The Tunisian Revolution’s young dreams are unfulfilled but unforgotten

By Tharwa Boulifi /African Arguments/ – I was a nine-year-old girl when the Tunisian revolution started in December 2010. I remember us driving home to Tunis from our winter holidays and my parents noting the unusually high police presence on the roads. But apart from that, my memories of the uprising itself are blurry, particularly since it didn’t last long. By 14 January 2011, ten years ago today, the huge protests had already forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power after 23 years in office.

Before the revolution, I don’t remember hearing anyone talk about Tunisian politics. The rare times my parents would watch the news, I’d get excited whenever I saw Ben Ali and declare “here’s our president!”. His photo was everywhere – in schools, offices, on the streets – and I grew up admiring the man always praised by the media. I noticed, however, that my parents would only nod slowly and sigh whenever I got enthusiastic about the president.

Everything changed after the revolution, which started on 17 December 2010 when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young street vendor in the town of Sidi Bouzid, set himself alight in protest at authorities confiscating his stall. His suicide elicited a wave of popular anger that spread quickly across Tunisia. Despite the brutal police response and some concessions from the government, people continued to flood the streets until Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia.

I remembered the palpable enthusiasm that followed. Although we didn’t fully understand the magnitude of what had just happened, we children excitedly repeated the words and phrases we heard on the television and radio. “Freedom…dignity…The people want…”. We were filled with pride to be citizens of the country that set off the Arab Spring with what became known as the Jasmine Revolution. We imagined a bright future, not realising just how fragile young jasmine can be.

Indeed, it was not long before the limits of the new era became apparent. For instance, even though the revolution had been won due to the passion, efforts and often lives of young people, Tunisia’s new leaders were once again mostly older men. In the 2011 constituent assembly elections, the leaders of the three biggest parties were all men over the age of 65.

The emergence of Islamist terrorism soon followed. I had always felt safe in my country, but now, in my teenage years, Tunisia started experiencing deadly attacks. In 2015, the country witness three separate assaults in which 22 people were killed at the Bardo Museum, 38 in the tourist city of Sousse, and 12 more in a bus bombing in Tunis. My family started avoiding crowded places and tourist spots.

Some Tunisians blamed the government for its lack of counter-terrorism strategy. Others pointed to the ongoing injustice and inequality in the country, which allowed armed groups to exploit people’s grievances. And yet others accused parties such as Ennahdha of spreading Islamist ideas amid the new freedoms allowed by the revolution.

These conservative ideas spread more generally in Tunisian society. They have sometimes taken the form of increased hostility towards the West and especially the former colonial power France. Groups such as the populist Islamist al-Karama Coalition have grown in prominence, blaming ongoing “occupation” by France for Tunisia’s woes and entertaining unfounded conspiracy theories.

Views towards women’s rights have also shifted. Thanks to a series of laws enacted under President Habib Bourguiba in the 1950s, women in Tunisia had long enjoyed freedoms typically denied those in neighbouring countries. But following 2011, norms began to shift as Islamist parties arguing for more conservative policies came to the fore of Tunisian politics.

In 2018, a collective of women protested for the legalisation of polygamy, arguing that it would solve the “high” rate of single and divorced women. Last year, a male Tunisian legislator Seïf Eddine Makhlouf was filmed abusing and spitting at a female colleague. His colleague and radio host Said Jaziri later lamented that women only marry in the 30s when the “baby-making machine has already been active since a woman is 14”. Misogynistic abuse has increased, with 89 % of Tunisian women reporting being abused online in 2019.

As a 19-year old woman, I’m scared to even use public transport without being harassed. My female friends don’t go out alone for fear of being raped. Online, I can’t disagree with men or tackle a taboo subject without being insulted. As a nine-year-old in 2011, I was full of optimism and dreams of the future. Young people believed that the revolution would bring them freedom, but while it may have given some people greater rights, it feels like it has taken away what freedoms women once had to express their thoughts in a safe way and have their voices heard.

Ten years after the revolution, Tunisia still suffers from unemployment, poor infrastructure and hunger. Many look back fondly at the days of dictatorship, but this would not solve our problems. If there remains hope, it is in the same dreams and aspirations of the revolution, still contained in the hearts of many young Tunisians, including those like me who were too young to really understand or participate in 2011. These dreams could be seen last October when young people, who were raised with the revolution’s values, protested against a bill legalising impunity for security forces.

A decade after Ben Ali was removed, Tunisia has not fulfilled the hopes of the revolution. But maybe ten years weren’t enough for our fragile jasmine to blossom.

African Arguments
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