On January 14, Tunisia will celebrate the fifth anniversary of Ben Ali’s departure. It will probably be a dull affair.
Social injustice and poverty is still rife and political crisis is never far away; rivalries fracture Nidaa Tounes, the majority party in power. The country is about to enter its third month under a state of emergency, which was reinstated on November 24 after the terrorist attack targeting security forces in the heart of the city centre. Since then, the Tunisians find themselves caught, once more, between a rock and a hard place: they live with the threat of terrorism and with security measures that restrict liberties.
So how have the first generation of voters navigated this democratic transition?
Let’s meet the children of the revolution.
Sofien is 16, while Aras and Hamdi are 17; they are school friends living in Hammamet. Next year they will be completing the baccalauréat exams. In 2011, during the riots, the college was closed for a whole month, something which was welcomed by the students… at first. ‘After a few days, it was a bit disturbing; we didn’t know exactly what was going on,’ says Sofien. ‘We couldn’t talk about it with our teachers, only with our parents. Sometimes they couldn’t explain, as they didn’t get it all themselves.’ The three of them were forbidden from joining the protests, but Hamdi disobeyed. ‘It was total chaos; I didn’t understand what I saw, people smashing windows and stealing in the shops. It didn’t look like a revolution, as one can imagine it from the movies. It’s only now that I realise it was a rebellion.’
‘We all know media are biased in Tunisia: it hasn’t changed despite the revolution.’
When they are asked what is their most vivid memory from that time, they reply in unison ‘The day when someone got shot in the main street, next to the medina,’ but they can’t say more. They were only 12, and the media was censored.
Maissa is an architecture student living with her family at La Soukra, a suburb of Tunis. She was 15 in 2011. At first, the events took place in the rest of the country. So the Tunis residents didn’t hear much about the riots. Very soon, there was the curfew. ‘The whole country stayed at home. Every Tunisian was connected on YouTube and Facebook.’ That’s how Maissa knew what was happening. ‘I knew a bit about Ben Ali’s family and the bribery in Tunisia, but not the extent. Facebook was the only information channel. They were a lot of rumours also, usually disproved within the hour. Something was burning there, but then no it wasn’t. Someone had been arrested, but we didn’t know who it was… Actually, I didn’t realise there was repression going on until the day YouTube was closed down. On January 13, Ben Ali made his first speech. He said he had understood the Tunisians… but he was talking about the prices, employment and… YouTube, which would be reinstated! People were dying and the President was talking about YouTube!’
Like many Tunisians of her generation, Maissa started using the internet, and mostly Facebook, in 2011. Since then, she hasn’t used it differently. ‘I still go on Facebook when I’m looking for information, or when I need to deliver a political message. We all know media are biased in Tunisia: it hasn’t changed despite the revolution. I don’t even listen to any of them; it’s a waste of time. The only things they broadcast are fake political debates written in advance.’
The revolutionary period has also made her more critical of social networks. Maissa knows not everything is true on Facebook, and she always tries to check information before reposting it.
‘You could be free on social networks, but we were still careful. We learnt how to use this new tool, knowing all the while that the regime could be watching us.’
Malek was a bit older than Maissa during the revolution; he was already 18. But both are from a generation born in a time when Tunisians were surrounded by walls of silence. ‘I was learning what was happening through the internet, as everyone I know passed on videos and blog posts, but I was careful not to criticise Ben Ali directly,’ says Malek. Our family’s greatest fear was that one of us would be arrested by the police on political grounds.’ At the time, torture of political opponents was pervasive, and it was almost impossible to get out of the system once the power had decided to keep you silent in jails. ‘Our parents prohibited us from saying anything against Ben Ali, even inside the house where no one could hear us! You could be free on social networks, but we were still careful. We learnt how to use this new tool, knowing all the while that the regime could be watching us.’
Dorra is an 18-year-old girl living in Kairouan, a city in the north east of the country, known for being the fourth holy Muslim city (after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem). Unsurprisingly, Kairouan is very conservative: it’s almost impossible to find alcohol in the city, except in the international hotel. Dorra is a brilliant pupil; she goes to an elite school. In spite of her workload and the end of the year exams, she finds time for activism. Even if, sometimes, her conviction and opinions are not well received by schoolmates. ‘One day, I published a post on Facebook mocking all the religious quotations I see on people’s personal pages all the time. Basically, I was saying that it’s nonsense to talk to God through Facebook, because if their God is so perfect and impenetrable, he’s unlikely to hold an account.’ Her network has been quietly hostile; some fellow pupils didn’t want to talk to her after that.
Around the dinner table, her family talks freely about politics, even if her mother doesn’t share her opinion. Dorra has been educated in a spirit of tolerance. Her mother is worried about the lack of authority since the revolution: she’s afraid of anarchy and violence. That’s why she doesn’t like Dorra protesting and publicly voicing her political convictions. But even so, she encourages her, ‘Because she is proud to see I have convictions, and I work hard to voice my views properly.’
‘I don’t want to leave my country, but I refuse to live like the previous generations of Tunisian women. I want to live free.’
Dorra is a feminist; she wants Tunisia to give up the restrictions to the rights of women, which still exist on the basis of the Islamic law. She also wants the discrimination against gays to stop and she wants more individual freedom for her generation. But she is not naive: ‘I know that it can be dangerous sometimes, especially when there is the state of emergency, because anyone may be arrested if protesting in the streets. Moreover, I may have problems later, at the University, or when applying for a job, because of what I once wrote. Tunisia is still puritan. But I don’t care. I know we’ve obtained nothing else but freedom of speech, with this revolution. There is no social justice, the same elite is still ruling the country; corruption remains at every level of the society. But we won the right to express our own views, so I’m not giving it up so easily. I don’t want to leave my country, but I refuse to live like the previous generations of Tunisian women. I want to live free.’
Dorra is determined; she also started a campaign to make showers and toilets accessible to the street sweepers, because she noticed those men work in degrading conditions. ‘We can’t complain about the dirt in Tunisia, while treating those who clean our shared spaces everyday like animals.’ She has succeeded in constructing those facilities with the local government, but she’s still not satisfied; ‘We still need to change mentalities.’
‘I think I will go and vote, now that I am of age, but I’m not enthusiastic about the elections.’
Maissa, like the majority of Tunisian youth, doesn’t like to talk about politics. ‘I don’t really understand what it’s about, and we all know that politicians work for their own interests. Parties don’t really care about improving daily life; the government doesn’t even know what our problems are. So I think I will go and vote, now that I am of age, but I’m not enthusiastic about the elections.’ After 2011, political discussions became widespread: it is now the main topic of every conversation, at any family dinner, and on almost any TV show. Now that Tunisians can criticise their government and their elected representatives, any decision or any public declaration is dissected, and it’s the point departure for unbelievable arguments. And that’s precisely what young Tunisians are sick to death of; they feel like they’re overdosing of politics, when any normal 20-year-old only seeks to live her life and realise her ambitions.
But civic commitment is one of the great achievements of this revolution. Maissa feels concerned about the society, and she wants to get involved in community life. As an architecture student, she likes to promote cultural heritage. Her generation, unlike the previous one, has a freedom of speech regarding Bourguiba, the once untouchable hero of the nation. ‘The first inhabitants of North Africa were Berberians but we have forgotten our traditions, because Bourguiba decided on the Arabisation of Tunisia. I’d like to enhance our heritage by associative commitment, and go into our villages to restore them.’
Actually, when Maissa and Dorra say they don’t like politics, they don’t seem to realise that their associational activities are a form of political engagement. It may be a reflection of this famous civil society, which was in some sense awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October. Tunisians can be proud; they have invented a new formula of democratic citizenship in modern Maghreb.
‘I hate what Daech did to us, but I can understand why some of us end up brainwashed.’
They may be proud, but they are not naive. They are perfectly aware of the regional context, and the challenges they face to rebuild the country on liberal foundations. Sofien, Aras and Hamdi say they would never leave Tunisia, but we all know that the greatest dream of many a young Tunisian is to move to Europe. As things stand, there are few options for them in their country. ‘We are afraid Daech,’ says Aras. ‘Because they can destroy this country, just by making the tourists run away. In Hammamet, our only industry is tourism. Now, the city is deserted, and our parents are unemployed until the Europeans decide to come back. I wouldn’t go to Jihad, because I hate what Daech did to us, but I can understand why some of us end up brainwashed. It’s so easy to buy a country where people support their family thanks to black market and undeclared work.’ Have things really changed five years after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire because the police confiscated his unauthorised stall?
The only thing we know for sure is that the scope of possibilities has never been so open as it is now.
Tunisian young people are remarkable for their dynamism and patriotism. But it can’t be ignored that many people abstained during the last elections on 2014, and it will probably become worse. Tunisia is also the biggest source of jihadists for Syria, Libya and Iraq. Even if there are lots of reasons to be impressed by and optimistic for this generation, there are also many worrying issues young Tunisians have to deal with.
Will they decide to get involved in politics, to replace the old generation of politicians, which has retained power despite Ben Ali’s departure? Will this civil society be able to reverse the economic situation and the lack of political engagement and awareness? It is the result of two decades during which Ben Ali did everything he could to anaesthetise the population. The only thing we know for sure is that the scope of possibilities has never been so open as it is now. The future is in their hands. And I bet they’ll be able to handle it.