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10 Years after the Tunisian Revolution, Youth Remain Hopeful

Tunisian revolution
A Tunisian man flashes the V for victory sign as youths burn tires and block roads in the southern city of Tataouine, on February 12, 2021, to protest against the government’s failure to keep its promise to provide jobs and investments. Photo: FATHI NASRI / AFP

By: Iheb Jemel

For many Tunisians, trying to look for hope 10 years after the revolution might be a challenging task. In the last few months, an overwhelming feeling has been taking over the youth: “we are under attack.”

The facts are undeniable: over 1000 arrests for protesting, unprecedented tough sentences for cannabis consumption, arrests for being different, or for allegedly speaking your mind at a friends apartment. Even worse, young people have been losing their lives in detention, working at hospitals, or even walking down the street.

And yet, in the midst of this despair, the youth will try to look for a glimpse of hope in a country whose revolution was the only one in the region to give birth to a -flawed- democracy.

AN ENGAGED YOUTH

There is no hope if the youth gives up, and young Tunisians certainly have not. Today more than ever, they seem to be more and more engaged in politics. When Kais Saied, a college professor and political outsider, won the presidential elections in 2019, many dubbed it “an uprising of young voters”. Indeed, he managed to amass 90% of the votes of electors aged between 18 and 25 in the second presidential round. More importantly, young people came out to vote in unprecedented numbers.

Following the elections, they have organised themselves all around the country in civic initiatives called “a state of consciousness” aiming at cleaning and decorating the cities to acknowledge this new colorful future.

Young people felt heard, and they celebrated it. They believe the future is theirs and that the right way forward is one that has them represented. Tunisians in general do not seem to disagree: 69% of them believe that electing young people aged 35 and younger to government would do the country good.

For this young engaged generation, the youth remain hopeful.

FREEDOM OF SPEECH

Many argue that freedom of speech is undeniably the greatest post-revolution achievement. Whether it’s in the streets or in social media, Tunisians are speaking their minds. This does not go without challenges. In October 2020, at least five activists were summoned for investigation for criticizing security forces online in the context of a campaign against a bill that enforces impunity. Other incidents have been noted mainly in relation to criticizing forces of order, who use legal articles dating back to Ben Ali’s Regime such as Article 86 of the Telecommunications Code, which imposes a prison sentence of up to two years for the use of telecommunications networks to “intentionally harm others or disturb their peace.”

On a hopeful note, these setbacks never seem to stop Tunisians who use every single platform to criticize the current situation, with protests happening on almost weekly basis all around the country.

DISMANTLING TABOOS

Discussing cannabis decriminalization,openly calling for repealing article 52 in the middle of the country’s biggest avenue, or even attempting to  run for president on the sole platform of weed legalization were quite unthinkable a few years back. Today, the weed conversation is one that comes up very often on traditional and social media plat-forms. In many ways, this has been  shaping public opinion that seems to be rejecting tough sentences and leaning more and more towards non-custodial sentences.

And it is not just cannabis. Tunisians are no longer afraid of dismantling taboos, even when these taboos have long been ruled by socie-tal and legal restrictions. A prime example of this would be the LGBTQ+ community. Sexual minorities have been living in the shadows for years, silenced by societal pressure, a shame culture, and colonialistic laws that could have them sentenced with up to 3 years of jail. In the last few years however, their voices are rightfully louder, and the country has become a hub for gay rights in the region. Different NGOs have applied, and received, their permit from the ministry of Interior. Shams, Mawjoudin, Chouf and Damj, among others, have been working for years now to confront society’s homophobia and provide support for the LGBTQ+ community. The work never shied away from the general public: in 2018, Mawjoudeen organized the country’s first Queer Film Festival, which continued with a second edition the following year. In 2019, the country saw its first openly gay candidate for the presidential elections, and in 2020, it is no longer coincidental to see the rainbow flag during protests, to have gay rights present in political discussions, or to have activists identifying as queer, even if they do sometimes pay a high price for it.

Corruption

In the latest Center for Insights Survey, 69% of Tunisians believe corruption has a bad impact on their lives. They have identified police, hospitals and public administration as the most corrupt entities. Although many believe that it is indeed the politicians responsibility to address this, 59% believe that it is also the citizens’ responsibility to a very large degree.

Indeed, citizens and NGOs have been taking up the bulk of the work when it comes to unmasking corruption. In August 2020, allegations of corruption charges against the then prime minister, Elyes Fakhfakh, created weeks of political tensions that ended with the PM’s resignation in September. In December 2020, it was through a whistleblower that the arrival of thousands of tons of waste coming from Italy exposed a corruption ring within the ministry of local affairs and the environment. The investigation culminated in the dismissal ,and then arrest, of the minister.

A few weeks later, when Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi announced a cabinet reshuffle, several NGOs, and mainly Iwatch, revealed that some of the names announced are suspected of corruption, including the minister of health who was shown linked to pharmaceutical lobbies. A huge debate took over the country, but this did not stop the government from being approved by the Tunisian parliament. Howev-er, and in an unprecedented and surprising move, president Kais Saied announced that he will not allow these “corrupt ministers” to take oath, and hence, to take office. On one hand, this created a de facto constitutional crisis between the president and the prime minister and a blockage that continues till this day. But on the other, it also highlighted that 10 years post-revolution,the fight against corruption is a fight in which citizens, NGOs and even the president are still actively leading.

The current political, social and economic situation is rather discouraging, and to move forward, Tunisians accept disappointment and keep hope alive. As Tunisia’s national poet Aboul-Qacem Echebbi, famously wrote: “When the people long to live, the fate must respond, the darkness will dissipate and the chains will break.”

Today the young people of Tunisia are certainly longing to live.