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Themes Why I Became a Dissident » Sarah Ben Behia

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Sarah Ben Behia is a Tunisian freedom activist.

Her passion for public service and volunteerism has landed her a position as a respected activist within the ranks of the civil society world. She has become an active member within the JID association (Youth Independent Democrats) and has been elected a member of the executive committee. During her involvement with the organization, Sarah has participated in several projects aimed at raising awareness among Tunisian citizens and helping the community to maintain the gains of the Tunisian Revolution.

Sarah believes that by promoting internationally recognized human rights, Tunisia can continue to make advances toward becoming a democratic society. Sarah’s projects were designed to establish fair and honest elections, encouraging the involvement of Tunisian youth in the decision-making process, as well as empowering women and their status in society.

Sarah has a Bachelor’s degree in Legal, Political and Social Sciences and recently obtained her Master’s degree in Common Law. She is also a member of the George W. Bush Institute’s 2014 Women’s Initiative Fellowship, a leadership program designed to empower and equip women to catalyze change.

Sarah continues to devote her time and energy to make a significant contribution to the development and the empowerment of her country and community. 

The thing is that we were living under oppression, but no one had the right to talk or to speak or to say, “No.” And we realized that the situation was so crucial and the situation was so bad, that we didn’t take any action before, and the [Jasmine] Revolution was like a wake-up call for us, and it didn’t come – I really want to emphasize this idea that it didn’t come from us. [The Jasmine Revolution refers to the 2011 uprising in Tunisia that toppled the regime of the former dictator, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.]

I mean, people, I’ll consider myself as an ordinary person. I mean, I get to go to school, I live with my family, I am educated, I can afford living in Tunisia, I have a job, I’m active in Tunisia, but this is not the situation for a lot [of people] within Tunisia.

I mean, we – people in my situation represent only 20 percent of the population. Because the rest of us live in really hard situations. I mean, we are in the 21st century, and people were really lacking some of the most important and inherent rights. And as a law specialist, I can distinguish the different rights that people may enjoy, like there are those basic rights – the right to dignity, the right to freedom, the right to house, the right to food, to water – to safe water, healthy life – and those are only basic rights. And there are also those “luxuries”, I call them, rights – like economic rights, cultural rights – people who made the revolution – who started the revolution – are those lacking their basic rights. People in the regions, people in the south of the country, who were jobless, unemployed, who lacked those basic rights. They didn’t enjoy them.

So at a particular point, I saw some people enjoying 90 percent of the wealth in the country, they were asking for a house to live under. And for safe water to give to their children – so it made them furious, and at a particular time, they were exhausted from keeping silent. They wanted to say, “No,” and they wanted their life to change. So we had – I mean, we gathered together. We heard them – it started with a man burning himself and it affected all of us.

[Mohamed Bouazizi (1984 – 2011) was a Tunisian fruit vendor who set himself on fire in protest of the government’s harassment and unlawful confiscation of his products.]

So how did we participate? We were unified. We gathered the day of the revolution, and I will make a long story short. We gathered the day of the revolution in downtown [Tunis], before the Ministry of Interior Affairs, and we said, “No.” We practically asked the President to leave us – to go away, and to leave us alone. We can make our future. We can decide for ourselves that you don’t represent us. Neither you, nor your government, nor your family – we need to enjoy our rights and to enjoy the wealth of our country. And this is how it started. And then it affected another class or range of the population – people started to ask for their freedom to speak, their freedom to think, their freedom of belief, and they were all together – I mean, we spent days and nights in the street, just screaming and yelling and asking him to leave. And we were repeating the same sentence for days, which is, it means, [!خبز و ماء و بن علي لا] – I will say it in Arabic - Ben Ali is our former president.

[Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (1936- ) served as President of Tunisia from 1987 until 2011, when he was ousted in the Jasmine Revolution.]

Meaning that we’d rather live on bread and water rather than live under your governance. And we asked him, we could say, “Go away, go away, go away,” and yelling all the day long until he was afraid, because people threatened to go directly to where he lived and to ask him and his family to go away. So it was a crucial – I mean, it was a catalyst in the country, and everyone – we were unified, asking for this one thing, and all the ages – I mean, old people, young people, even children in the street for days. And rich people, poor people, together – educated people and illiterate people together, and we were all asking for the same thing. We want to say, “No,” for the first time. We want someone in the government representing us. And this is what we asked for – he got afraid, and he ran away.

Yes. And things changed from that day. From that day. It was so important.

Tunisia is situated on the Mediterranean coastline. It has a population of fewer than 11 million people and is the smallest nation in North Africa in land area. In 2010 and 2011, it became the first of the Arab countries to revolt against decades of dictatorial rule, launching the Arab Spring and a wave of change across the region. Tunisia has a developing economy, focused largely on agriculture, tourism, and light industry.

Tunisia has been settled since ancient times. In the 10th century B.C., it was part of the Phoenician Empire. The city of Carthage, near the modern capital of Tunis, was established in the 9th century B.C. In 149 B.C., the Roman Empire conquered the Phoenicians. Islam was introduced to what is now Tunisia in the 7th century A.D., and the area formed part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries. In 1881, Tunisia became a protectorate of France. A strong French cultural element continues to this day.

In 1956, Habib Bourguiba led Tunisia to independence from France. His political party, later known as the Constitutional Democratic Rally, went on to dominate Tunisian politics for more than 50 years. Bourguiba’s Tunisia was a largely secular state and was viewed as one of the most progressive in the Arab world on women’s issues. In 1987, Bourguiba was replaced in a “bloodless coup” by his prime minister, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Ben Ali continued many of Bourguiba’s policies, but ruled with an increasingly heavy hand. The Ben Ali regime was repressive and corrupt, with a dismal human rights record. The regime showed little tolerance for dissent, and lashed out at opposition voices in politics, civil society, and the media.

The Tunisian Revolution began in December 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young street vendor, set himself on fire in protest over harassment by a local official. Bouazizi’s act led to mass demonstrations across the country, protesting the lack of human rights, poor economic conditions, and corruption and nepotism in the Ben Ali regime. On January 14, 2011, Ben Ali stepped down and fled the country. On October 23, 2011, Tunisia held its first free elections, forming a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution and lead the country to general elections. The role of religion in society is among the most important issues facing the assembly and country.

Under the interim Constituent Assembly, Tunisia has experienced considerable political upheaval, but has begun to consolidate its democracy. There is a major fault line between Islamist and secular political forces. In 2013, several political assassinations resulted in widespread protests and demonstrators calling for the nation’s Islamist-led government to be removed. In January of 2014, after two years of debate, the Constituent Assembly ratified the nation’s new constitution. The constitution is considered progressive for the nation and has many human rights guarantees. With the ratification of the constitution, elections are scheduled for autumn 2014.

Freedom House’s 2013 Freedom in the World report categorized Tunisia as “partly free”. The nation received the following ratings on a scale with one being the most free and seven being the least: 3.5 as an overall freedom rating, a four in civil liberties and a three in political rights. Tunisia’s Internet and press were also categorized as “partly free” in subsequent Freedom House reports. 

More on this theme from Sarah Ben Behia

Sarah Ben Behia: Revolution in Tunisia “We can make our future.”

Other videos from Sarah Ben Behia

Sarah Ben Behia: What is Freedom? “Life without freedom is not really living.” Sarah Ben Behia: Message to Dissidents “Dare to dream.” More +