Analysis

In Tunisia, the Revolution Succeeded - but Where Is the Dignity?

In contrast to other Arab states, the Tunisian revolution did bring forth a democracy, but freedom alone does not suffice for buying food, health and education

People shout slogans during a nationwide strike against the government's refusal to raise wages in Tunis, Tunisia January 17, 2019.
REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

“Right at the beginning of our journey, one of the engines of the boat we used to try to reach France conked out. The captain managed to fix it but shortly afterward the engine fell silent again. We told him it’s better to return to Tunisia but he refused. He also rejected our demand that he call for help, and it seemed that he preferred sinking the ship rather than turning back.” These were the words of Wael Ferjani, speaking to the Raseef22 website.

Ferjani is an outstanding sportsman who’s received a presidential award for his achievements. He’s tried emigrating from his country several times. This time the attempt ended in tragedy. Of the 200 people onboard, 84 drowned. Ferjani survived by virtue of being an excellent swimmer. He managed to swim away from the sinking vessel toward a fishing boat, which gathered him up and saved his life.

Like tens of thousands of other young Tunisians, graduates of the Arab Spring, which is marking its eighth anniversary this month, Ferjani will continue trying to leave his homeland. “I have no future here,” he explained. “Only rich people can find a place here.”

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Tunisia is actually a model of success as far as the Arab Spring goes. Unlike Libya, Yemen or Syria, no civil war broke out there, the authoritarian government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was toppled, replaced by a parliament and rulers who were elected democratically. The constitution enshrines human and civil rights, the status of women is guaranteed, as is the freedom of expression.

A Tunisian man wears a banner and holds a basket to complain about the high cost of living, during a rally marking the eighth anniversary of the 2011 revolution in front of the headquarter of the Tunisian General Labour Union in the capital Tunis on January 14, 2019.
AFP

However, the deep unemployment, standing at over 15 percent (and much higher among young people), the lack of jobs for college graduates and the meager salaries stoke frustration and rage, and people are already talking about the need for another revolution.

Last week, all government offices were on strike, as well as government corporations, schools and airports, under the order of the Tunisian General Labor Union, the country’s most powerful organization. The union demands that the wages of 670,000 government employees be raised. The government of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed is willing to allocate $400 million for this purpose, half of what the Labor Union demands. Even if a compromise is reached, this won’t resolve the distress of the unemployed and of workers in the private sector.

“This is where dreams are buried” says the graffiti on a school wall. “Indeed, the government is burying our dreams”, wrote Marwa Cherif, an English teacher, in a long and sad blog post. “Older people accuse us of running away, instead of contending with reality and trying to change it. Others accuse us of not being patriotic and of being egoistic. I asked some of my acquaintances who emigrated why they did so and their answers were almost identical – ‘we’re leaving in order to find a life of dignity.’ Dignity, dear elders, is not found only in material welfare but in a sense that your rights are upheld; in the feeling that if you fall sick someone will provide medical attention and that if you’re injured, you’ll be served with justice. Why should citizens suffer in order to obtain reasonable transportation to their place of work, assuming they have any, and when they do work, they make a pittance? Why should people be subjected to their bosses’ arrogance, putting up with the insults of policemen, the robbery of judges, the greed of teachers and the corruption of clerks?”

Tourists wait at Tunis-Carthage airport after the announcement of the cancellation of all flights, on January 17, 2019. - The Tunisian Workers' Union observes a day of general strike in the public service.
AFP

All these reasons make young people emigrate, but what about the ones who remain and who are willing to fight for an improvement in conditions, restoring their dignity as citizens? writes Cherif. They too suffer from deep frustration. It’s easy to remain and try to rise up and bring about changes when your family is alongside you. But when your loved ones and relatives are in exile, “and who of us doesn’t have a relative or close friend who has emigrated – you feel you’re a stranger in your own country. Can you talk about loyalty to the homeland under those conditions? After all, it’s family, friends and close associates who underpin what is called a nation.”

Video clips posted on YouTube by the Tunisian website “Without a Mask” show that public rage is not restricted to young educated Tunisians who can express their protest on social networks. Older citizens, owners of small businesses, government workers and students are all united in feeling that the revolution did not attain its minimal demands. The price of meat is spiking, vegetables and fruit are becoming luxury items, the standard of education is low, clinics are poorly equipped – these are the issues that are on the minds of Tunisians.

The civil insurrection in 2011 did bring about a coup, but this did not turn into a revolution that changed the standard of living, or gave people a life of dignity. However, it created an active and kicking public opinion that obliges the government to take it into account. Critical video clips could not be published during the era of the deposed president, who was perceived by the West as an ally. Internet users in cafés were under strict surveillance, at risk of being arrested.

Today, newspaper columnists can write their anti-government articles almost without concern; the parliament is an important political institution, not just a rubber stamp; and strikes and demonstrations are legitimate and self-evident mechanisms of protest. Tunisia has managed so far to adhere to the rules of the political game, but it is not immune to another coup.