A look back at the amateur images from the Tunisian Revolution
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Ten years ago, on December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor pushed to his limit by police harassment, set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid, a marginalised town in central Tunisia. His act triggered an unprecedented protest movement, which led to the fall of President Ben Ali. The editorial staff of the Observers published images of the demonstrations from the start, even as the authorities denied their existence — all thanks to our Observers.
On December 17, 2010, when the young Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of the prefecture of Sidi Bouzid, it was a small group of trade unionists from the Tunisian General Labor Union [Editor's note: in French, l'Union générale tunisienne du travail, UGTT] who took action, organising a protest in front of the governorate's headquarters. Among them was our Observer Slimane Rouissi, a trade unionist member of the UGTT. Tunisian journalist Sarra Grira recalls:
“I had already known Slimane Rouissi for several months when the December 17 protests broke out in Sidi Bouzid. I had interviewed him in July because he was participating in a sit-in organised by farmers who had been stripped of their land in the region of Regueb, not far from Sidi Bouzid. In fact, Mohamed Bouazizi's uncle was one of the peasants who had been stripped of their land. This story is directly related to Bouazizi's immolation because he had been working with his uncle in Regueb since 2006, and the entire family was forced to move to Sidi Bouzid after the dispossession of his uncle's land.
At the time, this sit-in was an exceptional event, as demonstrations were forbidden under Ben Ali.
I contacted Slimane Rouissi again on December 17, and he sent me amateur images of the protest, which we immediately broadcast on FRANCE 24’s TV newscast. Thanks to him, we were one of the very first media outlets to air images of the revolt, even as the Tunisian public media continued to deny its existence.
It was another Observer, the journalist and political opponent Sofiène Chourabi who has been missing in Libya since September 2014, who gave me Slimane Rouissi's contact details.
Video showing the protests in Sidi Bouzid on December 18, 2010.
Protests in Sidi Bouzid.
Live ammunition shots
Another of the revolution's important moments was the demonstrations that took place in early January in Kasserine and Thala, in the central-western part of the country. These demonstrations were suppressed with live ammunition, a rare act of violence [twenty people were shot dead, according to AFP]. The pictures were terrible; one of them showed a demonstrator with a cracked skull. Blogger Lina Ben Mhenni, one of our Observers [who died on January 27, 2020 after a long illness, editor's note], went to the scene to speak with the victims and their families.
In Thala, security forces fired live ammunition at demonstrators.
Another standout moment in these weeks of revolt was on January 12, 2011. For the first time, the army was deployed in Tunis, particularly around the Jardin du Passage in the city centre. Part of the population was very afraid, because they did not know what the army was going to do — repress or protect the citizens. In any case, people understood that the situation had escalated to a point of no return.
The day of Ben Ali's departure on January 14, I was in Paris, at FRANCE 24’s editorial office. It was frustrating not to be in Tunisia at this time. However, it was very calm in Tunis, as the army had imposed a curfew for January 15, 16 and 17. It was only later that Tunisians began to go out and celebrate.
On February 6 in particular, thousands of Tunisians living in major cities went to Sidi Bouzid to thank the town's residents for having sparked the revolution. It was a moving gesture.
Ten years later, there are still people nostalgic for the Ben Ali era. They claim that "it was better before" because of the order and security under Ben Ali's reign and because socio-economic problems that Tunisia experiences today, like unemployment, did not exist back then. This is false. These problems did exist at the time of Ben Ali, but we did not see them because the deposed president banned demonstrations and censored the media. Today, these problems are visible because every citizen has the right to demonstrate, to express themselves in the media and to film. This is what we call a democracy."