Africa

Lina Ben Mhenni: The woman who blogged Tunisia's revolution

Tunisian women carry the coffin of human rights defender, internet-activist and blogger Lina Ben Mhenni during her funeral procession on January 28, 2020 Image copyright AFP
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Hundreds of Tunisians attended the funeral of 36-year-old blogger and activist Lina Ben Mhenni, mourning the loss of a brave voice who fought for radical change. The BBC's Rana Jawad joined them.

This is a story of a "family and a country", a tearful woman said to me as people slowly gathered on the hilltop of the Jallez cemetery in the capital, Tunis.

Hunched over, and clutching a small bunch of flowers in one hand, she smiled faintly when I asked where she and Lina Ben Mhenni first met. "Under the teargas," she said.

The prominent Tunisian blogger and civil rights activist died this week following a long battle with the auto-immune disease, lupus.

Image copyright Getty Images

In her late 20s at the time, Ben Mhenni rose to prominence in the early days of the 2011 revolution through her blog Tunisian Girl.

Hers was one of the few voices that told the world of the killings and crackdown on protesters in Sidi Bouzid - where the uprising that eventually toppled autocratic President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali began.

Protester wearing a bandanna over his face
Getty Images
Tunisia's revolution

The start of the Arab Spring

  • 2010December - Protests break out over unemployment

  • 2011January - President Ben Ali ousted as protests continue

  • 2011December - Rights activist Moncef Marzouki becomes president

  • 2014January - New constitution agreed

  • 2014 December - Beji Caid Essebsi wins presidential election

Source: BBC Monitoring

But her fight for human rights and free speech started long before the revolution and was influenced by her parents.

Ben Mhenni's father, Sadok Ben Mhenni, is a left-wing activist and former political prisoner. Her mother was also involved in political activism.

In the hours after her death, social media was full of messages of grief. A veteran Egyptian journalist described it as "a loss for anyone who believes in freedom".

And even President Kais Saied paid his respects, saying: "There are women who history does not forget. There are women who make history."

Women carried the coffin

The funeral attracted fellow campaigners, as well as family and friends, including schoolteacher Hala, who did not want to give her other name.

She crossed paths with Ben Mhenni many times over the years.

"Freedom, better education and health - that's all we wanted. When we failed, she pushed us because she was always present," she said.

Image copyright EPA

The funeral procession from her family home mirrored Ben Mhenni's youthful years - it was passionate and defiant. Her coffin was escorted on the shoulders of women - breaking with Islamic traditions that usually reserve this task for men.

At the cemetery, hundreds of women and men gathered and in another unusual move, broke into applause when the coffin arrived.

It felt like a pensive college reunion spanning nearly three generations.

Image caption Lina Ben Mhenni's mother and father, who had been a political prisoner, inspired her activism

Many appeared to be there to remind each other of a shared struggle in the past and a new one for the ideal Tunisia they want to see.

Ali Hamouda, who had lived most of his life in Paris and moved here during the revolution, hugged a young woman he had not seen since another protest in 2014.

"A lot of the people here know each other from the streets… we are gathered around moments and memories. It's like we lost a part of a mosaic," he explained.

On a hit list

For others there paying their respects, they described feeling "like we have no-one else representing our generation".

She was not universally loved, and her international fame created a backlash among some. But she was widely respected for sticking up for her principles.

In January 2016, I drank multiple espressos with Ben Mhenni in a cafe in central Tunis to talk about how the country was faring five years on from the revolution.

Back then, she was accompanied by a close protection police officer who had been with her for almost two years, after the ministry of interior found her name on a "hit list of a terrorist cell", she explained.

Lina Ben Mhenni
Getty Images
We allowed reactionary forces to confiscate our revolution... I don't have confidence in our politicians any more"
Lina Ben Mhenni
Speaking in 2016

She was not happy with the situation she was in, but continued her activism and writing regardless.

"We allowed reactionary forces to confiscate our revolution," she said reflecting on what had happened.

"I don't have confidence in our politicians any more. We've been talking about a youth revolution, but the youth were excluded."

Much has changed here since the time of Ben Ali's rule and the first few turbulent years that followed his downfall.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Some mourning Lina Ben Mhenni feared that there will be no-one else to speak up for her generation

For those watching from the outside, the dominant headlines have been on Tunisia's "great strides" in introducing ground-breaking laws promoting gender equality and freedom of speech. The country has introduced a progressive constitution and had several democratic elections.

At a time when the world was looking at Tunisia as a shining example of post-revolution success in the region, Ben Mhenni - and others like her today - hold its progress to a much higher standard. She felt the country was regressing politically and economically, and she never minced her words.

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In more recent times she spoke extensively about the poor healthcare system.

She uploaded her last blog post a week before she died, with a stinging review of Tunisia's political blocs.

"We forget their absurdity, corruption, repression, and even violence," she wrote after her opening line describing Tunisians as having a "short memory".

Power of the youth

For some Tunisians, Ben Mhenni personified the ideals and goals of what many on this continent and beyond expect from their present and future rulers - fairness, justice, and freedom.

Her father's close friend Taher Chegrouche - also a left-wing activist - told me "she represented the opposite of what we have today on the political scene. She never wanted anything in return.

"There was a purity in her heart and she believed in sacrifice" to achieve her goals.

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Media captionSpeaking to the BBC in 2011 Lina Ben Mhenni said she would not take part in the election

When I interviewed her in 2016 she exuded friendliness, generosity with her time, and passion for her beliefs.

But there was a layer of pessimism, disappointment and exhaustion. I asked her if there was anything she was happy about.

She momentarily beamed as she spoke of the youth's resilience: "I'm happy because there are some people who didn't give up.

"I'm happy with the youth who are very active in civil society, and I am happy with civil society which more or less has saved the country many times."

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