By Jessamy Klapper
The political revolution taking place in Tunisia is reverberating in New York City. Over a hundred Tunisian immigrants gathered near UN headquarters on Monday to demonstrate solidarity with their countrymen, who have overthrown President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, a man who held his country under an iron thumb for 23 years.
In a powerful synergy, the protest fell on Martin Luther King Jr. day, and many of the demonstrators used images and words from the legacy of the great civil rights leader.
The day also marked one month since Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old unemployed university graduate, set himself on fire in a protest of despair against high unemployment and his treatment by local police. Bouazizi’s suicide sparked massive protests across Tunisia, leading to President Ben Ali’s flight from his country and a power shuffle, still in process.
Near the Tunisian Mission to the UN, many demonstrators wrapped the bright red Tunisian flag around their heavy winter coats. Handmade signs invoked King’s famous words: “Tunisians Also Have a Dream” and “I Have a Dream. Free Tunisia.” The crowd kept up a steady stream of chants in Arabic, English and French for a few hours.
“This is a historical moment,” said Jamal Benaji, a Tunisian who has lived in New York for 15 years. “After 23 years the people arrived to overthrow a dictator.”
The demonstrators also called for the removal of Mohammed Ghannouchi, the current prime minister. The acting president, Fouad Mebazaa, charged Ghannouchi with creating a national unity government while the country gets ready for elections in two months’ time, but Ghannouchi is considered by many to be part of the old regime’s corrupt elite.
Mary Annabi, a woman from Ireland married to a Tunisian, praised the democratic system in the U.S. where she has lived for twenty years. “Here, the Constitution is by the people, for the people,” she said. “In Tunisia, the constitution is for the President.”
The constitution is one of the issues Tunisians will have to face as they attempt to reform their government, since it is thought to favor the old regime.
Other demands were for a UN presence at the upcoming elections and for the organization to pressure Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Canada and other countries to extradite Ben Ali and his family back to Tunisia where they can stand trial.
The Tunisian protests have unsettled many in the Arab world, where leaders are worried they may set off a domino effect. In the past week, protests in Egypt, Jordan, Libya and Algeria have borrowed the language and symbols of Tunisia’s uprising. Even Bouazizi’s self-immolation has been repeated in Algeria and Egypt, with one confirmed suicide in Alexandria.
“I’m from Egypt, and I’m coming in solidarity with our brothers in Tunisia,” Ahmed Lotfy said, waving an Egyptian flag outside the UN.
Zakaria Eltourroug, a student from Morocco, focused on the revolution’s positive side: the possibility for change. “I am really glad that this happens in our lifetime,” he said. “Finally one Arab country woke up and said ‘Enough!’. Hopefully, this is just the beginning. I am waiting for Algeria to be changed, Egypt to be changed, even Libya.”
The protest in front of the UN was not staged by an official organization, but by a group of friends. One of the organizers was Jamal Saidi, a US citizen originally from Thala, another Tunisian city rocked by protests in the last few weeks.
“We picked today, it was a coincidence,” Saidi said, “but when we found out, we went for it: Martin Luther King Day.”
Jessamy Klapper is a freelance journalist pursuing a joint MA in Journalism and Near Eastern Studies at New York University. She graduated from Middlebury College in 2009, where she majored in Middle Eastern Studies with a focus on Arabic Literature.
Merel van Beeren (photographer) is originally from the Netherlands, and obtained BA and MA degrees in Religious Studies – Islam at the University of Amsterdam. She is currently pursuing a MA in the Global Journalism and Near Eastern Studies program at New York University. Her writing and photography focuses on the representation of migrant Muslim communities in Western countries.