Ten years after the Arab Spring, young Tunisians are still working to build a country that reflects who they are. Reforms are slow and the pandemic isn't helping, but the winds of change are still blowing — sometimes in surprising ways.
In the fall of 2019, the Sunday night hit television show wasn't the Tunisian equivalent of Big Brother or The Voice, it was I Am the President. Hundreds of thousands watched the eight-episode political reality show broadcast on Tunisia's private channel Carthage+ and on Facebook. Each week, 24 aspiring presidents aged between 20 to 31 years were asked to debate real issues facing the country, including improving the healthcare system, defending individual freedoms, and fighting corruption and terrorism. The candidates had to come up with concrete solutions. Broadcast during the presidential and legislative elections, the program sometimes confused viewers. "Some people took us for real candidates!" laughs 31-year-old Amine Zaafouri. "We really created quite a buzz!" Ultimately, a 24-year-old management student, Mehdi Ben Ameur, was elected.
The reality show, which is planning a second season, claims to be much more than mere entertainment. "The goal is to give young people a taste for political engagement," says Khadija Maalej, a project manager at Search for Common Ground, an international NGO present in Tunisia since the uprising that gave birth to the Arab Spring in 2011. The series also aims to restore public confidence in young people, often perceived as inactive and incompetent citizens. They have been excluded from political life since the revolution they had spearheaded.
In countries where the Arab Spring had ignited the passions of protesters — Egypt, Syria and Libya, among others — the embers are now bloodstained. Not true in Tunisia, however. There, the October 2019 elections, like those held in 2011 and 2014, were conducted calmly and transparently, with televised debates resembling those of Western democracies. Voters were spoiled for choice: more than 200 parties had proliferated since the revolution! Then, the fall of the dictatorship on January 14, 2011, led to President Ben Ali's exile in Saudi Arabia, where he died in 2019. Ten years later, Tunisia’s great democratic experiment persists against a backdrop of disenchantment.
The Maghreb's smallest country and its 12 million people have, to some extent, been spared from terrorism. But hoped-for reforms have not all materialized — this holds especially true with regards to social justice. The economy, based mainly on agriculture (including wheat, olive and date farming), tourism, manufacturing and the chemical industry (phosphates), is today as bad as, and in some regions even worse than, before the revolution. Tourism had just begun to recover when, in 2015, the Islamic State terrorist group claimed responsibility for two attacks targeting tourists. Now, as a result of COVID-19, tourism has plunged once again. Under the public health crisis, the country's unemployment rate has reached 18% and could rise to an estimated 21%. It is 23% for women and climbs to 40% for young people, depending on the region. Among young people with a degree, the unemployment rate remains at 30%.
There is no shortage of young people who have been to school: 40% of Tunisians are under 25, and the primary school enrolment rate is close to 100%. The level of dropouts is still a cause for concern: nearly 100,000 young people, mainly between the ages of 13 and 17, interrupt their studies each year. That's 5% of the total school population. Persistent inequalities, especially between cities and rural areas, are undermining morale. The same goes for corruption and bureaucratic red tape. Many graduates see their horizons blocked because they don't belong to an influential family or a given political party. This is because the elites who were in power in Ben Ali's time have not really left.
Many Tunisians dream of moving to Europe or Canada. Since 2011, nearly 100,000 young people have left the country, most of them top-level graduates, according to the OECD. Then, there are harragas, people who "burn" borders. They risk their lives on rafts, with no passports or visas, hoping to reach Europe: 5,655 were counted in the first half of 2020, against 858 in 2019. Those numbers are from the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, an NGO created in 2011 that claims to be "independent of any political party and any religious institution." The pandemic has amplified the population outflow and exacerbated the prevailing pessimism.
But those who stay have not lost hope for a better future. And they are organizing to make that known. The autumn 2019 presidential election heralded change. Kais Saied, a political novice at age 62, was elected President of the Republic of Tunisia with 72% of the votes cast in the second ballot. Some 90% of voters aged 18 to 25 chose this stern-looking retired constitutional law professor, who wanted to revive the spirit of the revolution through freedom, dignity and social justice — ideals that he and his young supporters say the political elites have betrayed.
"Should we abolish the anal examination forced on people suspected of homosexuality? Allow cafés to open during Ramadan? Eliminate gender inequality in inheritance laws? Stop obliging couples to present a marriage contract for overnight hotel stays?"
These are some of the questions that political parties have been asked on Chnowa Barnemjek? (Arabic for "What's your political program?"). This website is a Tunisian version of the Vote Compass application used by CBC. It lets voters compare their positions with those of the parties. "The idea is to reconnect young people with politics by discussing what they're concerned about," Mohamed Ghedira tells me. Ghedira is a 26-year-old resident doctor at Sousse Hospital who co-founded the platform with a group of friends.
Such freedom was unthinkable before the 2011 revolution, when the country was muted by censorship. The platform received more than 500,000 visits in the two months leading up to the presidential and legislative elections. Most visitors were young people aged between 18 and 35, who had registered to vote for the first time. Ghedira and his friends posted a second phase of the platform online. "We follow up on whether elected officials implement their promises," says the physician.
Freedom of expression has clearly been achieved. Not so for individual freedoms, though. Homosexuality has been punishable by three years in prison ever since 1913 — during the era of French colonization. Police can still demand the infamous anal examination.
"I openly post on Facebook that I'm in cafés during Ramadan," boasts Samar Tlili, as she effortlessly weaves her Mini Cooper through the capital's traffic. The 29-year-old French teacher at a Tunis high school has been an activist at heart since adolescence.
Tlili is dressed like someone from the West — fitted jeans and a bright pink sweater — like many young women her age in Tunis. She is also part of the Fater (non-fasting) Facebook group, made up of young people who share the addresses of establishments where people can have a drink during the holy month.
"We must not give in to intimidation. Our freedom of conscience is guaranteed by the laws and the Constitution," says Tlili, my interpreter during this story. "But the battle is not won. Many young people do not dare drink alcohol publicly."
Tunisian society is paradoxical, points out Asma Nouira, a political science professor at the Université de Tunis El Manar. "Tunisian society is considered the most modern of the Arab world because of its way of being, dressing, drinking alcohol and even cursing — worse than Quebec society," she grins. "Yet Tunisian society remains deeply conservative."
January has long been the month of revolt in Tunisia. It was January that saw the 1952 revolution for independence from France, the 1978 general strike, the 1984 bread riots and the 2011 uprising. The January 2020 uprising was intense in its own right. In large cities, as well as in distressed areas, demonstrations, occupations, strikes and other blockades have multiplied to defend individual freedoms and to fight against poverty and pollution. Although protest movements decreased with the lockdown begun in March, they resumed in June. In total, some 9,000 protests were recorded in 2020, according to the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights. They were mainly held by workers who had lost their jobs.
"Despite the spreading despair, we are a very spirited people trying to change things," observes Tlili. "For many, it's no longer merely about political change. It's about the necessities of life: families have had no livelihood for months."
Young Tunisians, particularly Tunisian women, are experts in carrying out spontaneous flash mobs. One occurred in Tunis in January 2020, during the funeral of Lina Ben Mhenni, who died of illness at age 36. She had been an icon of the revolution, a cyberactivist and the author of the blog A Tunisian Girl. Tradition forbids women to attend funerals. Yet masses of women flocked to the cemetery. Ben Mhenni's friends even carried the deceased’s coffin themselves, singing and ululating (the modulated cries Arab women make at ceremonies). That was a first. And it was sacrilege for adherents of religious orthodoxy. The event was followed by a torrent of insults on social networks. It provoked imams, who spewed their ire from the loudspeakers of their mosques before the call to Friday prayers.
Under Ben Ali, the Islamist Ennadha Party (Renaissance Movement Party) had been outlawed. But in 2011, it obtained the highest percentage of votes in the first elections since the revolution. The three-year process to draft the new Constitution (2011 to 2014) impacted women's rights the most, recalls political scientist Asma Nouira. "The clerics were pushing for the application of sharia [Islamic law], which is largely against established women's rights," she says. "They most notably proposed that the Constitution consider men and women as complementary rather than equal, and that it legalize polygamy." Polygamy has been prohibited since Tunisia's 1956 independence. In the end, the lay and secularist movement won, but feminist activists still had to stay alert.
Ennadha lost ground in the 2019 parliamentary elections. But with 52 members of parliament, which is 18% of the seats, it remains the leading party. Without a majority in the Assembly of the People's Representatives (ARP), Ennadha was unable to impose a prime minister of its choice. Elyes Fakhfakh was appointed prime minister in February 2020. By mid-July, Ennadha drove him to resign, as he was suspected of having a conflict of interest. The new head of government, Hichem Mechichi, took office in September. His priority: restore public finances and improve the socioeconomic situation.
Although Ennadha lost ground, this did not discourage some ultraconservatives from lecturing "disbelievers." Among these ultras was the MP Said Jaziri, a 52-year-old imam who sought refugee status in Canada under Ben Ali. Widely reported on in Quebec during the ‘reasonable accommodations’ crisis, Jaziri was deported from Canada in 2007 for not having a proper status in the country.
In 2019, he was elected under the Salafist Errahma Party ("the party of mercy"), a fundamentalist current of Sunni Islam. Since then, Imam Jaziri has been preaching from the station he founded, Radio Quran. Last December, on the air, he called women "procreation machines" and encouraged the marriage of underage girls. Other ultras make surprise visits to cafés and restaurants that serve alcohol during Ramadan. They are accompanied by bailiffs and cameras, and then broadcast the videos on Facebook. Their aim is to have the police close down these establishments. The vagueness of the law seems cleverly maintained regarding a 1981 ban on serving alcohol to Tunisians during Ramadan. That government-issued Circular 108 contradicts the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of conscience. Even though the circular was quickly repealed, it is still being invoked. For example, since 2011, police have continued to visit cafés that are open during Ramadan. Some establishments simply choose to close for fear of reprisals.
"That doesn't stop us from going there!" says Samar Tlili, sitting on the terrace of the Café l'Univers in Tunis.
On this early February day, mild as spring, all of the café's tables are occupied by girls — most of them with their hair in the wind — and guys. No beer or wine is served here, but the directs (lattes) and capucins (hazelnut coffees) flow freely. The young activists are under the red umbrellas spread out along the sidewalk of the buzzing Avenue Habib-Bourguiba, the mecca for demonstrations in the capital.
Khalil Abbess, a 31-year-old researcher in political sociology, has been an activist since he was 13. "I spent my teenage years in police stations!" he laughs as he takes a puff from his Camel. Abbess used to be one of the spokespersons for the youth wing of the Workers' Party, the former Tunisian Workers' Communist Party (PCOT), banned under Ben Ali. Abbess has been acting underground for a long time. Since leaving the PCOT in 2011, however, he has been openly working towards an ultimate goal: a new form of democracy.
According to Abbess, this is what the young people who started the 2011 revolution are asking for. "A grassroots democracy, where we can express ourselves and make decisions," he says, with his glistening eyes and well-trimmed black beard. "But so far, the so-called democratic transition has only been a copy of the previous paradigm, with a cosmetic touch."
Now, a newcomer has promised to rebuild the system "from the bottom up." Kais Saied, the President of the Republic, was elected with no party and no electoral promises — only an ambition to decentralize power, support youth and fight corruption.
The former constitutional law professor has been nicknamed "Robocop" because of his mechanical speaking style. During the 2019 campaign, Said repeatedly told young people that he was giving them the right to speak out and to take things back in hand. However, he did not hide his conservative views, which reflect those of a large part of the population. Said is against the abolition of the death penalty and against the legalization of homosexuality. He also opposes the equality of men and women under inheritance law. His stance is based on an interpretation of the Koran that holds that women always receive half as much as men when the degree of kinship is equal.
To encourage citizens to vote, thousands of young people have organized committees and Facebook support groups — crucial considering that there are 8 million Facebook accounts for 12 million Tunisian inhabitants. "For young activists, this reconquest of the political scene outside of the traditional parties is a revenge against the establishment," observes sociologist Mounir Saidani, a professor at the Université de Tunis El Manar. "It's also a step towards rebuilding the system." But it's worth noting, as Saidani points out to me, that it's up to Kais Saied to specify how to do this. How will he rebuild from the bottom now that he's at the top?
"With the pandemic, rebuilding the political system has become more urgent than ever," says activist Khalil Abbess. "This crisis has further unmasked the Tunisian political class as caring only about its own interests while the people suffer and mortality soars."
Malek Sghiri, 33, believes in the rebuilding of the system as proposed by President Saied. Detained and tortured during the revolution, this hardened activist has never abandoned his ideal of a more just and egalitarian Tunisia. In the smoky bar of Tunis where we're meeting, he's easy to spot. He is tall and wearing a flat cap typical of Tunisian left-wing intellectuals. Formerly a college teacher and a TV journalist, Sghiri is now a researcher of contemporary history. Though he supported Kais Saied, he remains vigilant. "We mustn't stop putting the pressure on. Youth must continue expressing outrage and the people must continue taking to the streets. Otherwise, nothing will change," he says in a calm tone, rolling his R's in French.
Sghiri was particularly involved in the Manish Msamah ("I do not forgive") movement. From 2015 to 2017, this protest campaign was launched on the Web and in the streets to prevent the adoption of the Economic and Financial Reconciliation Bill. The bill aimed to give amnesty to businesspeople and 2,000 to 7,000 (the exact number has not been released) corrupt senior officials of former regimes.
After more than two years of deadlock, the reconciliation bill was ultimately adopted by the Assembly of the People's Representatives (or, the ARP, Tunisia's parliament). A single amendment allowed amnesty only for a small minority of the country's 600,000 senior officials. In other words, a meagre success at the administrative level. But at the social level, the movement rekindled the flame for an entire generation. With its striking logo — a gavel circled in red — Manish Msamah had a strong impact. "We united people who had never collaborated: students, families of the revolution's martyrs, the unemployed . . .," says Sghiri. The movement also attracted MPs, from various parties, who opposed the law.
Inspired by the citizens' committees formed during the revolution, activists organized the campaign "horizontally." In other words, the campaign had no leader or hierarchy, only spokespersons. Also, it took decisions by consensus, even though that meant debating for days before reaching decisions. Another original feature of this movement was its festive side, with scores of drums, raw slogans and funny flash mobs. "We rewrote the chants of young football fans by adding in political content," laughs Tlili, the French teacher. "As a result, ultra groups [editor's note: in this context, fanatical supporters of sports teams], who are usually very isolated, joined us and gave us another vibe."
The protesters defied the state of emergency's ban on demonstrations. The ban had been decreed by the-then president, Beji Caid Essebsi, following the 2015 terrorist attacks on the Bardo Museum in Tunis, the seaside resort of Port El Kantaoui, and a bus carrying presidential guards. Youth protests led to dozens of arrests in 2015 and 2016. "We responded by declaring a people's state of emergency and by wearing the movement's iconic t-shirt everywhere, including concerts, stadiums and the beach," says Tlili.
Despite their limited legislative success, Manish Msamah activists believe they scored some points. "Civil society and political parties finally agreed to listen to young people, who are on the front lines of the protests," Tlili tells me. "We demonstrated our ability to organize without them and the streets became alive again." Other protest campaigns followed, such as Fech Nestanew ("What are we waiting for?") in 2018, and Basta! ("Enough!") in 2019. These campaigns, though not always as successful as expected, opposed the austerity measures imposed by the finance law.
"We are progressing slowly but surely," says Sghiri. He regularly travels to other countries in the region to join comrades who also speak out against economic difficulties and nonexistent reform. In Iraq, Algeria, Lebanon and Sudan, activists speak of the "new Arab Spring." The phrase has been adopted by the media and researchers. Arab youth were indeed at the forefront of the 2019 to 2020 protests in these countries. Despite their differing realities, demonstrators have the same demand: dismantle the powers that be and put an end to economic injustice.
"After 2011, what had been considered young people's lack of political interest became just another way of doing politics," says Sarah Anne Rennick, of the Arab Reform Initiative (ARI). This Paris think tank works towards democratic change and social justice in the Arab world.
ARI wanted to "make young people aware of the importance of their role, and give them tools to strengthen their ability to take action," says Rennick. She led the Arab Youth as Political Actors project, which ran from 2016 to 2019. Funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Ottawa, the project provided a better understanding of new forms of mobilization in Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon and Syria.
Networking among activists from the four countries was encouraged. "It's crucial to promote this South-to-South dialogue," says Roula El-Rifai, a senior program specialist at IDRC. “Young people learn much more when they talk to each other in the same region, with the same language and in a similar context."
This ARI project produced a documentary and created 62 short videos (in Arabic with English subtitles), on YouTube, in which young activists — including Samar Tlili and Malek Sghiri — talk about their experiences and challenges as activists. Five of these videos, featured on Facebook and Twitter during a special ARI campaign in early 2020, were viewed by 3.4 million people.
Each video answers concrete questions regarding how to gain visibility, obtain private and public funding, counter security risks and collaborate with traditional political actors, for example. These are all practical tools designed to boost young people's confidence and encourage them to get involved.
Another special feature of the ARI project is that the participating researchers held a different view of young Arabs. "Within their respective societies, these young people are often seen as a social burden, victims or marginalized people requiring a lot of services," explains IDRC's El-Rifai. "It's more interesting to see their positive sides. They are energetic and innovative, and able to find solutions by adapting to the reality of their country." She adds that this is true even in situations of conflict, violence or limited freedom of expression, which is the case in Algeria, Lebanon and Syria.
Many Tunisian activists are educated and connected middle-class urbanites. The commitment of young rural activists is just as strong, but their reality is very different. "Outside the capital and big cities, young people lack the resources to organize, even if they too belong to the middle class," says sociologist Mounir Saidani, who led the Tunisian branch of the IDRC-funded project. "They are under different kinds of pressure from family, close circles and security services, for instance. As well, their material resources are derisory or nonexistent: this means there is a lack of organizations with logistical means, premises and funding for buying advertising material." There are also fewer young rural activists mainly because the most highly mobilized often choose to move to Tunis.
The road that leads from Tunis to Sidi Bouzid, a small agricultural town in the centre of the country, has been rehabilitated since the revolution. It is in rather good condition and has speed bumps at the entrance of every village. We are crossing arid landscapes, between hills and olive groves — part of the rich resources of Tunisia, which exports 320,000 tons of olive oil per year. Barbary fig trees also abound. Local activists chose this cactus as the emblem of the 2011 revolution, while those in Tunis spoke of the jasmine revolution. The symbolism clearly denotes two contrasting worlds. "Jasmine's whiteness, perfume and postcard-perfect image symbolize the capital and its upscale suburbs," observes Saidani. "The Barbary fig tree, with its prickly thorned fruit, symbolizes rural life, poor regions and a harsh way of life."
It's a four-hour drive from Tunis to Sidi Bouzid — where the Arab Spring began. This is the home city of Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old fruit street vendor who set himself on fire on December 17, 2010. He had been driven to desperation by the incessant harassment of the authorities, who had prevented him from exercising his trade and supporting his family. His gesture raised the ire of the city's residents. Then it set the rest of the country on fire.
Today, the boulevard that runs through the city is named after Mohamed Bouazizi. His huge, smiling portrait is displayed on the post office's façade. A memorial depicts his cart, which had been confiscated by the police. Sidi Bouzid shares its name with the governorate in which it is located. Its economic situation has worsened since the Arab Spring. The poverty rate in the region, whose 430,000 inhabitants live in 17 municipalities, is around 30%. That's double the national rate. At the same time, unemployment is hitting young graduates hard (at 38%). Many survive on small seasonal jobs, like olive harvesting. Others opt for smuggling — cigarettes, clothes, medicines, fruit and fuel — despite the risks involved. No more are the roadside resellers of low-priced gasoline cans originally purchased in neighbouring Algeria.
Menzel Bouzaiane, about 60 kilometres south of Sidi Bouzid, is one of the poorest cities in the governorate. A white tarpaulin, adorned with the red Tunisian flag, is hung to a tree and placed against the outer wall of the Centre de délégation (the government's local office). I meet Ryadh, Issam and Soufiene, three unemployed graduates in their mid-twenties. They have been occupying the premises for 114 days. They are demanding a job and better living conditions for their families and the whole population. Day in, day out, they live in a small tent made of odds and ends.
We leave our shoes outside and sit down on thin mattresses set on the cemented courtyard of the government building. Sunlight floods the tent. But the nights are cold, as evidenced by the blankets stowed in a corner. "The State has completely abandoned us," Issam says, his face somber under a black wool cap. "We are paying the price for all the protests that have taken place here since the revolution." Issam is a trained mechanic but has never been able to find a job in his field. The same goes for his two friends, who studied computer science. "If you don't have connections, you have nothing," says Ryadh, a sad smile spreading across his baby face.
Like so many other “sit-inners,” these young people are appealing to the government to provide them with public service jobs, or private sector jobs leveraged through the State's negotiating power with companies. They also blame the State for depriving them of suitable training that is aligned with demand. There is an enormous gap between what young people learned in school and what the labour market needs. What's more, education reform, an issue for years, is slow in coming.
The situation is likely to drag on given the indifference of the administration, which tolerates the sit-inners' presence without uttering a word. It's no use trying to interview employees stepping out for a smoke just a stone's throw from the tent. "If you've come to support the campers, you may stay. But if you're here as a journalist, you must leave the premises," a guard informs me.
The occupiers do not intend to give up. Since the last elections, they've been visited by two MPs, who promised to help them. In the meantime, they're getting by with help from their parents. "But if nothing changes, things will eventually explode," says Ryadh. "More and more people are at the end of their tether. Frustration and anger are at the same level as before the revolution."
Occupation is the means of expression chosen by those who have nothing left. It has become almost commonplace in Kasserine, in the governorate of the same name, 110 kilometres west of Sidi Bouzid. Teachers, health care assistants, managers — dozens of them are relentlessly camping out in front of government buildings to demand jobs. Meanwhile, no one seems to care about them. Because here, authorities are worried about other camps.
Kasserine is located at the foot of the mountains that rise above the border with Algeria. It's an area that travellers must avoid at all costs, according to Global Affairs Canada, "due to recurring counter-terrorism operations." In the winter of 2020, Tunisian media reported the discovery of three terrorist camps, set up on the Kasserine heights. Two men living in the camp were shot by National Guard special units.
Only 60 kilometres away, this city had seemed peaceful during my visit in early February 2020. But the police are jittery. A simple photo I took from the street earned me two hours at the police station, a three-story building with no elevator. Five officers looked into my case, trying to find out more about the topic of this story, and noting all my references. "You are welcome in Tunisia but we must ensure your safety," they kept repeating.
The position of women, too, is not the same in the rural areas. Many of the women I wanted to interview had participated in occupations. But they could not meet with me because their husbands preferred them to stay discreet. Emna Zouidi, though, cares very little about discretion.
This 36-year-old anti-poverty activist from Menzel Bouzaiane is wearing a pretty fuchsia scarf and matching lipstick. She no longer hesitates to speak in public or organize meetings in cafés jam-packed with idle men. Recently divorced, this visual arts graduate leads an activist life while holding multiple precarious jobs. "My husband couldn't stand that I was out of the house so often," says Zouidi, who organized a four-day march from her village to the capital. Zouidi has also gone on three hunger strikes. And, during the pandemic, she took action to help single mothers and households in need.
In Tunis, women activists are becoming increasingly prominent. Like 27-year-old Warda Atig, who, in 2019, became the first woman elected to head the General Union of Tunisian Students. The union was founded in 1952. Or like Asrar Ben Jouira, 26, in charge of the Feminist University, which is part of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women. The university offers training to young men and women on secularism, sexual and bodily rights, and equality. There's also Khawla Louhichi, a 34-year-old painter who, with her husband, is involved in the Brigade des clowns activistes. This brigade of activist clowns brings cheer to demonstrations. Louhichi has also directed a poignant video artwork on “confinement syndrome,” shot atop her terrace in Tunis. Then there is Amal Amraoui, 31, who is part of the feminist collective Falgatna (y en a marre, or "we're fed up"). Amraoui choreographed a powerful flash mob against sexual violence, bringing together 160 women wearing black blindfolds in Tunis's Kasbah Square.
There are numerous movements helping to change mentalities and which benefit all of society. "We're on the right track," says Samar Tlili. "Revolutions are not carried out in a day: they take time, guts and patience." And these are all things young Tunisians have in spades.
This article was originally published in French in the March 2021 issue of L'actualité magazine, with IDRC support.
Learn more about the IDRC-supported research led by the Arab Reform Initiative:
Arab Youth as Political Actors – Arab Reform Initiative (arab-reform.net)
Arab youth as political actors: Strengthening resilience through new forms of engagement | IDRC - International Development Research Centre