Dramatic mobile phone footage, firsthand accounts on social media and other digital content, often made by protesters dodging censorship, have helped immortalise Tunisia’s 2011 revolution in a new exhibition.
With videos of angry protesters in clouds of tear gas and an audio recording ending with the cry “Ben Ali has fled”, the multimedia exhibits chart the 29-day uprising that toppled longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in what is known as one of the first Facebook revolutions.
“Work, freedom and dignity!” The slogans that were to trigger uprisings across the Arab world meet visitors to the famed Bardo Museum in Tunis on an audio recording of protesters shouting.
Nearby, a TV plays an interview with the mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, filmed the day the young street vendor set himself alight in the town of Sidi Bouzid in December 2010.
His death sparked riots in protest at unemployment and the cost of living.
His mother’s interview was broadcast by foreign satellite channels, adding momentum to the demonstrations which eventually forced Ben Ali to flee with his family to Saudi Arabia on January 14, 2011.
One visitor to the “Before the 14th” exhibition, 22-year-old student Hassen Tahri, was in high school when the uprising broke out.
“I was very young at the time and I don’t remember much, but with this exhibition, we can reconstruct the sequence of events,” he said.
“It reminds us of January 13 and 14, when we didn’t know what would happen, especially after (Ben Ali) fled.”
Saving the historical record
The creators of the exhibition aim to bring together a digital record of the days leading up to Ben Ali’s fall.
A storm of images and videos posted online were instrumental in turning a street vendor’s death into a full-blown uprising — but many were only saved as posts on social media.
That worried activists and researchers, who feared that the online historical record was starting to be deleted.
In response, they set up a collective of NGOs and worked with institutions including Tunisia’s National Library to preserve the material.
They brought together photos, videos, blog posts, poems, statements and even Facebook statuses, along with information on their locations, dates and the people who posted them.
The result of four years of work, the archive now holds nearly 2,000 photos and videos, mostly taken by protesters themselves.
It is preserved for posterity at Tunisia’s National Archives.
The exhibition, which will also go on show in the southern French city of Marseille later this year, includes material on protests dating back as far as 2008, through to the mass protests of early 2011.
“It’s important for young people to understand exactly what happened,” said Hiba Jebali, a 21-year-old student visiting the exhibition.
“They are the future of the country.”
Kmar Ben Dana, a historian who took part in the research, said it had been challenging to verify digital content created by people who had braved Ben Ali’s censorship.
“It’s unprecedented, because it’s made up of digital material,” she said.
Tunisia’s democratic transition has been held up as a success story in a region since rocked by uprisings and wars.
But unemployment in the North African country remains high and Tunisia has faced a deadly jihadist insurgency.
The exhibition venue itself was the site of a massacre in 2015 when two jihadist gunmen opened fire, killing 22 people.
And eight years after Ben Ali’s departure, many in Tunisia say the hopes of the revolution have been unfulfilled.
In the face of insecurity and the high cost of living, some even say they now miss the rule of Ben Ali.
But Ben Dana hopes that as well as being a record for historians, the archive can preserve the gains of the revolution.
“We hope it (the exhibition) will help to show that the revolution was an extremely positive, extremely liberating event,” she said.
And it will help in the future “to write history based on these archives”, she added.