Analysis | What the Tunisian Revolution taught me

Reflections on the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring from a career diplomat who was there

Ambassador (ret.) Gordon Gray via The Foreign Service Journal

In this piece, originally published in January/February edition of The Foreign Service Journal, ISD non-resident fellow Gordon Gray reflects on lessons learned during the Tunisian Revolution ten years ago.

Anti-government demonstrations during the Tunisian revolution, January 2011.
(Image: Wikimedia Commons / M. Rais)

Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire 10 years ago, on Dec. 17, 2010. His suicide put a human face on the frustration and alienation of the Tunisian people. It led to an ever-growing wave of demonstrations and forced longtime strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia exactly four weeks later. The Tunisian people’s success in ending Ben Ali’s 23-year reign inspired an outpouring of demands for more representative governments throughout the Middle East and beyond, and the slogan chanted during the Tunisian demonstrations (“The people demand the fall of the regime!”) was adopted by protestors from Tahrir Square to Wall Street.

Many of us serving at U.S. Embassy Tunis at the time had years of experience in North Africa and the Middle East, and yet we recall the start of the Arab Spring and Tunisia’s transition to democracy as an inspirational high point in our careers. Witnessing history was why we joined the Foreign Service in the first place. Constantly having the opportunity to learn and adapt was another reason; and serving in Tunisia when the Arab Spring began was immensely educational. I drew a dozen important lessons from the experience.

1. It’s not about you.

Tunisia was a strange place to work before its revolution. It had a friendly veneer (one clichéd description was “Syria with a smile”), but Ben Ali and his security forces ruled with an iron fist. While it would be an exaggeration to equate the Tunisian Ministry of Interior with, say, East Germany’s Stasi, Tunisians were understandably wary about interacting with foreigners, and especially with diplomats. Self-censorship was the norm. Nonetheless, I was still surprised early in my tour when all but one guest were no-shows at a lunch I hosted during a visit to Sfax, Tunisia’s second-largest city. After the revolution, a member of parliament who had been invited to the lunch apologized to me. Clearly embarrassed, he explained that the governor of Sfax had called the guests the morning of the lunch to sternly warn them against attending; the one person he did not reach was the only attendee.

Diplomats should always remember what Michael Corleone told his brother: “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” Sfax’s governor was a Ben Ali loyalist-that’s why he had the job-and his point was not to slight me or the U.S. embassy. He just wanted to stay in the good graces of his ever-suspicious boss. The adage cuts both ways, of course; people seeking to curry favor may be more interested in an expedited visa interview or an invitation to the Independence Day reception than in your sparkling personality.

Read the original piece in full.

Gordon Gray is the Chief Operating Officer at the Center for American Progress and a non-resident fellow at ISD. He was a career foreign service officer who served as U.S. ambassador to Tunisia at the start of the Arab Spring and as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.

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