Ten years ago this week, the revolution was televised. As I stood in front of a TV screen at home in Washington, DC, I experienced what euphoria means. I was shocked. It happened so quickly. I had no idea we could actually get rid of dictators in a couple of weeks by protesting! Just like hundreds of millions of other Arabs around the world watching, I knew that would be a defining moment for the region
I had never been to Tunisia before 2011, and my first visit to Tunis took place just a few weeks after the revolution. The revolution was fresh. It was pure and magical. I walked down Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the epicenter of the revolution. Tunisians were gathered in the street to debate the future of their country. Just like that: organic groups of dozens of Tunisians standing in circles discussing what to do next. It looked so utopian, like how I imagined a Greek Agora. While walking back to my hotel, I could still see the faint revolution slogans chalked on the pavement and sidewalks: Ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam, which means "the people want to bring down the regime." That phrase became a slogan that echoed around the region for years to come.
Anti-government protests and demands for democratic reform quickly spread throughout the Arab world — Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, and Bahrain. It was the Arab Spring followed soon after by the Arab winter. Fledgling democratic movements were for the most part crushed.
Tunisia fared better. It struggles with economic instability, corruption, and sporadic armed violence along its border with Algeria. Even so, the country has retained essential features of democracy, including free and fair elections and an independent justice system.
Challenges to Tunisia's democracy come not just from within the country, though. Saudi Arabia, where Ben Ali ended up after he fled Tunisia, has teamed up with UAE and spent tens of billions to oppose not just revolution but also democratic reform in the Middle East and North Africa. In Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE supported the counter-revolution led by Abdulfattah Al-Sisi and literally bankrolled the bloody military coup that committed crimes against humanity and quashed the revolution in 2013. Tens of thousands of Egyptian revolutionaries and activists are still suffering in jail to date. In Libya, Saudi Arabia and UAE have been backing a similar counterrevolutionary war criminal, Khalifa Haftar. The UAE has bombed Haftar's opponents with the help of Egypt's dictator, Al-Sisi, and continues to target Libyans with drones to date.
In Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also backed anti-democratic forces, focusing their recent support on counterrevolutionary Abir Moussi, an official during the Ben Ali era who leads the Free Destourian Party. Moussi has condemned the reforms of the Arab Spring and continues to defend and praise the old Ben Ali dictatorship. For many in Tunisia, she represents the new momentum for the counterrevolution.
Although US mainstream media attributed Moussi's rise to domestic politics, describing her appeal in Tunisia as "nostalgia for old era challenges Tunisia's democratic gains," the truth is that she is also bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and UAE — who perhaps see in her their chance of installing a Tunisian version of Egypt's anti-democratic al-Sisi.
Ten years later, the revolution is still going on. While Tunis is still shielded from civil wars and military bombardments, it is not out of the danger zone yet. As a US citizen and taxpayer, I know that I'm not just a neutral observer. The US government's policies in the next four years will have a direct impact on the democratic aspirations of the Arab World. The US government has given Saudi Arabia and the UAE a blank check to intervene in the domestic politics of their neighbors and stifle democratic reform in the region.
Tunisians will be the ultimate decider of the future of their country, and the best way for US citizens to help them is to demand that our own government stops selling weapons to the UAE and Saudi Arabia and puts an end to its blank check policy.
Photo: TUNIS, TUNISIA – JANUARY 24: Protesters congregate outside the formerly feared Interior Ministry on Avenue Habib Bourguiba on January 24, 2011 in Tunis, Tunisia. Protesters from the countryside and the hamlet of Sidi Bouzid, the town where the 'Jasmine Revolution' started, walked through the night to descend on the prime minsiters office where they tore down razor wire barricades. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)