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Tunisia 10 springs later: a sour aftertaste

Tunisia is often praised as the Arab Spring’s success story. Its Jasmine revolution kicked it off and brought relative political stability to the country. A decade later, the Tunisian youth is back on the streets.

In December 2010, a young street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated in the streets of Sidi Bouzid. He sparked a national democratic uprising which led Tunisia’s former leader Ben Ali to flee the country. Since then, the country has held three peaceful democratic elections. It is ruled by a pluralist government. Its commitment to gender equality is a breath of fresh air in the Arab world:. 

Tunisian women represent 47% of elected officials in municipal councils, and almost a quarter of parliament.

But as the world grapples with a global pandemic and collectively reflects on the legacy of the Arab Spring, Tunisia is making international headlines. A wave of protests broke out last month, in reaction to the extension of covid-related restrictions. The national curfew, which lasts from 8pm to 5am, is preventing many young people from working part-time jobs. “We would like to work but the state doesn’t allow it- this curfew is senseless,” says Najat*, a student in hospitality management at the University of Tunis.

The protests are the expression of a decade worth of growing frustrations. Abdelbasset Ben Hassem is the president of the Arab Institute for Human Rights, a Nobel Prize nominated NGO based in Tunis. He tells me the revolution came from a desire to “transform Tunisia, change society and introduce a system of freedom, social justice and democracy.” But he and many others feel this hasn’t been achieved.

“In theory we live in a democracy but nothing has changed, maybe it was even better before,”says 22 year old Najat.

“The economy, jobs, even liberties, all of it was better before the revolution under the condition that we didn’t touch political power,” she notes – referring to Ben Ali’s 24 year long autocratic rule.

Tunisians’ career prospects are bleak. Unemployment rates reached 36.5 per cent for young people last year, according to the International Labour Organization. Abdelbasset Ben Hassem believes the youth is actually a ‘real asset for Tunisian society.’ He would like for them to have the opportunity to be involved in decision-making and public policies. “We do not have a choice,” he says, “we either have to consider young people as an important part of society or else we will go further in the spirit of the crisis.”

Najat also sees potential and dynamism in Tunisia. She notes that unemployment figures don’t take into account the many people working undeclared. She even jokingly calls her country a “startup starter pack”.  IT does account for 7.5 percent of Tunisia’s GDP, while the World Bank injected 175 million dollars in that sector in 2019. 

But the state remains a hurdle in Najat’s career prospects. She deplores the bureaucratic barriers to innovation and entrepreneurship. Payments in foreign currency are a hassle, she says. The Central Bank is riddled with archaic rules that slow down processes. A lot of forms need to be signed before making payments in foreign currency.  Najat claims that financial regulations are changed with every mandate and says every government has raised or changed interest rates, “it prevents investing,” she adds . 

The Tunisian economy contracted around eight per cent last year according to rating agency Fitch. Abdelbasset Ben Hassen thinks the whole economic system must be reformed – he says ‘the current crisis is structural and the response can only be systemic.’ Like Najat, he told me that he would like to see the administrative hurdles, that prevent youth initiatives, removed.

At the moment, not many young Tunisians can imagine a fulfilling future at home. A lot of them find it easier to picture a career abroad, in France, the US or Canada. “I don’t think I will finish my career here long-term,” says Najat, “any young person would tell you the same.” 

In addition to the economic deadlock, frustrations around police brutality and human rights violations have been fuelling the recent protests. Although human rights ideals are embedded in the constitution – the Tunisian reality is disenchanting. 

Police brutality is endemic. In 2018, Amnesty International called on the Tunisian authorities to put an end to widespread impunities from security forces.  It got worse since the Revolution according to Najat. She says “the policeman rules in Tunisia, we literally have a word: ‘El hkal’ that means the judge and we use it to refer to cops.” Teargas and rock throwing are commonplace at the demonstrations. This January, a young protester died in hospital, following clashes with the police. This led to more violent confrontations between demonstrators and security forces in the town of Sbeitla, three hours south of the capital. Local human rights groups said at least 1,000 people were detained that week.

The LGBTQ+ community is persecuted. Tunisia’s penal code reprimands homosexuality, which is punished by 3 years in prison. The state can require doctors to perform anal tests on citizens, in search for ‘proof’ of homosexuality. The Independent Forensic Experts Group (IFEG) condemned such examinations, stating that they have “no value in detecting abnormalities in anal sphincter tone that can be reliably attributed to consensual anal intercourse.” The WHO, and the Tunisian council of medical doctors both condemned it. But it is still used to identify and arrest Tunisian citizens, often brutalised by the police. Last year, 12 prison sentences were given to trans people and gay men under the penal code, which criminalises ‘sodomy’ in its article 230, and ‘indecent behaviour in public’ in its article 225.

Young Tunisians are also denouncing the heavy repression around marijuana consumption. The recent crackdown brought awareness to the disproportionate condemnation of this crime. Last month, three young men were sentenced to 30 years in prison for smoking a joint in a football stadium. The sentence was given by a tribunal in El Kef, a region that has been declining economically since the revolution. The event sparked outrage and was publicly denounced by the Tunisian Human Rights league. 

A few weeks later, a 21-year-old was sentenced to 17 years in prison for cannabis consumption. This led to a social media campaign, making waves via the hashtag #free_taher. Many Tunisians are calling for the abolishment of the ‘law 52’, which penalises cannabis consumption. “We would like to replace it with community work and rehabilitation structures, but the state doesn’t allow us,” says Najat.

As the global Covid-crisis revealed systemic fragilities around the globe, Tunisians are still grappling with existential concerns, as a new democracy. To achieve the structural reforms the country craves, it needs democratic participation more than ever.  “We need to hear the voices of the voiceless, the young, the marginalised, the regions that are excluded from development” says Abdelbasset Ben Hassen. 

*Name has been changed to protect interviewee’s identity.

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