This guest post for Kafila by ALIA ALLANA from Sidi Bou Said on the outskirts of the capital Tunis captures the mood a day before Tunisia goes to the polls. Photos by Alia Allana
If there were a landmark, a place to prop up a sign that would read, The Arab Spring Started Here, it would be in Sidi Bou Said.
Ten months ago, Mohamed Bouazizi, frustrated and desperate, soaked himself in petroleum; he then set himself alight in this town. Little did he or the residents of this small village know that the act would grip the Arab world, like a forest fire and bring about the fall of other strongmen.
He has little time to talk but the army man has a minute to joke. “Ben Ali Who?” he asks. He’s stood outside Sidi Bou Said’s primary school.
The man who used to live up the hill, I point out. Sidi Bou Said is where Ben Ali spent millions on his palatial home.
But the officers are in a hurry; they don’t want to be reminded of the former dictator, nor do they want to enter a debate. The men in khakhi and women in plain clothes are busy readying the school. The classes are being transformed into polling booths and time is running out.
This election is the first election since Ben Ali skipped town. Delays are expected, but there is a sense of optimism is in his tone, a feel-good aura in the air.
Sidi Bou Said is a small cobble-stoned village overlooking the Mediterranean. All the buildings are blue and white, the sun bounces of the walls and the glare is intense. On lamp posts and street corners the red Tunisian flag flutters in the wind.
The sun is shining, and the smile on Mickey’s face cannot be contained. He’s sat on a blue bench opposite his cab and life couldn’t get peachier. Tomorrow he will do something he has never done before. He will wake early, get his wife and daughter up and head to the primary school. He wants to be the first man to vote in Tunisia’s first election.
There are 114 parties contesting for power and pundits have placed their money on Rached Ghannouchi’s party, Ennaahda. Once outlawed and gagged Ghannouchi returned a few months ago after living in exile in London. It is he who may well dominate the 217 member assembly.
At the mouth of the roundabout is a small convenience store. The man behind the counter will be at work tomorrow. He will run and cast his vote because for him the decision will be simple: he will vote for Ennaahda to come in.
Sitting next to the store on one of the blue chairs is Mohammed He is furiously smoking cigarettes. In between puffs he all but celebrates the victory of one man: Ghannouchi.
Next to him on the newspaper stand, on a paper called, Yes We Can, is the bloodied picture of Colonel Qaddafi and above him, the picture of Ghannouchi.
He looks at the picture with optimism, the Tunisian revolution for him was successful, as will be the election. This is not Libya where things got dirty, this is not Syria where the future in uncertain.
But not all are as optimistic.
Less than a five-minute walk from Ben Ali’s former palace is a shop selling paintings. It’s proprietor, Mohammed, will not vote in the election, he will not partake in a system that will bring “terrorists” to power, that will make the tourists – his source of income vanish away.
The streets are busy with foreigners; women in shorts walk past women in veils. They are mostly French but the odd American accent can be heard here and there. It is they who provide Mohammed his income.
And this, he says, is why he will not vote: because the parties without religious affiliation are not as organized. For most tourists, he reckons, an Islamist victory may as well be equated with a victory for terrorists. It will push the foreigners out, it will change Sidi Bou Said even more.
Around Ben Ali’s former home, there is a heavy military presence. The palace is guarded like a garrison, nobody is allowed entry. The squatters have to be kept away.
The Secretary-General of Sidi Bou Said’s municipality marvels at how equations can change. There was once a time when the policing was for the people, when average citizen and his political affiliations could mean imprisonment.
Now all are called to the streets, to participate politically. The number of police has fallen, there are no eavesdroppers on the conversations. The police has moved further up the hill, to a place where they weren’t used to frequent: Ben Ali’s former home. The palace is guarded like a garrison there is no optimism there, just defeat, no victory.
(Alia Allana is a journalist.)
Previously in this Kafila series by our lady of the Arab Spring: