On 17 December 2010, a young Tunisian in Sidi Bouzid sets himself ablaze. One by one, the country’s regions rise up. On 14 January 2011, after 23 years of dictatorship, Ben Ali leaves the country. Like so many other Tunisians, Karim Rmadi, Olfa Lamloum, Ghassen Amami and Selim Kharrat decide to return home after many years abroad. Their stories tell of revolutionary fervor, the challenges of transition, and an unshakable faith in the future.
Karim Rmadi: Combatting terrorism with culture…I believe it
Karim Rmadi, originally a telecommunications engineer, settled in Canada in 1989. As project manager at Ericsson, he supported a number of socially responsible initiatives in the cultural domain in India, the United States, Kazakhstan, Sweden, and Syria. A globe-trotter, he never broke contact with his native country. In 1999, he created Avant-Scène Production to promote Maghreb culture across the Atlantic.
On 17 December 2010, the ex-patriot landed in Tunis, unaware that his return would be definitive. On 25 December, Rmadi had planned to meet up with some friends. They found themselves in Place Mohamed Ali for the first assembly in the capital denouncing repression. In spite of his Zen attitude, Rmadi keeps busy. In March 2011, he began Journées de la Tunisie Nouvelle (JTN), a multi-disciplinary festival; the following year he organized a number of concerts for up-and-coming artists. He participated in the production of El Gort, a prize-winning documentary by Hamza Ouni which appeared in last year’s JCC (Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage) film festival.
Upon his return, Rmadi dreamed of a system of decentralized cultural patronage. Impressed by his Canadian experience, he though it natural that businessmen should support this kind of initiative. “With the rise of Ennahdha, some were afraid. They preferred to inject money into political parties like Nidaa Tounes. Now that they’ve seen the result, I think they are beginning to change their minds,” he explains.
His greatest obstacle remains administrative inertia. “After revolutionary euphoria, the reflexes of dictatorship quickly reappeared. People in the middle had defensive reflexes. They had the impression that I was coming to take their places,” he laments. His greatest concern was when the Ministry of Culture prohibited a concert by Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdane: “the notice was transmitted several hours before the beginning of the show. The minister had even held a press conference to discuss it. It was the first time I felt important,” says Rmadi ironically.
This innovator of post-revolution Tunisia is perseverant. In 2014, Rmadi created Link Productions, a Tunisian art management label, and thus realized what he had dreamed about since the age of sixteen: to organize an Anouar Brahem concert. In 2014, he organized two: the first in Kef and the second in Tunis for the opening of the Carthage International Festival. In Kef, the SiccaJazz festival has taken up the reins to put on annual musical event. Also in 2014, Link Productions hooked up with Joussour in a convergence of civil society and the underground arts at the Medina of Hammamet, in the summer concerts of Mounir Troudi, and in the release of several Tunisian films. In 2015, Rmadi became general coordinator of the JCC festival.
At the end of the JCC, I was dismissed. I wasn’t supposed to speak. In my report to the ministry, I wasn’t supposed to criticize the organization. I wasn’t supposed to send anything but positive reports to the Minister.
But his faith in the youth is strong. “There were many young people in the JCC organization. They were very happy with the success of their work. They frightened the older generation…” he says with pride.
Some say that we will combat terrorism with culture to keep us laughing. I believe it.
For 2016, he plans to devote himself to film production and to launch a project around cultural decentralization. Between 17 December 2010 and 14 January 2011, he did not observe revolution, but popular uprising. “The revolution is a continual action,” he says. In spite of a morose political and economic context, Rmadi doesn’t give up.
I am very optimistic. For 5 years, Tunisia has managed to stay on track. I don’t know how this is possible. I think that a real change will take a lot of time. We risk reproducing the Libyan or Syrian situation, but it is also possible to evolve in the direction of the Nordic countries.
Olfa Lamloum: The game is not over
Olfa Lamloum was already interested in public affairs as a teen. A graduate of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) in Tunis, Lamloum left Tunisia in 1992 intending to return after a year. In fact, her sojourn turned into 21 long and eventful years. She completed a thesis in political science, published articles and books including Les femmes, alibi du pouvoir tunisien (Women, alibi of Tunisian power) and La Tunisie de Ben Ali (The Tunisia of Ben Ali) which provoked the wrath of the regime. “My parents were harassed and I was deprived of my passport for almost ten years,” she says without a hint of regret.
The researcher-activist thought she had moved on from Tunisia, but “the revolution changed things.” On the evening of 14 January 2011, she decided to return. In 2013, she resettled in the country. “I spoke and dreamt a lot about a revolutionary process, of revolution. People of my generation—we had lost hope of seeing it during our lifetime. All of the sudden, everything changes, everything becomes exciting, and then here I am,” she explains, still stirred with emotion. Lamloum was eager to see the country; she explored Tunisia’s different regions, from the working-class neighborhoods of the capital to the Mine Basin and of course to Sidi Bouzid, Regueb, and Bouzayane. “It was extraordinary to see how fear no longer existed. Slogans on the walls, the politicization of youth, all of these initiatives…things that for me were unthinkable, like talking about the government we have to set up, reform of the Interior Ministry, or the absence of the police in certain regions,” recounts Lamloum.
One doesn’t forget such experiences, in spite of scheming and manipulation. It’s a milestone, it’s ground-breaking. What we saw in Tunisia is a tsunami. And this parenthesis which some are eager to close will not be closed, she insists.
After the euphoria, existential questions surfaced. “Who am I to be proud of what others have done?” wondered Lamloum in spite of her years of struggle against the dictatorship. “How to make a living here? How to find a job after so many years away?” She gave free courses in political science for a year and a half before securing the position of Country Manager at International Alert Tunisia. She has her intentions set on the adoption of an approach based upon social, economic, and political inclusion of the disadvantaged as a means to support a real political transition. “We carried out an investigation on the youth of Ettadhamen and Douar Hichir, youth and contraband in Kasserine and the perception of the region’s inhabitants, the question of security–if there is a need for police presence or for a broader approach which takes into account economic and social issues,” explains Lamloum with enthusiasm.
Lamloum considers that Tunisia missed a big opportunity to reform the media. She denounces the redeployment of “charlatans and the pseudo-experts who destroy the intelligence of citizens. It’s too bad to lose this space which was supposed to be the place for exchange and real debates. A real practice in watchdog media. They are trying to kidnap our intelligence,” says Lamloum indignantly.
Another cause for concern: the undermining of individual rights and public liberties. “This is what happened in the 1990s during the rise of political Islam. The slogan “no democracy for enemies of democracy” justified torture and laws of exceptions. We discredit and criminalize all criticisms. We are facing the resurfacing of former taboos.”
Like many passionate researchers and political commentators, Lamloum oscillates between pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.
It was funny to find myself in spaces where I didn’t know anyone and where I was among the oldest. Youth who are open-minded and don’t have this panicked fear of political Islam. They remain attached to the utopia “Work, Liberty, and Dignity.” I told myself, this is good. There is a real renewal which perseveres and gives meaning to my presence, still, in Tunisia.
The future? “There are many fortune-tellers in Tunisia, but I am not one of them. I can’t foresee the future.”
We have been swept up in a wave of shock. Nothing is stable: neither the parties in power, nor the opposition. And it’s normal that the balance of forces is precarious. In light of what is happening with our neighbors, no one can predict what might happen… The game is not over.
Ghassen Amami: sunlight through the clouds
Accepted into the screenplay-writing program at the FEMIS in Paris, Ghassen Amami left Tunisia in 2009. Having completed his education, he enrolled at the University of Paris VIII envisioning many trips back-and-forth between the two countries. On 17 December 2010, Amami closely follows the popular uprising “by virtual, even fantasmatic, proxy.” The distance and material obstacles to the completion of his doctoral studies soon drove the young artist to consider a definitive return. As he remembers,
I had come to Tunisia in time to catch a healthy dose of tear gas, to breathe in the air of resistance. It was the protest of 15 August 2011 violently repressed by the police under the orders of Béji Caid Essebsi.
He left on a consulting mission to reinforce civil society capacities in several regions throughout the country. “This allowed me to discover local, post-January 14 associations,” but also to form an opinion regarding the new political context. “Corruption, power of mafia clans close to the destourian regime, police violence, the absence of real development projects in regions deprived of human dignity; moreover the growing hold of the Islamists on a number of associations and the management of local affairs…” On the eve of legislative elections in October 2011, Amami already noticed the first signs of the “marriage consummated” between Ennahdha and the destourians.
After the elections, Amami was astounded by the Left’s inability to surpass its relentless quarrels and to open up to dynamic and knowledgeable citizens. “However, the Left dreamed of elaborating a social project worthy of the Revolution and the spilled blood of martyrs,” he said with disappointment. He denounces the “rehabilitation and forceful return” of the destourians and the rise of Nidaa Tounes.
Since, he no longer counts on politics in the revolutionary process:
The objectives of the uprising will be achieved through civil society and artistic work.
With a group of friends, artists, and technicians, he created Freesh Production and collaborated with several national and international ONGs. Together, they produced didactic support and awareness-raising about human rights, gender issues, citizenship, and democracy. “Aside from the difficulties of the Tunisian audiovisual market and the little public and private encouragement, at Freesh Production, we continue to produce. In 2014, we produced the series Hajarland which was diffused on the national station,” he says.
The same year, Amami directed l’Affair Barraket Essahel – Eclairage premier, an advocacy documentary produced by the Association Insaf/Justice for the rehabilitation of the 244 victims (former military personnel) of the abominable purge perpetrated by the Ben Ali regime in the beginning of the 1990’s.
Today, an infinite range of actions and expressions has been opened up to us thanks to the sacrifice of thousands of Tunisians, forgotten and betrayed by the propaganda machine of mainstream media that is paid for by certain mafia clans.
He speaks of an urgency to raise the level of public debates, to tackle necessary reforms, and to uplift citizens who have been oppressed for decades by tyranny and material and cultural poverty. “Instead of building a Tunisia free of its demons and strengthened by its diversity, we are spending our most beautiful years on fighting a counter-revolutionary coalition, a travesty acting as spokesman for the Tunisian revolution.”
Amami sees the future darkened by clouds of “injustice and inequity, the principal ingredients for terrorism.” But he remains optimistic, focusing on sunlight peeking through the clouds: “I see battles won by dreams, love, art, knowledge, and diversity…and certain victories.” Freesh Production has set to work on two films: Saida malgré les cendres (Saida in spite of the ashes) by Soumeya Bouallegui and La fille du 8 janvier 2011 (The girl of 8 January 2011) by Marouen Meddeb.
Selim Kharrat: the Castrating fear is behind us
After obtaining his degree in Management Sciences at the business school Institut des Hautes Etudes Commerciales (IHEC) in 2004, Selim Kharrat left Tunisia. He moved to Paris for a Masters at Paris-Dauphine, and then to Brussells for an academic exchange. In 2007 he returned to Paris to work. After the revolution, the idea of returning to Tunisia grew on him. The post-revolutionary euphoria enticed him and he felt he wanted to do something for this new Tunisia. In 2012, Kharrat dropped everything and returned home.
Back in the country he participated in the creation of Al Bawsala, which he ran between 2012-2014. “It was the main region for my return to Tunisia,” he explains. At the time, he saw that the opportunities for action were tremendous compared to France, “an aging country.” Kharrat didn’t have high expectations. He was mindful of the many difficulties and political, economic, and social instability in store for the country. After all of these years abroad, he knew he needed time to readapt. “My choice to leave a more comfortable situation was very intentional,” he says with confidence.
For Kharrat, returning with a project in mind facilitated his reinsertion. He therefore put all of his time and energy into creating Al Bawsala:
There was no latency period. I left my job in Paris on a Friday. The following Monday, I was in my new office in Tunisia.
Quickly engrossed in the project, Kharrat confronted the obstacles to creating a body capable of observing and monitoring the work of the National Constituent Assembly.
Working in civil society helped me to very quickly reconstitute a network of relations. Within a few months after resettling, it felt like I had never left Tunisia. So things went well for me, especially because Al Bawsala rapidly matured and gained credibility.
Kharrat gave himself two years to build up a permanent association. In the beginning of 2014, he ceded his responsibilities in Al Bawsala to found a consulting business, Human Capital Value, to assist civil society actors and international organizations in their projects. At the same time, he continued to devote time to Al Bawsala. “It’s demanding but exciting work that helps me cope. When I observe the commitment of fellow citizens, especially outside the capital, to improve things, to support vulnerable populations, to lobby for their rights … it’s a source of great satisfaction for me. I don’t have any regret about my choices, quite the contrary,” he says, proud of his unique journey.
Speaking about his future, Kharrat expresses that he sees himself staying in Tunisia. He no longer wants be separate from his native country, his friends and family. The idea of leaving now seems inconceivable.
I intend to continue devoting myself to the civil society projects in which I am participating in the four corners of the country. It’s really a career that I love. For me, it’s a sort of regular therapy through which I can observe the evolution of mentalities and changes, even they are small. To be sure, the difficulties are still great, the doubt is constant, but I keep hope.
As for the country’s future, all hypotheses are possible, especially since the gains of the past few years are still so fragile and the situation in the country is far from being stabilized. He expects not a few disappointments, but also positive things. While the country faces a bumpy road ahead, Kharrat is confident:
Contrary to the past, fear is no longer as castrating and many Tunisians continue to work to improve things. This for me is the best indication of a better future.