“Laughing, it saved us!”

In 2011, the Arab world was crossed by an unprecedented revolutionary momentum. Ten years later, what remains of this “spring”? From Tunisia to Yemen, via Libya, Egypt and Syria, International mail take stock. This week, meeting with the cartoonist Nadia Khiar whose favorite character, Willis from Tunis, has become the icon of the revolt that brought down Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, on January 14, 2011.

Ten years old and still alive ”, your cat, the famous Willis from Tunis, proclaims on the cover of the book you are taking out on the occasion of the anniversary of the Tunisian revolution. A decade later, what state of mind is he in? Is he still so combative or is he resigned when it comes to politics?

He is alive and well! I can assure you that we are not giving up. It is necessary, because ten years later, in Tunisia, it is the disaster! The only real positive point is that at least I don’t risk being unemployed! Every day, those who govern us give me material to draw.

Willis, your character, has become an icon of the revolution. He was also born on January 13, 2011, on the eve of the fall of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. Can you tell us how he appeared?

It had been heating up in the country for a month [les manifestations ont débuté le 17 décembre 2010, après l’immolation par le feu d’un jeune vendeur ambulant, Mohamed Bouazizi, dans la ville de Sidi Bouzid]. We felt a real ferment, but the censorship was still very strong.

On January 13, in an attempt to calm the country, Ben Ali announced that he was liberalizing the press and the Internet. I said to myself : “We’ll see if it’s true.” I took a pencil, a piece of paper, I drew this ironic cat and posted it on social media.

How do you explain this immense success?

At that point, we were ultra-connected. Everyone who was protesting was on social media to get around censorship, which helped my drawings go viral. And then, after so many years of oppression, I think we needed to laugh about it all. Laughing saved us.

Do you remember your state of mind on January 14, 2011, when you learned of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s departure from power?

When I saw the footage of the presidential plane leaving the country, I couldn’t believe it. Having said that, then, for months, the police and the regime’s system were still there. It was hard but it was magnificent, there was a crazy solidarity, the word was freed. It was like the cry of a child coming into the world.

Are the freedoms conquered in 2011 acquired now? Or do you have the feeling of going back in time?

Today, it is still very hot to criticize the army, the police or religion. There are always people trying to silence us. One thing is certain: we do not let it go.

You regularly receive threats for the drawings you create, you are the subject of a fatwa… Are you not afraid?

No. When I draw, I don’t think about the consequences. Since 2011, I have promised myself one thing, this is my slogan: “Never fear again.”

Ten years after the revolution, how is Tunisia doing?

There have been real advances. In 2014, a new Constitution proclaiming, for example, equality between men and women. Even if mentalities do not change as quickly as texts, taboos fall.

Politically, how do you see the successors of Ben Ali?

It’s a disaster. At the head of our country, we have a conservative president, in the Assembly, Nabil Karoui and the Islamists of Ennahda seem to have agreed to crush us. All of them attack the weakest.

There is still a lot of work to do but I used to say that it is “democracy loading” [“en cours de démocratisation”]. Already in 2011, I thought that it would take at least a generation for the country to change profoundly. That takes time.

There is also the economic crisis that weighs on Tunisians …

Yes, the cost of living has skyrocketed. For many people, everyday life is really tough. Moreover, we only have to look at the number of our young people who land in Lampedusa. It doesn’t smell good, all that. What I’m afraid is that this will all escalate into violence. The Tunisians are very divided, we have Libya right next door which is at war, Erdogan who is trying to advance his pawns …

Would you then say that the 2011 revolution was a failure?

No ! Shortly after the fall of Ben Ali, and in particular with the arrival of the Islamists in power, some began to regret. They said “In fact, it was better before”. But they have short memories. Democracy does not happen overnight.

Ten years from now, do you think Willis will still be here?

I hope not ! In ten years, I hope I have nothing more to laugh at!

Nadia Khiari, Willis from Tunis. Ten years old and still alive!, Elyzad, 2020

Anna Sylvestre-Treiner

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