Abdelwahab Khoualdia (second from left) with young revolutionaries. Gafsa, Tunisia. 23 January 2011

Abdelwahab Khoualdia is 61 years of age, was born in Tunisia and was expelled from school and jailed in 1972 for being involved in politics. He went to Belgium then migrated to Australia in 1974.

He worked for BHP from 1974 to 1989 as storeperson while studying part time at the University of New England (BA,Dep Ed & M.Litt). From 1989 to 2007 he worked as a taxi driver in Wollongong and then in Darwin.

In November 2010 he went to Tunisia to attend his daughter’s engagement. While there the Tunisian Revolution started.

His big wish was to see his country of origin Tunisia free one day before he dies and his small wish was to throw an egg on Ben Ali’s picture if the big wish could not be achieved.

As a result the egg was eaten and Ben Ali the dictator has gone. The rest as they say is history.

I was going to edit this for grammar and syntax but then thought I’d mangle Abdelwahab’s story too much if I did. You’ve heard a bit from Abdelwahib’s wife, Sue Stanton here over the past few years speaking of her experiences as a proud Kungarakan/Gurindji woman and here, here and here on their exploits in a very different Tunisia just one short year ago.

Here are Abdelwahib’s thoughts in full:

Is the West really serious about promoting democracy in the Arab world?

Because of the small number of Tunisians living in Australia, Tunisia was less known to Australians than other Arab countries. But more importantly the reason why the media had ignored Tunisia for a long time despite its political transformation, is I believe, that Tunisia was considered as friendly, politically stable and a pro-western country.

Another good reason was that Tunisia was less economically important because it does not produce oil which the West desperately needs. Consequently the Revolution which commenced on the 14th of January 2011 and which led to the downfall of Ben Ali a key supporter of the USA, came as a surprise to western media .

Pulling down a Ben Ali poster. Gafsa, Tunisia. 23 January 2011
Pulling down a Ben Ali poster. Gafsa, Tunisia. 23 January 2011

However, when the Egyptians got rid of their dictator Moubarek a month after the Tunisian revolution the western media gave it a bigger coverage from day one, especially when street protests started In Tahrir Place. This media attention focus has also been given to the present situation in Lybia.

This can be explained by the fact that Egypt and Lybia play more important roles in the world’s economy and politics than Tunisia. A most important factor is that Egypt had a peace treaty with Israel. This worried the West because any negative change could affect the Jewish state’s security.

The situation in relation to Lybia, is that it produces nearly 2% of world oil production. It is a small amount compared to the Saudi contribution but still an important amount for those hungry for energy resources.

When it comes to the real coverage of Arab affairs in particular in relation to Tunisia Al Jazeera had played an important role in informing Tunisians about political development, not just from day one of the revolution but many years before. This annoyed Ben Ali and led him to put more restrictions on Al Jazeera’s reporting and he went to the extent to close its office in Tunis and to harass its reporters.

However, young Tunisians turned to social media such as Facebook and YouTube not just to communicate with each other but to organise protests against Ben Ali’s regime. So why did Western media fail to predict the Tunisian Revolution?

Arabs do mistrust western media for they report mainly the point of view of western interests. Remember the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?

The western media gave and are still giving us a distorted image of what was and still is happening in those countries. Indeed the western media are telling us the West is winning the war against Muslim terrorists and that it is only a question of time before Afghanistan and Iraq become democratic countries.

But they are not telling us when the job of democratisation is going to finish. The reason for not finishing the job on time is because the Taliban are getting stronger. The West refuses to recognise Taliban resistance to western values is not due to lack of intelligence but due to Taliban strength in their own beliefs and values. The West fail to see that the Taliban are protesting against their very presence in their country.

In relation to Tunisia the West still thought that Tunisia was a stable country and one should not worry about it.

The way western media covered the event which led to the peoples revolution was not that important. I was in Tunisia during the revolution and my wife informed me in a telephone call that the western media, including Australia’s media hardly mentioned the turmoil in Tunisia.

Only when Ben Ali was kicked out from power and forced in exile to Saudi Arabia did the name Tunisia get mentioned in electronic and written media. So what do we know about the history of this unknown Arab country which created history when it was the first Arab country to revolt against its dictator and manage to force him out of government?

To understand the present Tunisia one has to look at the past. Geographically, Tunisia is a very strategic country. It is between two major oil producing countries, Algeria from the west and Lybia from the east. From the north the Mediterranean sea is vital to western commercial ships carrying the oil which is essential for western economy.

While Tunisia’s position is strategic for the West’s access to oil, the West was never interested in the country either economically or politically, but the fact is, historically, Tunisia played an important role in the development of the world’s civilisation. .

Because of its geographic position, in the past Tunisia was a target for many invaders. So it went through a lot of different invasions and civilisations. Indeed the Phoenicians were there before 814 BC. They established their cities in the present Tunisia. Then the Carthagians founded Carthage in 146 BC.

Its military leader Hanibal declared war against the Romans. He won one war and lost two and that led to his decline. Consequently, Tunisia was under the rule of the Roman Empire until 439 AD until in 647 the Arab invaders defeated the Romans and established their cities in Tunisia. The latter became part of the Arab Empire until the sixteenth century, followed by the Turkish empire which controlled Tunisia until the French occupation in 1881. Tunisia became independent from France in 1956 .

When the French colonists left Tunisia Habib Bourguiba became the first president. He was supported by the French government for he was a French educated person but more importantly he was married to a French woman and promised to continue using French as a second language after Arabic in schools. This pleased the French. Habib Bourguiba also promised Tunisia democracy but by rigging elections he managed to stay in power until 1987 when he was overthrown by his Prime Minister Ezzine Elabidine Ben Ali.

The successor of Bourguiba promised Tunisians a better era than his predecessor. However, the latter was elected by his party for life. Originally, Ben Ali decided to change the constitution so the President could only be elected to office twice, as In the United States of America.

But Ben Ali changed his mind after serving Tunisia for two terms and he changed the law so it was possible for him to stand for more than two terms. He became very powerful to the extent that he used his police force to suppress any revolt. Indeed any person who tried to challenge his power could be dismissed from his job. Even if a person had a business and showed his or her opposition to Ben Ali he could make him or her pay more tax as punishment.

Furthermore, his wife Laila became very powerful. She used her husband’s position to gain financial benefit not just for herself but for her families. Her greedy behaviour had affected not just the big business community but also the average Tunisian whose land and property were acquired by force. This made Tunisians very angry and they decided that enough is enough.

Father of the Tunisian revolution, street trader Mohamed Bouazizi

However, what triggered the revolution in Tunisia in January 2011 was that a humble man called Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vegetable vendor was slapped by a policewoman Faida for selling his product in an unauthorised area.

Bouazizi got very angry and complained to the Governor about his mistreatment . The latter did not bother to see him. As a result he set himself  on fire and after a few day he died from severe burns .

The Policewoman Faida Elhamdi

But the real causes of the Tunisian Revolution, I believe, were political and economic. Tunisia had suffered from Ben Ali’s oppression. He had never given the opportunity to his people to elect the representatives they wanted. He had given the Opposition some seats in the Parliament simply to claim he believed in fairness and free elections.

Ben Ali’s  party constantly got more than 80% of the vote in parliamentary elections and he himself got more than 90% in presidential elections. He promised Tunisia a better economy in which young people could find jobs. His privatisation policy led to more people getting richer than improving the economic situation of the average Tunisian.

Tunisians started protesting, not just about Bouazizi’s mistreatment and death, but also about the lack of democracy, the government’s indifference to corruption and the lack of job opportunities, Ben Ali used his police force to crack down on any opposition to his regime. It was estimated that when the revolution started more than 56 people were killed by police before Ben Ali changed tactics by promising more reforms, for example, like him not standing for re-election in 2014, and to stop police from using live ammunition against protesters.

It was interesting to note that Ben Ali withdrew police from public places when he realised that people were very determined to get what they wanted. Indeed, despite the killing of many Tunisians the latter continued to defy his authority.

As a result police were confined to their stations and were replaced by soldiers whose job was not to interfere with the Revolution but to protect the states institutions. It was amazing for me as a Tunisian to see people protesting in public places for the first time – without seeing a police officer anywhere. Usually police were everywhere in shopping centres, government offices or any sensitive places like banks. It had been said that Tunisia had the largest police force in the world in relation to its population .

With my small pocket camera I managed to film young people protesting against Ben Ali. To be able to photograph such things was impossible in the past. I also had the opportunity to join people calling for Ben Ali’s removal. The people’s demands were simple. We Australians take a lot of those simple demands for granted – like free elections and freedom of expression. Tunisians have never enjoyed such freedoms and were not used to being in a position to even demand such things.

It was incredible to see young people organising dozens of protests a day. For Australians it would seem crazy for the average Australian would probably attend only a few public protests in a single year.

To understand the Tunisian obsession with protest is to compare them to a hungry man who did not eat for several days and all of a sudden he found himself in front of a plate full of food. That is a good illustration of the importance of freedom. Tunisians could not believe their eyes when they experienced freedom for the first time. They could not get enough of it.

I myself became obsessed with protests. Every day from when the revolution started I took my camera and went to the Trade Union Centre where people assembled before they marched to public places where powerful people were once to be found, such as the district Governor’s office, Ben Ali’s party headquarters, and the government controlled radio station .

For nearly two weeks I did not see a single police officer in the streets. Tunisians behaved properly without them. They did not need police to watch them while they were doing their daily routines. However, there were old political scores to be settled against foes such as Ben Ali supporters. Worse still, it was the right time for example, to kill somebody without being bothered by the police.

So these kinds of things happened, as they might in any revolution. Fortunately in Tunisia revenge was mostly sought against business people who had supported Ben Ali. Their premises were looted, especially food stores even though it was a minority of people who looted stores. The majority of people were shocked to see looters taking things without paying for them. They looked at them with sadness. They could not believe their eyes what was happening in their country Tunisia.

Even though they hated Ben Ali, they did not like to see their country in such a state of disarray.

I myself tried to understand people’s behaviour when it comes to looting. The looting was caused not by greed but more by necessity, but still I could not understand their behaviour when I compared them to hungry Palestinians in Gaza. I thought of Palestinians when the West tried to starve them by not allowing food to go through Egypt.

When international human rights activists managed to get food to Gaza after a long fight with the Israelis, the hungry Palestinians stood up with pride on the street thanking the Westerners for trying to put an end to their misery. The hungry Palestinians did not even try to touch the boxes full of food. They would rather die with dignity than be asking for food. I do not believe I am wrong comparing these two different situations. I also remember when there was a blackout in New York several years ago and New Yorkers started looting shops not just for food but also for other things like furniture.

Maybe it is wrong for me to make comparison but probably the whole world needs a revolution to put an end to poverty.

It is wrong for the West to think that democratisation in the Arab World in particular in Tunisia, would lead to better relations with Arabs just on the assumption that democratic countries would understand each other better than when they belong to different political systems. However, even democratic countries differ when it comes to their economic and political interests.

The present relation between the West and Arabs is mainly based on suspicion. Arabs believe that it is not in the interest of the West to have democratically elected Arab governments because the latter would listen more to their people than to Western leaders.

At the moment it is vice versa. An example and reminder of the point I make is for example, the election of Hamas by Palestinians to form a government and how the west had no respect for that free and democratic election. It proves that the west is only interested in protecting its economic interests and not in democratic ideals after all.

Abdelwahab Khoualdia

Darwin, NT.