What made you want to be an activist?
I was an exchange student in the States back when I was 16. It was 2008, an election year, and I took a government class. I realized that the things that are written in the Constitution can materialize. I volunteered with Obama’s campaign, and afterwards, when I went back to my country, that’s when I started being a little bit bolder.
What was your reaction to Bouzazi’s suicide?
I learned that the riots were happening first, and when I asked what sparked them, I was told of his death. To be honest, I did not grieve him much at the time, because I was excited that after so many years of stability and silence, people were acting.
You make it sound like there isn’t a culture of protest in your country, and yet the revolution seemed to have happened very quickly. It’s incredible how fast Ben Ali relinquished control. How did that happen?
It does seem fast now, but while it was happening it seemed like an eternity. Many scholars are unable to identify the shift that led to the change in behavior. Self-immolation had happened before. Maybe it was a peak of unemployed, angry youth.
It’s true that during the 50 years we spent with Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali we did not have a culture of political participation. But Tunisia has a lot of history in pioneering social movements. For example, we banned slavery before the United States, and we were the first Arab country to ever have a constitution. We were the first Arab country to ban polygamy, and we were the first Arab country to make legal abortion available to women in cases where it isn’t deemed “medically necessary.”
I would say the technological revolution played a part in the education of the people. One didn’t have to read or look for information on purpose. They could just be goofing off on Facebook, and they would be exposed to the violations that were going on regardless of their desire to know about them.
A lot was made in the Western press of this being a social-networking revolution, because of Twitter and Facebook—did you feel like that was crucial to its success?
Thanks for asking this! The internet was there to document and spread the efforts being made. People used it to gather information, and to learn exactly what we were fighting against. Word of mouth would have taken much longer. But most of the work was happening on the ground. If people had just stuck to their computer screens, the revolution would not have happened. It’s actually kind of offensive that all the credit is given to Facebook and Twitter.
Right. I feel like in the U.S., there is an internet culture where people think they are doing their part by re-tweeting something, or posting on Facebook, but the physical act of congregating isn’t happening so much.
Yeah, you’re getting awareness, but you are not getting change.
So how did you get involved in the demonstrations that helped oust Ben Ali?
I am from Sousse, the same city as Ben Ali. While the revolution was going on, my city was slacking in terms of participation, because it’s the city of the president, and we had a lot of police presence. In our neighboring city, there was a lot of police violence against the citizens. The day I was arrested, there was a soccer game, and our team won, which is like science fiction, because they always lose. And people were out celebrating in the street, and I was like, “Really? People are burning themselves and we are singing about soccer?”
So I went and bought loudspeakers—that was the first thing that came into my mind. I handed them out to students and to people whom I knew had had encounters with the police, and I gave them the slogan: “Policemen, join us against injustice and shame.” It rhymes in Tunisian. I wanted them to over-shout the celebration. It didn’t go on for long, because there were a lot of undercover police on the streets. People were circling around me to prevent the police from getting across the demonstration to me, but eventually they got me, because that’s just how it happens. I was held at the high school until 6 PM, and then I was taken to the Ministry of the Interior in the capital [Tunis]. I couldn’t call my parents or anything, and I’m not sure I even wanted to.
What did your parents think about your activism? Were they worried that something like this would happen
Yeah, my mom would panic every time I asked for my passport. She doesn’t get involved in politics at all, you know? But my father, his fear was more practical, like: “If you do this, then you won’t be able to work. If you stay out of trouble, you would have better prospects.” I did not want them to know, especially since that day my father asked me what the hell was going on, since I was bringing this big bag of loudspeakers with me. And I said, “I have a class project.”
So you are in this station, and you don’t call your parents.
I didn’t call them, but afterwards I realized the dean from my school called my father. Anyway, that’s where I met Youssef.
Youssef is your boyfriend?
Yes. We didn’t speak at the time, because I did not know what he was there for. And also, I was kind of scared! I’m sure I wasn’t thinking anything romantic at that point. But he did stand out.
OK, so then what happened?
The police would interrogate us. The questions would be like: “Who is behind you? What is your political plan? What do you want?” I had a list of political detainees that I wanted out. I was very prepared. Because again, from the internet, I knew who had left and never come back. I don’t know if I was being smart, but I just figured I would answer truthfully. Then I was put in a cell that was meant for 20 people, but because of the revolution, there were like 40 people. Everybody was very close to each other. If you needed the bathroom, you had to go in front of everyone. The food was served in black plastic bags, like big trash bags. The bag would be tossed on the floor, and people would eat food off the floor. And there was no silverware, of course. You basically had to eat with your hands. It was very disgusting, and I did not want to, but eventually when I got hungry, I just had to.