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Witness to the Arab Spring in Tunisia

In December 2010, Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi proved that it can take just a single moment to spark a revolution.

Humiliated and economically desperate, Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest a corrupt and repressive government. That act unleashed a wave of anger that spread first across Tunisia, then much of North Africa and the Middle East. Fueled by social media, the Arab Spring brought protests, riots, government crackdowns, and civil wars from Morocco to Iraq. Years later, it is clear that the Arab Spring brought mixed results. Only Tunisia emerged as a full, parliamentary democracy while others, like Syria and Libya, devolved into anarchy and civil war.

Ambassador Gordon Gray was stationed in Tunis when the Arab Spring broke out. President Ben Ali had held Tunisia’s highest office after an election in 1989 where no opposition parties appeared on the ballot. Twenty-three years later, Ben Ali presided over a nation that ranked poorly for freedom of the press, democracy, and human rights.

Gray, a career foreign service officer, spent his career largely in the Middle East and North Africa and was an expert on the region. He served as ambassador to Tunisia from 2009 to 2012.

Gordon Gray’s oral history interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning February 10, 2016.

Read Gordon Gray’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Connor Akiyama.

“Security forces fired on demonstrators and credible estimates were that two dozen people were killed.”

The Revolution Begins: “The demonstrations continued and intensified, getting to the point that the security forces were starting to overreact, and people were being killed. We called on the government to exercise restraint but unfortunately it did not. We did that publicly and privately, and the point of no return was the weekend of the 8th and the 9th of January, 2011. Security forces fired on demonstrators and credible estimates were that two dozen people were killed. After those killings the demonstrations spread very quickly.

. . . [On January 13th]Ben Ali gave his . . . final speech. One of the interesting things about it was that he gave the speech in the Tunisian dialogue of Arabic; a lot of Tunisians remarked that they had never heard him speak in dialect before. He also pledged to remove the censorship of the media, and, sure enough, as soon as the speech concluded YouTube, which had been blocked, was opened. The Tunisians rushed to YouTube and other social media and to websites to see if they were available, and they were. There was also, as I recall, a televised discussion of the speech afterwards; that was unprecedented. Many people told me afterwards that if he had given that speech three months earlier he wouldn’t have had to leave office. But the speech was too little, too late.

The next day was Friday the 14th, exactly four weeks after [fruit vendor Mohamed] Bouazizi had set himself on fire. There were very large demonstrations in downtown Tunis, on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, which is akin to Fifth Avenue in New York City; it’s one of the main thoroughfares in downtown Tunis. There were also very big demonstrations in other cities along the coast. It is important to note that the demonstrations had spread from the impoverished interior of the country to the more affluent coastal cities. Demonstrators were not only people without work or the underemployed; the middle class was demonstrating as well. Toward the end of the day, Ben Ali and his family got in an airplane, took off, and landed in Saudi Arabia. The first reports were that he was headed to France but that the French denied him permission to land. So he headed to Jeddah, where he remains to this day.”

“The looting and burning was very targeted . . .”

The Embassy Responds: The embassy itself was not in peril because the demonstrations against Ben Ali did not have an anti-American component to them. Perhaps we were in the eye of the storm. As a matter of fact, some people had signs saying, “Yes, we can.” At that point I had served on and off in the Middle East and North Africa for over thirty years, and if you had told me that there would be a large demonstration in the region in which people chanted the campaign slogan of the sitting American president, I would not have believed. There were no demonstrations directed at or even near the embassy, and the embassy was not downtown. We of course had to be prudent, there wasn’t anger directed at the United States.

While there was not violence targeted against the United States, there was some violence, including some very unfortunate collateral damage inflicted on the property of a few of our personnel. No one was hurt, thank goodness. Here’s what I mean: the Tunisians knew which properties were owned by Ben Ali’s relatives, and some, perhaps even many, of those properties were looted and burned. After everything had died down, when driving down a street you’d see nine of the ten houses on a street in fine condition, but the tenth one would have been burned out. The looting and burning was very targeted, but in one case a house that we rented suffered a great deal of damage. I don’t know if it was rented from a Ben Ali family member, or if there was a misperception that it belonged to a family member, or if it was mistakenly burned, but the result was the same. Three Embassy folks, a tandem couple on one floor of the house and a single woman on the other floor, lost a lot of their belongings from smoke damage. There was also a great deal of uncertainty. The police and Ministry of Interior personnel realized it was not very smart for them to be seen on the streets, so the normal security forces disappeared and roadblocks were set up on an ad hoc basis. The army came in to provide security. Harkening back to my previous comment about more than three decades living on and off in the region, you usually don’t want to hear that the army is coming to restore order, but that’s exactly what they did. The Tunisian military was historically small and apolitical, and Ben Ali kept underfunded as he did not want to create a rival power center. As a result, the military was untarnished and actually was a source of national pride. So the army was able to restore order.”

In his [January 25 State of the Union] address, President Obama said that the American people stand with the democratic aspirations of the Tunisian people.”

A Different Public Image: “[T]he United States was the only leading country that did not send a congratulatory message to Ben Ali to plaster on the front page of the government newspapers.  That was noticed. The French Foreign Minister spent New Year’s weekend, in other words after the demonstrations had started, in Tunisia with a leading Tunisian businessman who was close to the ruling family. She reportedly gave a toast to the health of Ben Ali, etc. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know if she gave the toast or not, but it is important that the Tunisian popular perception was that she did. The perception was that Sarkozy and Ben Ali were close. The day before Ben Ali left, in other words on January 13, the French Foreign Minister was quoted as saying that France would be willing to send teargas to help with crowd control during the demonstrations. So there was a pretty obvious distinction between which way the French were leaning, and which way the United States was leading. Everything the French said was, of course, magnified because of the prevalence of the French media and the fact that French is the second language for most Tunisians. I am not pointing this out to bash the French. As I said earlier, they made a calculation that they felt advanced their short-term and, you could argue, even medium-term interests. Instead, I am making these observations to show how the United States was well-positioned. In fact, after Ben Ali fled, Paris fired the French Foreign Minister and replaced my counterpart. All things being equal, we were about as well-positioned as we could have been.

… In his [January 25 State of the Union] address, President Obama said that the American people stand with the democratic aspirations of the Tunisian people. It was a non-partisan line and as a result Senators and members of the House of Representatives – Democrats and Republicans alike – rose to give a standing ovation. They were really applauding, I think, the Tunisian people. The Tunisians saw this, and you better believe we made sure to disseminate the video clip and the words as much as possible. . . . Public diplomacy does not easily lend itself to metrics about effectiveness, but I have to note how many Tunisians told me and my colleagues that the American approach after the revolution was important because it gave the Tunisian people confidence to continue on their course. . . . for weeks after I had Tunisians of all walks of life, up to and including ministers, tell me in almost identical words that hearing those words, and seeing the standing ovation, brought tears to their eyes.”




     BA in Political Science, Yale University                                                                 1974-1978

     MA in International Affairs, Columbia University                                              1981-1982

Joined the Foreign Service                                                                                    1982

     Cairo, Egypt—Deputy Chief of Mission                                                                  2002-2005

     Washington D.C.—Deputy Assistant Secretary, NEA Bureau                           2005-2008

     Baghdad, Iraq—Senior Advisor to Ambassador Crocker                                    2008-2009

     Tunis, Tunisia—Ambassador                                                                                    2009-2012