Years on, Tu­nisians say re­volt gave free­dom, but not dig­nity

With un­em­ploy­ment high and in­fla­tion at 7.5 pct, peo­ple put hope in 2019 elec­tions

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - REGION - By Caro­line Nelly Per­rot

DOUAR HICHER, Tu­nisia: Young Tu­nisians say that the rev­o­lu­tion that they staged eight years ago to oust their long­time dic­ta­tor has failed to re­store their “dig­nity” and ease the North African coun­try’s eco­nomic woes.

“Since the rev­o­lu­tion we have free­dom but still no dig­nity,” says Sofiene Jbeli, an un­em­ployed com­puter tech­ni­cian who lives in the work­ing class satel­lite town of Douar Hicher west of Tunis.

Like many of his com­pa­tri­ots Jbeli says he does not re­gret tak­ing part in the first of the Arab Spring up­ris­ings that shook the re­gion and forced out vet­eran strong­men like Tu­nisia’s pres­i­dent Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But he feels bit­ter. “If the sys­tem does not change in 2019 [when pres­i­den­tial and leg­isla­tive elec­tions are due to take place] the rev­o­lu­tion would have been for noth­ing,” the 35-year-old says.

So­ci­ol­o­gist Olfa Lam­loum of the NGO In­ter­na­tional Alert shares some of Jbeli’s as­sess­ment, but dis­agrees that Tu­nisia’s rev­o­lu­tion failed com­pletely.

“The rev­o­lu­tion’s slo­gan was ‘work, dig­nity and free­dom’ but the first two were not achieved,” Lam­loum says.

While Tu­nisia has been praised as a model of demo­cratic tran­si­tion, wealth and con­trol of the econ­omy re­main in the hands of a small elite de­spite eco­nomic growth.

The coun­try is grap­pling with an in­fla­tion rate of 7.5 per­cent and un­em­ploy­ment stands at more than 15 per­cent, with those worst hit be­ing young univer­sity grad­u­ates.

In May, Tu­nisia held its first free mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions with more than 57,000 can­di­dates – half of them women and young peo­ple – run­ning for of­fice.

The quotas for women and youth can­di­dates in the polls - touted as an­other mile­stone on the road to democ­racy – “al­lowed a large num­ber of young peo­ple to be elected to mu­nic­i­pal coun­cils,” Lam­loum says.

And yet, she says, “noth­ing has been done to im­prove the lives of young peo­ple. So­cially, their sit­u­a­tion has re­ally de­te­ri­o­rated.”

‘NO ONE LIS­TENS’

One thing the rev­o­lu­tion did achieve, ac­cord­ing to Lam­loum, is to al­low politi­cians, re­searchers and non-gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions ac­cess to im­pov­er­ished ar­eas like Douar Hicher.

This, she says, has cre­ated space for de­bate, al­though politi­cians did not clearly use the op­por­tu­nity to look into the prob­lems fac­ing the pop­u­la­tion to try and find so­lu­tions.

For Jbeli and other young Tu­nisians this has not been enough.

They point to nu­mer­ous hur­dles, be­yond their eco­nomic hard­ships, that are sti­fling their daily life.

Fol­low­ing a se­ries of deadly mil­i­tants at­tacks in 2015, au­thor­i­ties have pre­vented some cit­i­zens, mainly men and women un­der 35, from trav­el­ling to cer­tain coun­tries with­out parental per­mis­sion.

“Based on of­fi­cial state­ments, the mea­sure is part of ef­forts to pre­vent peo­ple from join­ing ex­trem­ist armed groups abroad,” ac­cord­ing to Hu­man Rights Watch, who called it “ar­bi­trary.”

Sofiene said the mea­sure was one of sev­eral “hu­mil­i­a­tions.”

“We launched a rev­o­lu­tion in or­der to be­come full-fledged cit­i­zens but for me the only thing I got out of it was free­dom of ex­pres­sion,” high school stu­dent Hamza Dhi­fali says.

“Be­fore [the upris­ing] I could not ex­press my­self freely, now I can. It’s great, but no one lis­tens,” he adds.

Is­sam El­hali, a 31-year-old fa­ther of two, says the prom­ises made by the rev­o­lu­tion that top­pled strong­man Ben Ali and forced him to flee to Saudi Ara­bia on Jan. 14, 2011, were “only on paper.”

‘NO FU­TURE’

El­hali says au­thor­i­ties have pro­posed loan pro­grams to help young peo­ple set up projects.

“I bor­rowed 7,000 di­nars [$2,400] to set up a small hard­ware store but the in­ter­est rate is fixed at 21 per­cent and I sim­ply can­not man­age that,” he says.

“The au­thor­i­ties say they are back­ing the young peo­ple but in truth they are rip­ping us off. “There is no fu­ture for us.” Nev­er­the­less, in Douar Hicher young peo­ple – scouts, dancers and would-be stand-up co­me­di­ans - are keep­ing busy pre­par­ing a show to mark the eighth an­niver­sary of Tu­nisia’s upris­ing.

Oth­ers like El­hali work in com­mu­nity groups tasked with keep­ing their town clean.

“We are the rare few to still have some hope. Oth­ers feel let down and while the time away by just sit­ting in cafes,” El­hali says.

El­hali also took to task the coun­try’s politi­cians and the po­lit­i­cal strug­gles that have re­cently emerged be­tween the prime min­is­ter and the pres­i­dent.

“We are in a boat whose cap­tains are hav­ing a dis­pute while watch­ing the boat sink,” El­hali says. “I want to save my­self and leave the boat” and build a new life abroad.

Seven­teen-year-old Zeinab Ran­nen agrees and hopes by suc­cess­fully pass­ing her high school ex­ams she will be able to res­cue her “dig­nity.”

“I be­lieve the way out, here or else­where, is through ed­u­ca­tion,” she says. “But most of all I would like to go abroad in or­der to win the re­spect and dig­nity I will never have here.”

Tu­nisian youth Omar (cen­ter) re­hearses for the role of a per­son who dreams of mi­grat­ing to Europe, in the com­mune of Douar Hicher.

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