Witness: The journey that took me to a Tunisian voting booth

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 23, 2011 11:54 AM
Witness: The journey that took me to a Tunisian voting booth

The following account of the events leading up to Sunday's election in Tunisia, "The journey that took me to a Tunisian voting booth," was written by Tarek Amara, who has been a Reuters correspondent in Tunisia since 2004.

By Tarek Amara

TUNIS (Reuters) - I am a 33-year-old Tunisian man and I don't often get emotional in public, but I had tears in my eyes Sunday when I went to a polling station to cast my vote for the first time.

At about 10:00 a.m., I got into my car and drove to the school in the Lafayette area of Tunis where I am registered to vote. I expected to be among the first people there.

At elections which I covered during former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's 23-year rule, there was usually just a slow trickle of people going to vote.

When I arrived this time, I saw something I'd never before witnessed in my life. Hundreds of people were queuing out of the school gates and down the street to cast their votes.

I joined the end of the line. One man started to grumble.

"We really are having to wait a long time," he said.

"You've waited for 23 years, so you can wait a few more hours," said another man in the queue, to laughter from the people around us.

As I stood there, my mind went back to the journey that brought me, and my country, to this point.

I've been reporting on Tunisia for seven years. Ben Ali's police kept the media on a tight leash. When I used to go to interview his opponents, plain clothes officers would be outside, watching. Many of the contacts I talked to were arrested, others had to flee the country.

On one occasion, Radhia Nasraoui, a dissident, came to the Reuters office to bring us a statement criticising Ben Ali. Dozens of police, plain clothes and uniformed, surrounded the office in a leafy Tunis street.

All that was nothing compared to the pressure I -- and many of my journalist colleagues here -- were to come under when the revolt started against Ben Ali's rule.

On December 18 last year, a friend in the town of Sidi Bouzid called me. He told me that a day earlier, a young man called Mohamed Bouazizi had set himself on fire. There were protests in solidarity with him.

I knew that reporting on this was going to cause a backlash from the authorities, but I sensed that we had to do it.

THREATS

Over the next few weeks, the protests spread to other provincial towns. I built up a network of contacts, and through them I reported on the demonstrations, and then on the people who were killed when the police opened fire.

That was when the problems started.

Government officials started calling me, almost daily. I remember some of their phrases.

"You need to be careful."

"You articles are damaging the security of the country."

"The next time you write an article like that we'll be obliged to withdraw your accreditation and close the bureau."

My brother, who lives in my hometown of El Jem, in southern Tunisia, was summoned by Ben Ali's political police. This was after he passed on some information to me over the telephone. He spent several hours being interrogated.

They let him go after extracting a promise from him that he would not tell me about the interrogation.

Then, on January 8, I got into my old Fiat hatchback car outside the office and drove off. I had gone about 20 metres, when a Toyota vehicle that had been parked at the end of the street, lurched into the driver's side of my car.

The driver then put his car into reverse and drove off. The side of my car was smashed up. I was shaken, but not seriously injured. The Toyota had been waiting for me to drive by.

It was clear to me that this was a warning.

I did not tell my wife or family what had happened. I did not want them to worry. But my wife, Eya, knew what I was doing was dangerous.

In the evenings as I sat working from home, when she would bring me the Turkish coffee that I like, she would say to me: "Tarek, be careful and don't forget about your wife and your daughter."

My reply would always be: "Don't worry. It'll be okay. Tunisia is going to change soon."

It did.

On January 14, the protests spread to Tunis. I was with the crowd running from the bullets and the tear gas when police tried to disperse a huge crowd outside the interior ministry building.

The wall of fear that had kept Ben Ali in power since 1987 had been broken. That night he boarded a plan with his wife, Leila, and fled to Saudi Arabia.

Even after the revolution, being a reporter in Tunisia was not straightforward. For days after he fled, Ben Ali's security forces toured the streets shooting from cars, trying to destabilise the new authorities.

As I drove through Tunis one day, four people in a car next to mine started firing. I ducked under the steering wheel as the bullets passed two metres (yards) from me.

Since then there have been many violent protests. I've choked on tear gas and been hit by police truncheons.

But somehow after the revolution it was different, because the country was free.

That did not really hit home to me until Sunday, as I stood in line waiting to vote. I had never voted before. There had seemed no point, as Ben Ali and his supporters would always win.

A young boy came up to me and asked: "Why are you so happy?" He must have noticed the big smile on my face, or the way I was laughing and joking with the people around me.

"I am a Tunisian like you and I want to vote," I told him.

After a while, I decided I couldn't stay in the queue as I had work to do, reporting on the election.

I showed my press accreditation, and jumped the queue. Once inside the voting station, I dipped my finger deep into the pot of indelible blue ink used to stop voter fraud.

I went into the voting booth with by ballot paper. Alone, I thought about how, for the first time in my lifetime, I could vote for whoever I wanted, and my vote would count.

My fellow Tunisians achieved this historic moment by standing up to repression and fear.

By telling the outside world what was happening in this country, even when doing so put my life in danger, I and other reporters like me contributed to this moment.

That makes me feel very proud.

(Editing by Christian Lowe)