The Foreign Service Journal, January-February 2021

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2021 41 WHATTHE Tunisian Revolution TAUGHTME M ohammed 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 representa- tive 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 protes- tors 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 Reflections on the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring from a career diplomat who was there. BY GORDON GRAY Gordon Gray is the chief operating officer at the Center for American Progress. 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. we recall the start of the Arab Spring and Tunisia’s transition to democracy as an inspirational high point in our careers. Witness- ing 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 FEATURE