An Introduction to the Jasmine Revolution: The Tunisian Precursor to the Arab Spring

By Lindsey Wainwright
Superchief Contributer

I moved to Belleville, the traditional immigrant neighborhood of Paris, in 2009. It’s lively and diverse and covered in graffiti. It is also a part of the radical leftist “red belt” that has extended in a curve around the eastern edge of the city for over 100 years. Living there was pretty sweet. One day I was walking down rue Oberkampf with an Algerian friend, and at the crossroads with rue Moret, he turned to me and said, “Bienvenue en Afrique” (Welcome to Africa). This was mostly true. After that junction you’re more likely to see Algerians, Tunisians, Libyans and Senegalese than your typical French Parisian. The European people you do see are usually old hippies, druggies, street punks with their dogs, and the occasional paranoid “bobo” (bohemien bourgeois, i.e. hipster).

In the heart of Belleville, on rue Denoyez, there is a small Tunisian cafe that ignores the EU indoor smoking ban. Provided you’re fluent in French or Arabic and comfortable in a room full of arab men, you can go there in the evening to get a small glass of home brewed mint tea and a bar of hash and chill out. Between my arrival in the area in 2009 and my departure in late 2011, the cafe’s clientele (and hash quality) increased exponentially. Tunisian refugees were flooding into Paris in wake of the Jasmine Revolution and finding out that perhaps they were not much better off in Europe.

These same cafe-goers held weekly protests (and an illegal open-air market) outside of the Couronnes metro station at the top of rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud. They did this to bring attention to their people’s struggle, which is not limited to those in Tunisia, but extends to those who have entered Europe and have been unsuccessful in securing working papers.

Having now returned to the U.S., I am shocked at how little discussion there is about the Jasmine Revolution. This is, in part, due to the rampant racism against arab peoples that has been escalating in this country since 9/11. With this article, I hope to open up a conversation about the international nature of social movements in a globalized society so that informed global citizens can stand together, foregoing the divisions of race, gender, religion and politics in favor of solidarity. This article is about the Jasmine Revolution, which is said to have started in December of 2010 with the self-immolation of a fruit merchant by the name of Mohamed Bouazizi.

Mohamed Bouazizi of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia is known as one of many martyrs of the civil unrest that has spread to much of the world in the form of the Arab Spring, the Acampada and the Occupy Movement.

Bouazizi, a 26 year-old man with a college degree, was trying to eke out a living as a street vendor. However, police often interfered with his means of income, confiscating the produce from his illegal stand. When he tried to explain to police that this work was necessary to provide for his family, he was met with insults and destruction of his merchandise.

On December 17th, 2010, Bouazizi self-immolated in front of a municipal building in protest of a life defined by precarity. His symbolic gesture launched a wave of riots in the Southern Mediterranean, known as the Jasmine Revolution or Arab Spring.

Participants in the Jasmine Revolution acted quickly to overthrow Tunisian dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, a man known for his corruption, oppressive politics concerning women, media control tactics and bulging bank roll. In January of 2011, less than a month following the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, Ben Ali along with his wife, originally Leila Trabelsi, were forced to flee Tunisia for Dubai. In a drastic pre-exile measure, Trabelsi looted 1.5 tons of gold (59 million dollars worth) from the Tunisian Central Bank.

Buckling under long-term government corruption and a declining relationship between citizens and law enforcement officials, Tunisia plunged into a period of violent, sometimes deadly rioting now known as the Arab Spring. Many Tunisians, fearing for their lives and having lost everything they had, have gone into exile. The exodus of Tunisian refugees funneled mainly through the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, located in the Mediterranean Sea about 70 miles east of Tunisia and about 100 miles south of Sicily. Refugees spent weeks, even months on the island, exhausting its limited supply of resources and awaiting a chance to obtain European papers or to secure clandestine transportation across the Mediterranean. Others were turned away, forced to return to violence, poverty and misery.

For those able to cross the Mediterranean, quality of life has not necessarily improved. In Paris, France, despite efforts of the local population to open abandoned buildings to lodge Tunisian refugee collectives, police forces are cracking down and evicting squat after squat. Due to the failed attempts of the Parisian population to secure lodging for the refugees up against the xenophobic French Police State led by right-winger Nicholas Sarkozy, some otherwise open-minded Tunisians have been forced to turn to extremist religious organizations for support.

This was a change which I personally noticed in my neighborhood in Paris in 2011. Some educated, young tunisians who arrived speaking French have now given up all hopes of integration. Now they speak in Arabic and only within the muslim community. In certain areas in Paris, Tunisian women are rarely seen outside. Rumor has it they are confined indoors due to religious oppression and the fear of being caught without immigration papers. The lack of French government support has prompted certain refugees to choose the path of religious indoctrination.

In July of 2012, over six months after the exodus, Tunisian refugees denied working papers were evicted from their squat in a public gymnasium by over 100 police officers on rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. With nowhere else to go, many of the refugees were forced out onto the streets.

In December of 2010, western countries including the United States and several members of the European Union, publicly denounced the behavior of Ben Ali and Trabelsi and openly supported Tunisian revolutionaries. Yet, in 2012, these same countries have refused aid to the people affected most by the regime. In fact, more often than not, Tunisians in exile are met once again by violence and precarity.

When involved in a social movement, it is important to be educated about its history. Although the first ripples of distress in the Mediterranean are said to have been felt in Greece in 2007/2008, the Jasmine Revolution is an essential part of understanding the global scale of current resistance against greed and corruption.

Last Thursday I participated in my first General Assembly at the Wall Street location. Although much of the discussion proved to be very valuable, I noticed a general lack of awareness about the international presence of the movement. This was very much unlike what I had encountered during my participation in Occupy La Defense in Paris. It is in part a result of the nationalistic focus and control
of the American media. It is also affected by US geographic isolation, which discourages the dissemination of information across borders. In times of worldwide civil unrest, the history and diversity of this revolutionary movement may be our greatest strength. It is therefore essential to be educated about goings-on in countries such as Tunisia, Greece, Egypt, Spain and France. Their inhabitants were some of the first to flood the streets to clash with the police in protest.

I’d like to leave you to think over these ideas to the tune of this 1995 French hip-hop classic about killing cops.

Happy listening.

Que la lutte continue avec rage et joie!

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