Story by Rachel Freeze
In late October, the people of Tunisia were able to publicly vote their concerns and disagreements with the government without fear of persecution for the very first time.
This meant a lot to Dr. Salim Azzouz, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MSU. Azzouz is a citizen of Tunisia, a country which has recently been in political turmoil after months of protests.
Until now, Azzouz has never had the opportunity to vote in a Tunisian election.
But last semester, Azzouz drove more than 370 miles, about eight hours, to the Arab American Center in Houston with his family to legitimately vote for the first time in his life.
“It was a long drive, but a very good one,” Azzouz said.
He voted to elect members of the National Assembly, members who will write the new constitution. He celebrated the moment by spending time with his family at the NASA Johnson Space Center.
“I traveled to Houston because I felt this was an important moment for Tunisia and I wanted to be a part of that. I took my family to take a stand,” Azzouz said with his hands over his heart. “It’s a historical moment because the people of Tunisia can now speak their minds and elect who they want. We can now elect clean people, those without blood on their hands.”
Azzouz has lived in the United States for 13 years. Five of those years have been spent teaching at MSU.
“I planned to move back to Tunisia after my schooling to teach there, but I was seduced by this country, and then I met my wife, so I stayed,” Azzouz said. “I grew up in the small town of La Marsa so I feel really comfortable here in Wichita Falls.”
In Tunisia, the only books available for the public are technical in nature – math or science texts, he said. No humanities-related books are available. The government has banned them all.
“The reason people from that region are in the math or science fields is because those are the only books they can read,” said Azzouz. “Walking into a bookstore, I’m amazed at the amount of books available here. That’s what I like about America.”
Though this was the first time for Azzouz to vote legitimately, he had voted before when he was 12 years old.
He was asked by his El Omrane (Boy Scout) leader along with other boys his age to vote in the upcoming election for the National Assembly. He voted in the place of a 62-year-old man.
“When I handed the card to the man he looked at me, then at the card, and stamped it,” Azzouz said.
Azzouz was told to take the red piece of paper and put it in the envelope. Instead he put it in his pocket.
“Even then I knew there was something wrong with what they were saying to do,” Azzouz said.
Now he can speak out against the government and its leaders whose policies negatively affected him and his family.
His father, Hedi Azzouz, worked for many years and developed an expertisein window making. He began his own business and became successful. It was a double-edged sword for companies to be successful in Tunisia, he said.
“You wanted to be successful in business, but not too successful to be on the radar of the government,” Azzouz stressed.
In Tunisia the companies that were successful were approached by the government, sometimes even by President Zine El Abidini Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Ben Ali.
They were told that they would have to share their wealth with the government, 50 percent or more.
If they refused they would either lose their business, or they were kicked out of the country.
“She was very corrupt. The government was grabbing up the fortune of the people,” Azzouz said.
Since Azzouz’s father’s business became successful he was asked to make all the windows for the Sidi Dhrif palace. Though he was asked, he could not refuse.
The government said that he was to have a crew at the palace everyday, but they didn’t pay him for his work.
Azzouz’s father asked him to return to Tunisia from Switzerland where he was attending school at the Swiss Federal Institute so he could help him.
“In the seven months that I was there I only saw them pay my father once, and even then it wasn’t a large enough amount,” Azzouz said. “It was hard for me there because I felt trapped in that scheme.”
Because of this contract with the government, his father lost his business, went into debt and was forced to take a loan from the bank, owned by the government, to survive.
His father died in 2005 before seeing his country find freedom.
“The situation in Tunisia still isn’t clear yet, but once everything is stable I do plan to visit my family,” Azzouz said with a smile.
In 1997 when he went to Tunisia to visit family he was under the watchful eye of the government, having his vehicle searched on two occasions.
“There were two men standing in front of the garden gate, but my mother said not to bother them. The atmosphere was very bad, heavy then. If I had been a political activist they wouldn’t have let me leave the country,” Azzouz said. “I can understand why people revolted. They couldn’t take it anymore.”
The first thing that Azzouz did after Tunisia ousted Ben Ali was purchase a satellite dish to watch all the new programs in Tunisia.
“I want to capture Tunisian TV because it used to be dedicated to the President and his wife and what they were doing. That was the news of the day. Now there are people holding debates and discussing what’s going to happen to the country. They’re looking for a model of democracy. The people are hungry for those kinds of things,” Azzouz said.
“To me it was really important to vote because before, all the elections were rigged and unfair. Now I am able to speak my mind and say that Ben Ali was a really bad guy. It was a very emotional feeling. I felt that it was something I had to do.”