The Avenue Bourguiba, never to be forgotten again

Sparrows and ficus trees have been, within living memory, an unvarying feature of the Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis. Dug across a swampy stretch of land opening onto the Mediterranean and gradually laid out, mainly during the period between 1860 and 1930, the Avenue was “refreshed” in 2001. Called Boulevard de la Marine in the nineteenth century, renamed Avenue Jules Ferry under the Protectorate and finally Avenue Bourguiba in 1956, it has been, since the colonial period and thanks to its central position, an important commercial and touristic site of the capital. In April 1938, it was the venue of a huge demonstration organized in front of the Résident Général’s headquarters, in demand of autonomy and the setting-up of a Tunisian Parliament. The recollection of those days of strife, steeped in conventionality, considerably faded off after independence. Since 2011, however, the Avenue has been reenlivened in our national memory.

A de facto consecration

We may differ on whether the Tunisian “revolution” was the logical ending of a causal chain of events or the product of contingency, the result of  mobilization dynamics or a spontaneous phenomenon, the apex of an uncontrolled crescendo or a process kept under firm control.  There is, however, no divergence on the fact that the Avenue Bourguiba, into which  thousands of men and women poured on January 14, 2011, clearly targeting the emblematic building of the Home Ministry which it harbours, was the mythical cradle of that revolution. The night before, groups of people had been sent, in spite of the curfew, for a pretence of joy-making in front of the Municipal Theater, situated on the same Avenue, approximately a hundred meters from the Ministry. Through this blustering manifestation, to be replicated in other places, the regime, still unaware of the deep cracks in its midst, was hoping to achieve a face-saving “exit from crisis.” We may wonder, however, whether this ultimate sham did not ignite the sparkle that led to the explosion of the following day. Things began, on january 14th, in the Muhammed Ali Square where the Tunisian National Trade Union is seated and which had already been “pre-heated” by weeks of sit-ins. At 10 a.m. or before, demonstrators started from the Square and converged with flows of people coming from the adjoining Medina (traditional Arab quarter of the town) and side streets, into the Avenue de France and from there into the Avenue Bourguiba that continues it. They poured from all sides into the wide artery and adjacent streets, down to the last road section that prolongs it, ending up in the TGM (Tunis-Goulette-La Marsa) train station. At midday, the variegated and compact crowd is still swelling up. Demonstrators shout in unison the slogans: “Dégage!” (Clear off !) and « Employment, freedom, dignity ! ». Thousands of hands are pointing towards the windows of the Ministry’s grey building, protected at great pain by rows of policemen… And, in the evening of that very day, the lawyer Abdel-Nasser Laouini, his voice broken by emotion, celebrates in the empty avenue the flight of Ben Ali. From a balcony, a video camera records him as he stands there, all alone under the yellow light of street-lamps, shouting his joy to the world. These images were shown over and over again for weeks on media screens and social networks. They imprinted in the minds of people the image of an avenue where a quiet movement had succeeded in toppling down Ben Ali’s regime. After January 14, an increasing number of processions and sit-ins were held in other places of the Tunisian capital. Coming from all regions of the country, bus caravans spilled out their contents of demonstrators into the Kasbah Square, situated on the other side of the Medina from the Avenue Bourguiba and harbouring the Prime Minister’s offices. The Square was, in particular, the venue of two prolonged sit-ins in the beginning of 2011 (known as Kasbah I and Kasbah II). Added to it were the venues of El-Kobba, i.e. the Dome (of the Olympic Stadium in the district of El-Menzah) and the Bardo Square (in front of the National Constitutive Assembly’s building). National commemorative events, however, such as those of 20 March 2011 and 2012 and, more particularly, of 9 April 2012 (National Martyrs’ Day), were held in the Avenue Bourguiba and thus completed the assertion of its “revolutionary” legitimacy.

A public space, a shared space?

On January 14, 2012, first anniversary of the revolution, the crowd gathering in the Avenue is even more variegated than that of the preceding year. The diversity of colours (displayed on clothes and banners) across this urban space provides an illustration of the country’s new political map. On April 9, 2012, groups gathering on that commemorative day in defiance of the prohibition of demonstrations in the Avenue, are strongly assaulted by police forces. This, added to the clubbing, two days before, of members of the Unemployed Graduates’ Association by policemen in the same venue, brings the politicizing process of the Avenue to a higher level. A series of showdowns and negotiations eventually leads the government to draw back. The right to demonstrate in the Avenue is definitely conquered; the government’s prohibitive stance had, in fact, strengthened citizens’ demands for the right to occupy public spaces. From then on, graffiti, stalls, photo exhibitions, various happenings and discussion circles flourish in the Avenue. Shows and parades are held on the steps of the Municipal Theater while the central part of the Avenue, reserved for pedestrians, attracts an increasing number of leisure walkers and show organizers. Coffee shops are full of customers, tradesmen’s stands display Tunisian white and red flags in addition to sweets and nuts. Army tanks leave the Avenue and the nets of barbed wire become thinner. At the lower end of the Avenue, the “clock roundabout” which had replaced, in 2001, the famous “guillotine” erected in 1988 after the pulling down of Bourguiba’s equestrian statue, is renamed : Place du 14 janvier 2011. No incidents are recorded on the 1st of May parade of that year. Various demonstrations are thenceforth held on the Avenue Bourguiba. Some of these even bear on the“sacred.” Friday prayers are authorized by the ruling party, i.e. Ennahdha, in front of the Municipal Theater, where artists and shows had been the object of attacks. Black banners with the Islamic profession of faith formula inscribed on them in white characters are deployed, marches are held in defence of the niqâb (heavy veils for women). The niqâb issue, considered as pertaining to “human rights” is, during that period, at the heart of tense events in the Arts Faculty of Manouba and occupies the forefront of Tunisian political life. On February 6, 2013, the lawyer and political leader Chokri Belaïd is murdered. An angry crowd led by his widow, Besma Khalfaoui, marches into the central alley of the Avenue. As soon as the head of the convoy passes beyond the Home Ministry building, tear-gas bombs are thrown, scattering demonstrators. Since that day, sit-ins are held every Wednesday in front of the Ministry, entrenched behind barricades, to demand the complete unveiling of truth about that murder. In the whole of the Avenue, today, meetings of all colours and tendencies are held in increasing number. The impact of political events has re-enlivened the national memory of that Avenue and brought forth its role in the political life of the country, conferring on it an aura still not devoid of tension. The mass of barbed wires on the pavement in front of the Ministry and the French Embassy has thinned, but not totally disappeared, and people, though they may walk past these two buildings, can only do so on the carriage-way!

Translated by Asma Moalla

8 september 2014

 An arabic version has been published in Essabah, 12 september 2014, p. 8.

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