottlenecks where Tunis juts out—that you could drive there in half an hour if a long enough bridge is ever built. Supposedly on a clear enough day you can see Italian islands just off the coast.

In the hinterlands, though, everything and everyone is Arab in every direction. Depending on where exactly in Tunisia one is, Libya or Algeria may well be much closer than Europe. And the kinds of ideas and attitudes I regularly encounter in such places are far more common where the Arab Spring began in Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine than in partially “Westernized” Tunis. The culture in the coastal region in some ways a blend of Arab and European, while that of the countryside is a blend of Arab and Berber. Whatever imprint the Roman Empire and imperial France left there has been diluted to near-invisibility.

Central Tunisia near Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine

A fifth union man loudly barged into the Kasserine UGGT office and asked me a question. He did not introduce himself and I did not get his name.

“I want to ask you something,” he said. “What do you think about what’s happening in Syria?”

He looked me dead straight in the eye. It was clear he wasn’t asking out of idle curiosity. For him, there was a right and wrong answer.

Before I tell you my answer, let me explain something. The US is widely perceived as a supporter of the Assad regime for a couple of reasons. Partly it’s because NATO, after destroying Moammar Qaddafi in Libya, keeps saying military options are “off the table” in Syria. Partly it’s because US President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy made such a big production out of “engagement” and letting Assad out of the dog house that George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac exiled him to when he was thrown out of Lebanon. Partly it’s because Damascus and Washington briefly cooperated during the Bush years after 9/11. Partly it’s because the West backed Tunisia’s Ben Ali regime and even more strongly backed Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Many just assume we’re doing the same thing in Syria. And partly the idea that Washington and Damascus are buddies is the product of general cluelessness and knee-jerk anti-Americanism.

So I assumed the man who asked me what I thought about Syria wanted to know if I was a useful Western idiot for Assad. And I assumed, since his union was instrumental in bringing down the Tunisian dictatorship that he’d also be against Syria’s. And I assumed since he’s at least nominally a Sunni Muslim like nearly everyone else in Tunisia that he’d take the side of Syria’s anti-Alawite and anti-government Sunnis.

But I was wrong on all counts.

“I hope the revolution succeeds,” I told him. “Assad is a murderer.”

He snapped. He yelled. He went wild-eyed and red in the face.

I would have answered his question the same way even if I had known what he wanted to hear. I’ll be damned if I ever pretend to support a mass-murdering terrorist state just to make somebody happy. But still, I was surprised.

“Oh!” said Ahmed, my translator, while the man bellowed in Arabic. “He’s pro-Assad.”

Ahmed was as surprised as I was. The people he knows in Tunis are not pro-Assad. The people I know in Tunis are not pro-Assad.

I did not need Ahmed to tell me what this man was saying, however. It was obvious. Even if I understood no Arabic whatsoever, the man was clearly cheesed off by what I had said. But I do know some Arabic. I don’t need every word to be translated. He went on and on about how the United States blindly supports Israel, that America unfairly opposes the muqawama—the “resistance”—, that former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice described the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah as the “birth pangs of the new Middle East.”

“Don’t even bother to translate,” I said to Ahmed. “I know what he’s saying.” I have heard and read the same screed hundreds of times, not only in places like the cafes of Cairo, but in the comments section of my own blog.

All five men in that room were visibly agitated, not at the man yelling about the awesomeness of Bashar al-Assad, but at Armin and me, and by extension at Ahmed because he worked as our translator. All these guys went red in the face, certain by now that we must be imperialist Zionist pigs as they define imperialist Zionist pigs.

The vibe in that room had turned from touchy to black. “We’re done here,” I said to Armin and Ahmed. Both nodded. They wanted out, too.

I hoped to learn how the revolution unfolded in this part of Tunisia from the union guys, and they did say a few things about that, but the interview started off badly, ended even worse, and I did not find them reliable. They were too dogmatic and axe-grinding. One later posted a paranoid and incoherent rant about me on Facebook because I told him I had an appointment with Faida Hamdi, the woman rumored to have slapped Mohamed Bouazizi and setting the revolution aboil.

Sami Farouk, one of Ahmed’s local friends, did a much better job. We met for lunch in one of the few restaurants in Sidi Bouzid just down the street from where Bouazizi killed himself.

“What happened here after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire?” I said.

Sami Farouk

“The first day,” he said, “people came here to protest with a couple of human rights activists. The police surrounded the area, but didn’t intervene. But then people continued protesting the second, third, and fourth day, the police reacted.”

“They reacted in what way?” I said. “Did they beat people up?”

“Violently,” he said. “They shot people with, what do you call them, the fake bullets.”

“Rubber bullets.”

“And then one day,” he said, “I think it was December 28th or 29th,” they started aiming at people. They fired tear gas canisters into people’s faces.”

He said Bouazizi martyred himself on a day of the week when more people than usual were hanging out and shopping, so there were plenty of witnesses. Mass protests broke out spontaneously. The whole thing was an unplanned human explosion. “The union wanted to channel the protests, but didn’t participate until three days later.”

Only one thing has really changed for the better in Sidi Bouzid since the revolution kicked off, Farouk said. Everyone has much more freedom of expression these days. That’s a huge change, but so far it’s the only tangible one. The economy is in even worse shape than it used to be, a bitter fruit considering that Bouazizi immolated himself to protest the government’s heavy-handed economic repression. Unemployment is as high as 30 percent. Down the road a ways in the city of Gafsa, it’s 40 percent.

“What’s the best someone can hope for in Sidi Bouzid?” I asked Farouk. “If you’re a kid, what’s your goal when you grow up?”

“Young kids look at their older siblings and think oh, nothing can be done here,” he said. “So they give up. A lot of families can’t afford to send their kids to school, so they know early on that they won’t get an education. They know they’re not going to get a good job. Most accept the fact that they’ll never be somebody.”

Sidi Bouzid is basically hopeless, then, in the literal sense of the word.

Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia

Millions of European tourists visit Tunisia every year, at least when they aren’t jittery about an unstable post-revolutionary environment, but they go to the beach in the summer and to the glorious Sahara in winter. Backwaters like Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine in the country’s Sahel region have no pull on anyone. These are places everyone wants to escape from. The triangle on the map between Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine, and Gafsa makes a perfectly logical epicenter for a rage-filled revolution. It’s an angry place. And that anti-government anger spills over to Israel, the United States, and the relatively prosperous cosmopolitan elitists on the coast.

“Does anyone here ever question whether Bouazizi setting himself on fire was the best way to protest?” I asked Farouk. “Sure, it worked, and it started the revolution, but now he’s dead. Could there have been another way? If he were still alive, could all this still have happened?”

“This wasn’t the first time one of the fruit vendors complained and decided to protest,” he said, “but nothing ever came of it. So when Bouazizi set himself on fire it was completely spontaneous. He set everything ablaze. If he had done something less extreme, he might not have produced the same effect.”

“Do people in Tunis care about your problems down here?” I said.

“I don’t think so,” he said.

“That’s true,” Ahmed, my translator, added. He lives in Tunis and ought to know.

Lots of people I spoke to in Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine feel the revolution was stolen from them by the city folks. They sense that most urban Tunisians didn’t much care about the turmoil in the hinterlands until protesters were shot by police in the cities. I don’t know how accurate the assessment is, but that’s how people in the countryside feel, and I heard some self-criticism along the same lines from some residents of the capital.

Most urban Tunisians are no more interested in the rural parts of the country than Upper West Side New Yorkers fret about with the hard lives of coal miners in Kentucky and West Virginia. The poor of Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine are dismissed as peasants and bumpkins. Even some of the people who live in those cities don’t think much of their neighbors.

On a main street in Kasserine stood a disgruntled filmmaker. His name was Tawfik Gassoumi and he announced to everyone within earshot that he was gearing up for a hunger strike.

I had to stop and ask him: what for?

“I work at the cultural institute here,” he said. “I don’t even understand what my job is supposed to be. The institute is corrupt and culture has been deserted. There is no culture in Kasserine. None.”

Tunis is cultured. Really, it is. It isn’t Paris, exactly, but it’s at least as cultured as a mid-sized American city. That’s the kind of place Gassoumi ought to be living and working in. But he’s appalled by a reactionary streak that exists even there. Last year Salafists goons vandalized a movie theater downtown for showing the animated Iranian film Persepolis. God is depicted in that film as a bearded old man. They can’t have any of that.

“There is a campaign against artists and culture,” he said. “It started with the Persepolis film. And here in Kasserine, there are no cultural or art exhibits, ever.”

“Are there no museums, no movie theaters, no bookstores?” I said. “Don’t you have bookstores at least?” I hadn’t been in town long and hadn’t noticed one way or the other.

“We have a cultural complex here with libraries and anything else you can think of, but no one ever goes there. We have no strategy for the promotion of art and culture.”

It’s not the government’s fault if people don’t want to go there. So what was he thinking? That he wasn’t going to eat until his neighbors watched a play or looked at some paintings?

“So,” I said, “what are you going on a hunger strike for, exactly?”

“I resigned from my job,” he said, “because there is no strategy to promote culture in Kasserine and I think it’s intentional.”

“But if there’s a cultural complex here and no one wants to use it,” I said, “ what can the government do?”

“The cultural complex is corrupt,” he said.

“Have any Tunisian journalists talked to you about this?” I said.

“Two local journalists talked to me. There are more coming from Tunis.”

I wished him the best of luck, but his cause seemed more than a little Quixotic. Dude is starving himself because his neighbors are philistines? His best bet is to move to Tunis, New York, or Paris.

Cafe in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia

Armin and I headed to a café for a little vox populi. Few journalists enjoy scouting for random people to interview, but sometimes it’s necessary and sometimes it’s interesting.

The first guy who agreed to talk to us, a local resident named Mohamed Abdouli, was a communist.

“You are Americans?” he said. “You hate communists?” He laughed and slapped my knee.

“Well,” I said, “I’m not a communist. Let’s just leave it at that.”

“I’m from here originally,” he said. “And I’ve been a communist since 1987.”

He thought it was a good idea to become a communist after perestroika? I couldn’t shake the feeling that if all of Tunisia was like the poverty triangle, if cities like Tunis, Hammamet, and Sousse were lopped off, that the country would be just like Egypt.

“Okay,” I said. “Since you were a communist in 1987, I’m curious what you thought when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.”

“After the death of Stalin,” he said, “communism drifted away from the kind I believe in.”

Mohamed Abdouli, Tunisian Stalinist

I instinctively leaned away from him, just as I would have if he said he was a Nazi. Does he know Stalin killed more people than Hitler? Does he care?

“When the Berlin Wall fell,” he said, “the Soviet Union was just another imperialist country. It didn’t really matter to me. There was no sense of joy in the Soviet Union anymore after Stalin died.”

Armin and I looked at each other in a kind of amazement, as if we had uncovered a dinosaur fossil on the beach or an intact vase at one of the country’s Roman ruin sites.

A Roman arch just outside Kasserine, Tunisia

“So you’re a Stalinist,” I said. “Specifically, you’re a Stalinist.”

“Yes,” he said.


“In the actions here recorded,” Robert Conquest wrote in his gut-wrenching book, Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine, “about 20 human lives were lost for, not every word, but every letter, in this book.” And that book focuses only on collectivization and famine in Ukraine.

“They had gone over the country like a swarm of locusts and taken away everything edible,” Malcolm Muggeridge wrote of Stalin’s genocidal enforcers of collectivization. “They had shot or exiled thousands of peasants, sometimes whole villages; they had reduced some of the most fertile land in the world to a melancholy desert.” 

This is the kind of communism Abdouli believes in.

Vasily Grossman’s novel Forever Flowing includes one of the most devastating descriptions of the deliberately engineered Soviet famine that I’ve ever read. “In one hut there would be something like a war,” he wrote. “Everyone would keep close watch over everyone else. People would take crumbs from each other. The wife turned against the husband and the husband against the wife. The mother hated the children. And in some other hut love would be inviolable to the very last. I knew one woman with four children. She would tell them fairy stories and legends so that they would forget their hunger. Her own tongue could hardly move, but she would take them into her arms even though she had hardly any strength to lift her arms when they were empty. Love lived on within her. And people noticed that where there was hate people died off more swiftly. Yet love, for that matter, saved no one. The whole village perished, one and all. No life remained in it.”

“Why Stalinism?” I said to Abdouli. “There are different kinds of communism. Why that one?”

“Stalin’s leadership was for the people,” he said, “not for the bourgeois class, not for individuals, just for the people. If we had a dictatorship for the people here and not just for some people’s interest, things would be different. There wouldn’t be bourgeois people who have everything and poor people who have nothing. We would have a more homogenous society.”

“You are not a democrat,” I said.

“I am a communist fundamentalist,” he said.

What did he think of the revolution against Ben Ali? Communists wait and yearn and wait and yearn for revolution, and this guy finally got one.

“It was successful insofar as we have freedom of expression,” he said. “We have some new liberties.”

He’s a Stalinist, yet he’s grateful for freedom of speech and other assorted liberties. Oh, the cognitive dissonance.

“But when it comes to other things,” he continued, “like jobs and the economy, the Islamists are incompetent. They won’t lead this country to success after the revolution. We communists want to help this country succeed.”

He dislikes American foreign policy, natch.

“Ennahda has a lot of help from the imperialist powers,” he said, “such as the USA. We are against that. You are not welcome here.”

He laughed when he said Armin and I were not welcome to telegraph that he was just kidding, but, hmm. I felt more than welcome almost everywhere I went in Tunisia, but some cold winds blew in my direction from the poverty triangle where all this business got started.

“Why be a member of the communist party,” I said, “instead of the Progressive Democratic Party or one of the other secular left-wing parties? You have plenty to choose from.”

“They’re bourgeois parties,” he said.

“What’s wrong with bourgeois parties?” I said. “Armin and I are bourgeois.”

“We can’t have a real revolution as long as the bourgeois people still control everything.”

I did run into one educated man down there, though, whose life is not hopeless and who found a decent job in town for himself. He’s a high school economics teacher and therefore part of Abdouli’s dreaded “bourgeoisie.” And his views on what troubles the country are far more in line with Mohamed Bouazizi’s quasi “libertarian” critique than the Stalinist’s.

“Bureaucracy here is just terrible,” he said and gave me an example. “Transforming agricultural land to an industry site requires two years of paperwork.”

“What’s happening during that two years?” I said. “Is the paperwork just sitting on somebody’s desk? Do you have to pay bribes at each step?”

“No,” he said. “There is just a lot of paperwork, a lot of bureaucracy. And the people who work in the government don’t like to do their jobs. They just sit around on their asses.”

Sidi Bouzid’s local Stalinist agitator would surely ramp up the bureaucracy and regulation to world-crushing levels if he had the power. That’s what communists do. When have they done the reverse? Only when they realize that Marxist economics are sand-poundingly stupid—as in China and Vietnam—and move to roll it all back.

“The civil society is trying to pressure the government to make things happen faster,” the economics teacher said. “Partly this is Ennahda’s fault. They resisted Ben Ali, but none of their people in government know what they’re doing. Their ministers spent too much time in jail, sometimes in solitary confinement. They have no experience. Our biggest problem right now is Ennahda. The Islamists are completely incompetent.”

The great mosque at Kairouan and Islam's fourth holiest site, after Jerusalem

Ennahda has hurt itself lately and lost some big fights. In the nation-wide university elections this year, the secular, left-of-center, and non-communist General Tunisian Student Union (UGET) won 250 out of 284 seats. And the Islamists preemptively caved on the issue of Islamic law, or Sharia, being declared the basis of government in the new constitution. Too few Tunisians want to become Saudis on the Mediterranean.

The country is lucky. If it were as large as Libya and Algeria and included vast hinterlands, it might not be quite so exceptional. The coastal region would be an enclave like Kurdistan in Iraq. Tunisia, though, is tiny for North Africa. Its backyard barely extends beyond greater Tunis-Carthage. If it does manage to emerge as something resembling a democracy, it will be thanks to the Europe-facing sea-bound region that “stole” the revolution from the poverty triangle where it began.


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