Today’s speech shows definitely a major shift in Tunisia’s history.
[Tunisian president Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali talked for the third time in the past month to the people. Something unprecedented, we barely knew this guy. Ben Ali talked in the Tunisian dialect instead of Arabic for the first time ever.
A story in today's New York Times will give you some background on the serious and astonishing situation in Tunisia: David Kirkpatrick and Alan Cowell, "Crisis Deepens in Tunisia as President’s Offer Falls Flat", 1/14/2011. [Update — Since I posted this, Ben Ali has resigned and fled the country, as the linked story indicates.]
By "Tunisian dialect" Youssef Gaigi means what the Ethnologue calls "Tunisian Spoken Arabic", and by "Arabic" he means what the Ethnologue calls "Standard Arabic", often referred to as "Modern Standard Arabic".
For those who aren't familiar with Arabic diglossia, a plausible analogy would be to equate "Classical Arabic" with Latin, to compare "Modern Standard Arabic" (MSA) to the variety of Latin used in the Vatican (with words and phrases added over the years to refer to more recent objects and concepts), and to link the various "spoken" Arabics (sometimes called "colloquials" or "dialects") with modern Latin-derived "Romance" languages like French, Italian, Spanish, Romanian, etc.
The analogy is incomplete, since MSA is taught everywhere in schools, used almost everywhere in the media, and is the only variety of Arabic with significant presence in a written form. The "spoken" or "colloquial" Arabics are used in everyday life, but generally don't have a standard written form and are rarely written. Still, the linguistic differences between MSA and Tunisian or Syrian are roughly as large as those between Latin and French or Spanish.
A story may illustrate some of the ideologies involved. A few decades ago, a Tunisian linguist who had studied in the U.S. returned to a university position in Tunisia. Because some of his published work dealt with the phonetics and phonology of Tunisian Spoken Arabic, one of his colleagues formally accused him in the faculty senate of bringing the Tunisian nation into disrepute, by suggesting in print that Tunisians spoke such a degenerate and incorrect variety of Arabic.
I believe that a fairly large fraction of the Tunisian population would understand a speech in MSA, but it's certainly a meaningful gesture for Ben Ali to make a speech in "the Tunisian dialect". In fact, in Ben Ali's case, the decision to speak in Tunisian Arabic is especially meaningful. According to Naima Boussofar-Omar, "Political Transition, Linguistic Shift", in Alhawary and Benmamoun, Eds., Perspectives on Arabic Linguistics XVII-XVIII, 2005:
On November 7, 1987, Tunisians woke at 6:30 a.m. to the national anthem and some verses from the Qur'an as usual, but unlike the other mornings, the ritual was disrupted. Borguiba's daily morning program 'From the directives of the president" min tawjeehaat ar-raʔiis was preempted. The Tunisian national radio station broadcast a Communiqué (Bayaan) in which Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Bourguiba's newly appointed Prime Minister (October 2, 1987), solemnly addressed the nation to first declare, "In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful", that President Bourguiba was severely incapacitated by old age and grave sickness; second to proclaim his self-investiture as the new President and Commander in Cheif of the Tunisian Armed Forces with "The Blessings and the Grace of Allah", and third, to announce the Beginning of a "new era" ʕahd jadeed […].
One of the symbolic indications of the political change was the linguistic shift that Ben Ali made in his first Communiqué and in his subsequent public political speeches. While Bourguiba used a constellation of linguistic codes — Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, Tunisian Arabic, and French, Ben Ali chose to reclaim fuṣħaa as the only official variety of Arabic to use in public political speeches. The linguistic shift is far more than a mere substitution of a bilingual and diglossic discourse for a monolingual text. From my point of view, the shift plays a significant role in legitimizing the political coup, imagining and constructing the new social and political order of the New Era, and establishing the new tone of the new régime. Privileging fuṣħaa over the more accessible and less focused variety of Arabic (i.e. Tunisian Arabic) perpetuates the rhetoric of the political discourse that fuṣħaa is the national language. And as such it is construed as available to all when, in fact, it is still inaccessible to a considerable number of Tunisians.
Fuṣħaa (as Prof. Boussofara-Omar transliterates it) is the Arabic term for Classical Arabic and its various Literary and Modern Standard variants, as distinct from the contemporary spoken forms of Arabic.
The high reverence for fuṣħaa, its perfection, its purity of speech, and eloquence (faṣaaħa), remains as widely prevalent nowadays as it was in [the] pre-Islamic era. Fuṣħaa is "a language that embodies authority and bestows authority on those who know it" (Haeri 1997). Its indexical sense blurs the line between the reverence that educated and uneducated speakers alike have for fuṣħaa and the reverence they would have for the aura of the office and for the person who will occupy that office.
Here's a link to Ben Ali's most recent speech on YouTube.
As an indication of the small but growing influence of English and of Anglophone culture in North Africa, Youssef Gaigi writes ("Violence Unleashed", 1/13/2011):
I woke up anxious and tormented and walked straight to the streets to see the remainings of last night’s battle. But, when i arrived to Cité Ettadhamen, Mnihla in the western suburb of Tunis. I wished I was blind, but the overwhelming smell of burining plastic would still describe the intensity of the violence that invaded this large underprivilidged neighbourhood.
Violence was unleashed and flames invaded most banks, a few cars, a bus, two pharmacies, a bakery, an electronics store, and several other shops, the city hall, the municipality, and the post office of Mnihla. Hundreds of people were shocked, they stood along the way in groups trying to know what happened last night. One could see that there was some pillage, and the shops that rioters couldn’t open were tagged. They wrote on them the famous slogan A.C.A.B meaning All Cops Are Bastards. Surprisingly, there wasn’t a single cop in the streets today. I mean no single cop, and that is very strange in Tunis.
Some background on A.C.A.B is here. A more upscale example of Anglophone influence was noted in the NYT story:
Zied Mhirsi, a 33-year-old doctor carried a sign that said, in English, “Yes We Can,” a reference to President Barack Obama, above “#sidibouzid,” the name of an online Twitter feed that has provided a forum for rallying protesters.
[Update — The most recent reports indicate that Ben Ali has stopped offering concessions, instead declaring a state of emergency, "banning public gatherings and ordering security forces to fire on anyone who refuses to comply".
Another interesting example of English usage on the streets, celebrating Ben Ali's departure:
Picture from The Guardian.]