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Tunisia has a significant claim to fame. Not only did it ignite the revolutionary flames of the Arab Spring, it was the only nation to make a triumphant transition from dictatorship to a flourishing democracy in this series of uprisings.
Prior to travelling to the country, I myself held these same misconceptions – about how successful this transformation really was.
It was over 6 years ago that street vender Mohammad Boazizi’s act of self-immolation inspired other disenfranchised Tunisians to take to the streets, and demand the resignation of autocratic leader Zine al-Abadine Ben Ali. While Tunisia had not suffered the fate that other Arab nations did, such as Libya, Syria and Yemen, profound difficulties still persist. Many Tunisians feel that the revolution is incomplete. Whilst one corrupt regime has been abolished, another has simply replaced it.
In a sense, some positives did occur. The Tunisians prevented a greater Islamist presence from penetrating the nation’s politics. Due to the political Islamic nature of the Ennahda party, which was elected to power in 2011, many feared that Tunisia could follow the same path that Iran did in 1979. Similarities between both cases were stark, after all. Both entailed the toppling of an authoritarian, secular dictatorship at the hands of a popular uprising, with political Islamic forces capitalizing upon the masses’ frustrations.
Yet the Tunisian people were adamant. They made clear that they would not tolerate any such transformations. The uproar against Hamadi Jebali’s initial suggestion that Ennahda would implement Tunisia’s ‘sixth caliphate’ forced him to retract his statement shows this; as do the protests against making Sharia Law the constitution’s primary source. Ennahda has repeatedly been forced to pragmatize, and moderate itself – and was forced into a coalition with the secular Nidaa Tounes party in 2014.
This itself can be considered a successful element of the revolution. The Tunisian populace fought for a government representative of its ideological values.
Yet after speaking to a wide range of range of Tunisians across the country – whether during Ramadan iftars (meal for breaking the fast), in cafes or other social settings, people consistently voiced the same concerns about society.
Job prospects are dismal. Even those with years of experience and appropriate qualifications in their fields struggle to find consistent work that pays substantially. This is evidently more severe among the younger generation, with youth unemployment at a staggeringly high 40% – much worse than under Ben Ali!
Others have become very desperate for employment that they have resorted to paying 2000-3000 dinars (approximately $820-$1230) to officials as a bribe, just to secure employment. As this amounts to several month’s salary in full-time work, one can surely see how people can be stuck in an entrapping situation.
I noticed a sense of hopelessness for many Tunisians. I was told on numerous occasions that there is no future for people in their country. 27 year-old Mohammad shows much entrepreneurial flare and interest in his designing business – but tells me how, like with many other small businesses, it is extremely difficult for it to make progress, as the government does not facilitate much support.
While Mohammad is one of the few still striving to make change, others simply feel defeated. Instead of holding great dreams to accomplish in Tunisia, many instead dream of escaping Tunisia.
Ennahda has often been lambasted for mismanaging the economy. Critics have often cited it as lacking fiscal credibility. Furthermore, social disparity is still an issue, with a considerable rich-poor divide. Tunisians feel that the government is hording wealth, and does not care about them. Since I had heard endless claims that life was actually better under Ben Ali, the revolution has clearly failed to alleviate financial concerns.
To make matters worse, the regime is known to be oppressive, authoritarian, and riddled with corruption. The Tunisian government showed this in response to recent mass protests for better living conditions occurred in Tatoutine – a city disproportionately hit by unemployment. Instead of listening to the public’s concerns, the government allowed protesters to be met with brutality from security forces, leaving one dead and many others injured.
Yet those who are detained face barbaric treatment too, as exposed from numerous reports from organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. There are numerous cases of people suffering torture, arbitrary imprisonments, and many other forms of violence from the authorities.
The government has acted, often illegally, to curtail freedom of speech and individual liberties too. In Ramadan this year, many arrests for eating, drinking and smoking in public were made. This is clearly a violation of the democracy in Tunisia, as such a punishment is not included in the constitution. Anyone prominent trying to criticize the government will be tackled too: journalists and bloggers have often been arrested for ‘offending’ the army and the police force.
It is reasonable to say that the revolution has not been a success. Some believe that the revolution is still not complete. Evidently, they are correct.
Throughout history, other revolutions – genuine strides for progress and change – have been hijacked by self-serving movements, acting on their own interests. Tunisia is seemingly no exception.
The establishment of democratic elections in Tunisia was an outstanding achievement. It shows progress can be made, if enough people push for it. But while people’s attention is diverted with desires to flee the country, or people continue to become disenfranchised with political participation – little will change. Only repeated pressure from below, people making their voices heard, can ensure that lasting change will occur.
Jonathan Fenton-Harvey studies History and Politics at the University of Exeter. He is a freelance writer and blogger, with a special interest in political and social issues in the Middle East and North Africa – where he has travelled extensively. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org