Hisham Ben Khamsa arrived early for this morning’s demonstration on Habib Bourguiba, Tunis’s Champs-Élysées, to find the street filled with people from all walks of life—from poor mothers with children to denizens of the city’s upper class, all singing the national anthem and chanting, “Ben Ali, get lost.”
But around midday Ben Khamsa noticed a small group of people nearby who stood out for their religious attire—women behind veils and men with long beards and taqiyah, the caps worn by the devout. They were chanting a different slogan: “There is no God but Allah, and all the martyrs are loved by Allah.”
The word for martyr used by the men—shohada—has a special resonance in North Africa; it’s what they call the people who died in the independence wars. But Ben Khamsa worried the group was trying to portray those who have died since the unrest broke out in December as Muslim martyrs. Ben Khamsa went over to the men and told them to focus on the message of throwing President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali out—and the people around him chimed in. The men put their heads down and joined in with the rest of the crowd.
“This has nothing to do with Islamists,” Ben Khamsa, a film producer, tells NEWSWEEK. “This Muslim fundamentalist thing in North Africa is a scarecrow.”
The uprising, which on Friday sent President Ben Ali fleeing abroad, casting the country into further turmoil, appears largely to be a secular, grassroots movement. And autocrats throughout the region should take note, says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center.
“Today there is no doubt. This is going to be everywhere. There will be no way for Arab leaders to escape from this,” Hamid tells NEWSWEEK. “Tunisia’s reputation was of being the most stable in the Arab regimes. If it can happen in Tunisia, it can happen anywhere.”
Until last month, Tunisia’s government was seen as having the firmest grip on control. People in the region are watching the situation in Tunisia closely; last night millions of people watched Ben Ali’s speech as it was broadcast on two Middle East–based satellite channels, Hamid says. Protests have also been taking place lately in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait.
As Ben Khamsa puts it: “We proved in this country that we’re worthy of having a democracy ... The proof is here. We threw that son of a bitch out just by taking to the streets.”