Thousands of supporters of what Western media have dubbed the Jasmine Revolution gathered in Montreal’s Dorchester Square this past Saturday as former Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted on January 14.
Haroun Bouazzi, an organizer of the rally and member of the group Collectif de solidarité au Canada avec les luttes sociales en Tunisie, emphasized the participation of Tunisian and non-Tunisian Quebeckers alike. The rally was attended by hundreds of “people that felt close to our cause because Tunisian people were fighting for values that are shared,” he said. These included members of the political party Québec solidaire, Amnesty International, and various labour unions.
Françoise David, spokesperson for Québec solidaire, attended the rally. “People were in high spirits, but also concerned because on the one hand they were able to oust the dictator Ben Ali from power, but on the other hand, at the same time people were obviously concerned about what was going to happen in the future,” she told The Daily in French.
In the days following Ben Ali’s ouster, attention has turned toward a Westmount mansion that, according to property records obtained by the Gazette, is owned by Mohamed Sakher El Materi, the billionaire son-in-law of the ousted dictator. Members of the Tunisian community have protested outside the house in recent days, throwing ketchup and placing a sign that declares the mansion the “property of the Tunisian people.” El Materi is currently renting out the house, however Montreal has been cited as a possible asylum destination for the billionaire.
There was no sign of activity or vandalism, and the mansion showed clear signs of being under renovations Monday evening. The property overlooks downtown Montreal, with an expansive view of the city from the slopes of Mount Royal.
In the now oft-quoted diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, American Ambassador to Tunisia Robert F. Godec wrote that, after a July 2009 dinner, El Materi “repeatedly pointed out the lovely view from his home and frequently corrected his staff, issued orders and barked reprimands.” The ambassador criticized El Materi for the “wealth and excess” and “over-the-top” nature in which he and his family lived alongside the poverty of Tunisia. According to the BBC, El Materi’s mansion in Tunis, where he entertained Godec and kept a pet tiger named Pasha, has since been looted by demonstrators and left in ruins.
Bouazzi insists he had nothing to do with organizing the demonstrations outside the El Materi mansion in Montreal, but will campaign to bring El Materi to justice all the same.
“The day we will have real justice in Tunisia, we’ll ask any country where he is – Canada or France or Saudi Arabia – to send him back to Tunisia and to have a trial in the Tunisian justice system,” he said.
The role of WikiLeaks in the popular revolution has been downplayed by many bloggers as well as activists, including Bouazzi. “This revolution was made by Tunisian people and just because of the struggle for justice, and it is not because of WikiLeaks.”
Bouazzi gave more credit to the role of social media and mobile technology – such as Twitter and Facebook, outside the control of Ben Ali – as a means of organizing demonstrations.
When asked about the possibility of El Materi and his family seeking asylum in Canada, Ahmed Ben Fekih of the Tunisian Embassy in Ottawa said that “it’s not for the embassy to decide – this is a Canadian immigration issue,” though he also stated he too was interested in locating El Materi, who is reportedly in France.
Robert Gervais, the Media Relations Spokesperson for the Immigration and Refugee Board for the Eastern Region of Canada, refused to discuss El Materi, stating, “We don’t comment on international events.” He further stressed that Canadian immigration policy was to evaluate refugees fleeing Tunisia on a “case-by-case basis.”
Melissa Lantsman, representing Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, urged “all Tunisians to work together to end the violence that continues to threaten the safety of the people and safety on the ground. What he [Cannon] has been clear about is that he has welcomed the news of elections to be held in the near future and Canada urges the government of Tunisia to ensure those elections will be both free and fair.”
Ben Fekih hopes that the Canadian government will promote continued economic investment in the country, and despite the current travel advisory against non-essential travel to Tunisia issued by Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, one day “encourage tourists to spend their vacations in Tunisia.” He also warned that “television does not show the real reality, and it only throws gas on the fire,” referring to the depiction of riots and unrest in international news. “The real reality is that this started a month ago and it is a social demonstration. People are demanding employment,” he said.
When Bouazzi was asked what is next for international Tunisian activism, he stated. “The Tunisian people had no help from any outside power whatsoever, but now there [are] a lot of powers, especially in the Arab world…that don’t want this experience to succeed. So now we’ll have new things to deal with. … Intelligence services are going to try to destroy the experience,” he said.