Tunisians living in Cairo experienced a mixture of anger, optimism, enthusiasm and some worry as they watched the protests in their country after President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali left yesterday.
Aida, a Tunisian in her forties, witnessed the end of Habib Bourgiba's presidency and the transfer of power to Ben Ali. "People were optimistic at the beginning," she said. "But 23 years later, we have suffered from the constriction of liberties, police suppression and poor economic conditions. Arab nations thought we were living in luxury, not knowing that our people live in debt. Our country was being stolen and we were being thrown the crumbs to eat."
When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after authorities confiscated a cart he used for selling vegetables, incipient anger gradually swept through Tunisian streets. Bouazizi, who died on 4 January, sparked an uprising of the lower classes, for whom securing a livelihood has become a matter of life and death.
"The fact that the Tunisian regime has been taking Tunisians' lives for granted has made us protest more than just the poor economic conditions and the suppression of liberties," said Wafaa, 29, another Tunisian woman who has been living in Cairo for three years. "Every funeral led to clashes in which yet other people were killed. Therefore our demand became that those who kill our people leave."
On internet forums, Wafaa and her friends mocked their president's first and second speeches following the incidents in Tunisia. They were angry to hear him label the protesters terrorists. Wafaa said the president's last speech was different because he spoke in colloquial Arabic in an attempt to get closer to the people. Ben Ali promised a change of policies, which Wafaa said made some people consider a return to calm.
But when Ben Ali's proponents took to the streets and started chanting support for him despite continuing clashes with protesters, the protesters decided, "Everyone will take to the streets until the regime falls and the killers go.”
Mariam Barqouqi, a Tunisian academic living in Cairo, said she spent all yesterday checking on her family who live in a classy neighborhood in Tunisia. Barqouqi said she was optimistic until the looting and destruction started. "At first I was told that those destructive activities targeted the president and his wife's businesses, but they have extended to urban areas, especially the classier ones," she said. "I believe that my acquaintances and neighbors have not taken part in tonight's protests. Nobody knows who is behind those."
Mamdouh Osama, 28, a Tunisian also resident in Cairo, said members of the Tunisian ruling party are behind those gangs. Youth who were lured to join the ruling party now fear for their interests and therefore incited them, he said. His eyes gleaming with enthusiasm, Osama added that the current lack of security is better than suppression by security. "I wish I were there, even if it cost me my life.”
Tunisians in Cairo are optimistic, though also a little worried as there is no opposition to lead the process of change after years of political suppression. Still, the Tunisian people will not, according to Osama, accept anything but "Free elections in which the people choose their ruler. God willing, we will be the first Arab nation to liberate itself on its own. More than anytime before, I'm proud to be Tunisian."