By Assia Tej
On December 17th, 2010, street salesman Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire, in front of the government building in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid to protest against unemployment and corruption. Although he died two weeks after his self-immolation, his actions sparked protests across the country and the region. The ex-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali tried to quell the mass protests, promising to end police crackdowns and initiate legislative elections within six months but protesters remained adamant. On January 14, 2011, Ben Ali fled the country and took refuge in Saudi Arabia, putting an end to his twenty-three-year rule. Despite Ben Ali’s removal, Tunisia’s democratisation was slow as repeated protests and sit-ins demanded quicker reforms. Ten years later, Tunisia has been dubbed a “success story’ of the region, but some Tunisians remain doubtful as the country is still facing waves of protests and strikes.
In 2013, the popular secular politician Chokri Belaid was murdered by an unknown figure, according to media, an Islamist extremist, which sparked political crisis. “Chokri’s blood will never lose its power”, said Feriel Charfeddine. This event truly shocked Tunisians and instilled doubt as to the success of their revolution. Violence erupted as secular groups took to the streets against the called “Islamist-led” government.
Many young people continued to face limited economic opportunities. Today, eight out of 10 Tunisians say endemic corruption persists. Yassine Ben Ali declares on an interview with The Guardian: “Before being a member of parliament in 2017, there wasn’t anyone making a court claim when they uncovered corruption.”
Although Tunisia’s political and democratic transition has been relatively smooth, with the successful organization of the 2011, 2014, 2018 and 2019 elections, the same cannot be said of economic change. Despite relatively strong macroeconomic indicators, Tunisia is already plagued by organizational difficulties ; slower economic growth, especially since the global crisis of 2008, rising unemployment, especially for young graduates (30% versus the national average of 15%) and the authorities’ reluctance to take social action.
On the tenth anniversary of the revolution, history repeated itself as many youngsters went in the streets to protest, despite the curfew. “You want us to stay unemployed? Soon we’ll be eating scrap metal! Soon we’ll be eating each other!”, shouted a young protestor in Zahrouni, not far from Tunis. (Middle East Eye)
This inherent awareness is not only the projection of modest and materialistic motives on the actions of the protesters. ““It’s the revolution of the hungry,” reads the slogan painted on a wall in Kabbariya, a neighborhood in the southern suburbs of Tunis.” The attacks also target those who have been seen benefiting while the population is poor. One could even argue for the hypothesis that “Aziza” a local supermarket, who dominate the working-class neighbourhoods, have been attacked especially because of their notorious close ties to the Ennahda party.
““It’s a continuation of 2010 and 2011, because nothing has changed, the powers that be have made people poorer and more marginalized in regions. Before, there was a problem with the corrupt family of Ben Ali. Now there is a problem with the new family in power, the Ennahda family and the corrupt business clans, the same ones as before, nothing has even changed!” raged a visibly politicized protestor from Jelma, a rural town in the centre of the country.”
In the meantime, the parliament is subject to a terrible chaos. Social media became the theatre for violence that occurred over political opposition. The deputies Samia Abbou and Anouar Bechahed, have been attacked by other deputies. Another incident captured on social media on January 27th, 2021, Seïf Eddine Makhlouf snatches Abir Moussi’s cell phone and threatens her in front of other deputies.
The anger accumulated over a ten-year period has shifted from the presidency toward parliament, which was meant to embody democracy and ultimately has come to symbolize its corruption. In the shadow of the democratic transition, many flaws have been forgotten or ignored, such as poverty, slow economic growth, unemployment, and inequality.
Despite all of the weaknesses, Tunisian is regarded as the only Arab spring country to transition to democracy, because whispers in secret became a powerful call for freedom, when the Tunisians stoop up. The North African country still has a long road strewn with victories and failures, but above all lessons. The new generation that grew up within the revolution is well educated about the persistent issues and motivated to make a considerable change.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.
Image source: Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images