For Young Tunisians, Freedom of Expression Doesn’t Pay the Rent

As protests pick up again and threaten to unseat a fragile government, the old regime rears its head, surfing on a wave of nostalgia and historical revisionism

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'Revolution.' Residents walk past graffiti in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, December 11, 2020.
'Revolution.' Residents walk past graffiti in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, December 11, 2020.Credit: Riadh Dridi,AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Ansaf, 30, lives in Bizerte, some 65 kilometers north of the Capital Tunis. Some 145,000 people live here, one of the oldest cities in the country and the northernmost city in Africa. Its clean white beaches, fishermen’s ports, ancient buildings dating back to the Romans and superb food were a tourist attraction until coronavirus killed tourism, one of the state’s major income sources.

For the past three years, Ansaf has held a senior administrative post in as a coordinator between importers, wholesalers and shop owners. She says she works 50 to 52 hours a week, including on her weekly vacation days, for which she makes 1,800 dinars (about $660). In an interview to the Tunisian Inkyifada website, she detailed her monthly expenses: 500 dinars to help out her father, 275 dinars for her brother, 500 dinars for groceries, 330 dinars for transportation (5 dinars for a taxi to and from work), 220 dinars for dining out, 40 dinars for a fitness club, altogether 1,990 dinars. Every months she accumulates a deficit of 190 dinars.

“And if one of my relatives falls ill, the entire balance is undermined,” she says.

But Ansaf considers herself lucky. She believes her salary is good although it doesn’t cover all her expenses. She is satisfied with her work and her employers appreciate her. She knows she has nowhere to advance to and doubts she would find work with better conditions. She did think of migrating to Canada, but a death in the family changed her plans. Living in her parents’ house, she is fortunate not to have to pay rent. At the same time she isn’t planning to get married and have a family yet, due to the expenses involved.

Her situation is much better than Zayad’s, a young man working as an accountant. His salary is 750 dinars, 550 of which are paid by his employer and 200 by the state. He too lives with his mother, who pays all his living expenses apart from cigarettes, cell phone and travel. Yet his salary also does not cover his needs. Every month, he runs up a debt of some 70 dinars.

He has sisters living in France, and he is considering joining them but needs money for the trip.

Ansaf and Ziyad are two examples of middle class Tunisian youngsters unable to raise a family or save to move up in life, despite being in regular employment.

Lawyers shout slogans as they attend a protest in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, December 17, 2020.Credit: Riadh Dridi,AP

Beyond them, millions of people, unemployed, still wait for their hopes to come true, ten years after the Arab Spring. The anger accumulating among them is understandable.

More than 600 people were arrested in the first four days of the demonstrations that took place in Tunis this week. It looked almost like the hard clashes of January 2011: Police out in large numbers, beating demonstrators with clubs, dragging them on sidewalks and roads; on the other sides, young protesters hurling stones at the police officers, burning tyres; military troops rushing in to protect government buildings.

The revolution was led under the slogan: “dignity, livelihood and freedom.” Tunisians achieved two: dignity and freedom. But not livelihood. The official unemployment rate is around 25 percent, but among young people it spikes to over 36 percent. About 13,000 people have already left the country in 2021, and thousands of others are planning how to move to Italy, France and other European states legally or crossing the sea on ramshackle boats in a life endangering voyage.

A Tunisian protester lifts a loaf of bread as security officers confront demonstrators during an anti-government rally on the Habib Bourguiba avenue in the capital Tunis, January 19, 2021.Credit: FETHI BELAID - AFP
A protester faces riot police officers during a demonstration against the party of Tunisian ruler Ben Ali, in the center of Tunis, January 18, 2011.Credit: Christophe Ena,AP

Polls show that every third youngster wants to migrate. Tunisia was a model of success when its citizens toppled the tyrannical rule of Zine El Abdine Ben Ali, drafted a liberal constitution and held free democratic elections. It became an object of envy to people throughout the Arab world. In contrast to Egypt, which replaced one tyrant for another, Libya, Yemen and Syria, which deteriorated into civil war, Tunisia embarked on a swift rehabilitation process. It’s tourism industry bustled again, while it received the efferverscent support of international banks and Western states.

After the revolution, Tunisians enjoyed almost full freedom of expression, with a thriving media, the advent of the public discourse on social media and the downfall of the old, strict censorship regime. Advances in women’s rights, enshrined into law, made the country into one of the most liberal states in the Middle East. The party that won the majority of votes, the Islamic Al-Nahda, gave up power and set up a coalition with secular parties to allay citizens’ fears of a religious takeover.

However, this takes place in a highly volatile political environment. Eight governments have come and gone since the revolution, three in 2020 alone. The current administration, headed by Hisham Mashishi, is unstable and following the demonstrations it could resign to calm things down. The confidence in the political system has eroded and in the last election, in 2019, voter turnout dropped to 42 percent from 68 percent in 2014.

The next election is due in 2024 and recent polls show that the Free Destourian Party, headed by Abir Moussi, is taking the top spot.

The return of Ben Ali

President of the Free Destourian Party (PDL) Abir Moussi submits her candidacy for the upcoming presidential elections in Tunis, Tunisia, August 2, 2019.Credit: STR,AP

The party, which currently holds only 17 of the 217 parliament seats, is rising like a meteor. A former senior partner in Ben Ali’s ruling party, Moussi succeeded in creating a post revolutionary power base consisting of old regime supporters. Today, she maintains the revolution never happened but that it was the product of foreign forces, who allied with the Islamists to topple the president. She is demanding to ban Al-Nahda, and is drafting a new history of Tunisia, according to which the years of Ben Ali’s regime were stable, safe and mainly characterized by economic prosperity. She is calling to expand the president’s powers and to set up a “government of experts.” If this is carried out, it will breach the parties’ power and the public’s parliamentary representation.

The fact Moussi is gaining strength shows how deep the public’s frustration is. This willingness to return to the dictatorship that ruled the state for decades is not felt in Egypt or Iraq, but it is similar to the sentiment among many Russians after the fall of the Communist regime.

The incumbent government has no immediate solutions for the economic crisis, for reviving tourism or for reducing unemployment. It mainly uses the old ineffective tool of replacing ministers: Last Saturday, the prime minister fired 12 of them. But the rhetoric isn’t convincing the public. President Kais Saied went out and met citizens, mainly young ones, and told them he understood their plight but insisted they keep calm and not attack civilians or state institutions. He also blurted out that “the Jews are those who stole the state.” This sparked angry comments in the Jewish communities in Tunisia and France, whose leaders demanded clarifications. The president hastened to deny he had made the statement but the video film of the meeting leaves no place for doubt.

Kais later said his country protects Jews and that his father even used to give women’s rights activist Gisele Halimi a ride on his bicycle when she was a child and take her to school to protect her from the Nazis. Halimi, who died in July 2020, was a lawyer specializing in war crimes and human rights, a feminist and a French member of parliament, who supported Basque activists and Marwan Barghouti.

Tunisian President Kais Saied, right, meets residents in Mnihla, outside Tunis, January 18, 2021.Credit: Slim Abid,AP

President Kais emphasized that Jews should be distinguished from Zionists and about a year ago he declared that normalization with Israel was the worst sort of betrayal.

The noise this statement made overshadowed the crisis only for a moment, for the demonstrations didn’t cease and their organizers say they may expand in the coming days.

The protesters are stuck in between a rock and a hard place. They know that demonstrations alone won’t generate the deep change required. At the very best, they could lead to an early election, which would jeopardize reforms. While, in the wings, factions supportive of the old regime are getting stronger, and could trample on the revolution’s democratic achievements.

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