Habib El-Bey, 27, had set up his food truck during the month of Ramadan in April in Bab el Khadra, a popular district of Tunis, to serve sandwiches after breaking the fast.
His chat, his theatrical way of involving his customers by preparing grilled sandwiches with his special sauce quickly made him a star of Tunisian street food.
Thanks to the buzz created by his videos on social networks, his business attracted a crowd every evening who came to eat “El-Bey”, the snacks to which he gave his name.
But at the end of April, he was arrested by the police and his food truck placed in receivership, in front of furious customers, on the grounds that he did not have authorization. Filmed and widely relayed on social networks, the scene outraged many Tunisians.
His misfortunes aroused a surge of sympathy in the country and El-Bey, whose real name Habib Hlila, balding head and thick red beard, has multiplied appearances on television sets to tell his story and his projects.
Some have compared his case to that of Mohamed Bouazizi, the itinerant seller of fruit and vegetables who died after setting himself on fire on December 17, 2010 in Sidi Bouzid (center-east) to protest against the confiscation of his goods by the police. .
His gesture had been the spark of the revolution which carried away the dictatorship of Zine el Abidine ben Ali, before spreading to other countries in the region. The Arab Spring was on.
If the setbacks of Mr. Hlila occurred while Tunisia is going through a serious socio-economic crisis marked by high inflation and high unemployment against a backdrop of strong political tensions, he rejects any parallel with the drama of Bouazizi.
On the contrary, the restaurateur is doing well against bad luck and intends to take advantage of his newly acquired notoriety to bounce back and inspire young people whose initiatives often come up against a finicky bureaucracy and red tape.
“I am not Bouazizi and I will never resort to acts of desperation in the face of crises. I have decided to succeed and to be a source of motivation for young people,” he told AFP.
After many steps, he managed to obtain authorization to organize culinary shows across Tunisia before relaunching his food truck in the capital.
On Saturday, at the entrance to the Medina of Tunis, he presented his show in a new truck costing around 20,000 euros which he will pay in instalments.
– “Beautiful story” –
In a black outfit adorned with two small Tunisian flags, he animated for more than five hours this first meeting with his clients since his arrest.
“Congratulations to this young man who held on despite the obstacles. He sets a good example for young people who only think of leaving the country,” Naziha Bahloul, 51, told AFP, queuing in front of her stand. “It’s a great success story.”
“If Habib has returned to work it is because his story has been publicized, this is not the case for other young people”, notes, bitterly, Bilel, a 31-year-old unemployed man, who dreams of going to live in Europe.
The street food chef says he wants to “prove to young people that you can get what you want when there is determination. I want to tell them you should never give up despite the difficulties”.
Mr. Hlila, without a diploma, began to take an interest in street food from 2021 by giving a hand to a friend selling sandwiches on the street.
The small carts of traditional Tunisian snacks such as the essential “Ayari”, round bread coated with harissa with an egg and olive oil, the fricassee (fried donut) or the “kaskrout tounsi” made from baguette, tuna and salad, abound in the streets of Tunis and across the country, but this sector of the economy is not regulated.
“I really liked this activity and I had a lot of ideas to develop a project that could be a source of inspiration for unemployed young people,” he explains, calling for its regulation.