A group of witnesses surrounds the body of a man lying prostrate on the ground outside a Tunisian municipal office, his chest coated in grey, powdery soot. Some take pictures with their cell phones, but most just stand around helplessly. Only moments earlier, this young street vendor had set himself ablaze in protest of his treatment by police.
It is October 2015 in Sfax, a city on the Mediterranean about 170 miles southeast of the Tunisian capital of Tunis. The street vendor who will soon die from self-immolation is 24-year-old Seifeddine Khardani. According to the man’s cousin (Article contains graphic images), he had been providing for his mother and sisters after the death of their father by selling cigarettes, and following a recent interaction with police in which he was charged an exorbitant fine, “He felt as if the world had turned black.”
If Khardani’s story sounds familiar, it is because the act resembles that of 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation in 2010 is credited with catalyzing the Tunisian revolution, which inspired the uprisings across the region known as the “Arab Spring.”
The regular harassment that Bouazizi—the sole provider for his mother and siblings since the age of 10—experienced on the job was quite common for other street vendors and eventually pushed him to the edge. He would regularly express his frustrations to his mother with tales of police officers who would steal produce regularly, give out fines and arbitrarily prevent vendors from selling their wares in the street. It quickly became clear that the conditions that led to Bouazizi’s actions reflected the feelings of wider society—and in particular, youth in marginalized areas of the country. In an economic climate that offered few opportunities for young people to find meaningful employment, it was only a matter of time before the 2010 spark that lit the powder keg of revolution in Tunisia.
It has been almost five years since massive protests flooded the streets in a youth-led movement that helped force out the repressive regime of former President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali—in power since 1987—and the country was set on the course to democracy. In October, the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the National Dialogue Quartet, a Tunisian civil society coalition, for its contributions to the democratic transition; the award is perhaps a testimony of the international community’s determination to celebrate the country’s progress despite many serious challenges it faces.
Yet, despite the country being widely seen as the only success story of the Arab Spring, the motivation behind Khardani’s self-immolation points to a different reality and raises an obvious question: how much has really changed in Tunisia, especially for those who were the spark and the engine of the revolution? How do the young people who participated in the rallies and protests in 2011 feel about the transition? To what extent have their lives actually improved?
As it turns out, many youth activists in Tunisia see things differently from what is commonly reported in the media. For some, the political establishment is still seen as old, corrupt, and completely divorced from their day-to-day reality. Young people continue to face a lack of economic opportunities, are excluded from post-revolution politics, and continue to fight for space, visibility, and opportunity to help and engage their communities in struggles for economic and social justice.
Though many share the perception that the Tunisian revolution gave birth to a new, flourishing, largely youth-led civil society, the reality is that not much has actually changed for young people in the country. These are some of their stories.
“We can speak out, this is what we gained”: Life before and after Ben Ali
Phones never seem to be silent in Rim El Gantri’s office in a recently built office block in downtown Tunis. With a demeanor radiating quiet optimism and tenacious energy, El Gantri is one of the leading voices in Tunisia’s conversation on transitional justice. In her early thirties, she is the head of ICTJ’s office in Tunisia and an author of a recently published report on the country’s transitional justice process.
As we chat about her memories of the country’s recent past, she remembers how frustrating it was as a Muslim woman growing up during Ben Ali’s regime. She recalls the discrimination that women who wear the veil [traditional scarf or hijab] encountered when trying to find work. They could not, for example, get a job in a state institution.
El Gantri explains that the image that Ben Ali showed to the rest of the world about women’s liberation was a facade, of show of a “liberal Tunisia”—what it meant in practice was that all women should reflect only the Occidental image. Her parents, out of concern for her safety, prohibited her from wearing the veil or showing that she was religious in public.
Prior to the revolution, El Gantri worked for the Embassy of Pakistan in Tunis and later, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). In 2008, her work with JICA brought her to some of the more marginalized parts of the country, to the south and west of Tunis, where she discovered that many girls were prevented from going to school. This surprised her, because at the time all Tunisian minors were legally obligated to attend school until age 16.
“Despite the fact that we were showing ourselves as a country favoring youth—this was the message we were giving to the international community, that youth were the pillar of the country—in fact, it was not true,” El Gantri says. “Youth were used during elections, were used to create an image, but didn’t benefit from their ‘rights.’ Especially youth in marginalized regions.”
Ben Ali came to power in 1987 following a coup d’état that overthrew then-President Habib Bourguiba. Ben Ali is infamous for using a series of oppressive security measures to crush opposition in Tunisia. More than 10,000 people are known to have been arbitrarily detained under his rule. His administration was also marked by systemic corruption in which Ben Ali’s relatives and associates were handed lucrative business deals, the use of public lands, and unprecedented access to government institutions for tax breaks or to use as tools of coercion.
Revelations of the extent of the Ben Ali regime’s economic crimes have given rise to a debate within the human rights community as to whether widespread corruption should be viewed as a human rights issue.
This is particularly salient, as one attempts to measure how much has changed in Tunisia since Ben Ali was removed from power and his crimes exposed. But whether, and to what extent, those found to have committed economic crimes during the Ben Ali regime will be held accountable remains to be seen.
Youth were used during elections, were used to create an image, but didn’t benefit from their ‘rights.’ Especially youth in marginalized regions.
While the uprising that ousted authoritarian rule may have ushered in much-lauded gains in freedom of expression, youth activists are frustrated by the fact that the elite continue to control most media outlets, and huge rifts still exist between opportunities and conditions in Tunisia’s wealthier, urban coastal areas and the marginalized, more impoverished interior regions.
“There have been no solutions to the demands for economic and social rights, there is still corruption, there are still no jobs,” says El Gantri.
“Our only gain from the revolution was freedom of expression,” she asserts. “We can speak out, this is what we gained.”
Amid struggle, art blossoms
On a warm spring night in a residential neighborhood in Tunis, a block party is just getting started. An eclectic crowd has gathered where three quiet streets open into a square.
The spirit is festive, and at the center of attention, a middle aged-man recites a poem in front of a cluster of microphones.
Men and women of all ages stand listening in a semi-circle, while a few elders sit nearby in white plastic chairs. Others gather in doorways and lean against cars on the perimeter of the square. Just to the side of the gathering, children gather around a table, making Origami with brightly colored paper.
The poet stands in front of a triangular building with graffiti covering its walls and its front door shut and secured with numerous chains and padlocks. This is the headquarters of Mass’ART, a Tunis-based theater group and cultural center directed by Saleh Hammouda.
Hammouda is in the audience on this particular evening. As he makes his way through the crowd, it is clear that he is the one in charge. Wearing a bright yellow shirt and jeans, his thick, curly black hair pulled back in a ponytail, he weaves through the crowd, shaking hands and tapping the shoulders of other men.
The political and economic climate in Tunisia before January 2011 offered few opportunities for young people to find meaningful employment, leading many—particularly those in more marginalized regions of the country—to publicly demonstrate and use social media to demand change. Many young artists, like Hammouda, used their art to challenge the government’s abuse of power before the revolution. They continue to create outlets and networks for creative expression throughout the country.
To Tunis’ artistic community, Hammouda is a familiar name. A performer from a young age, he first began working in theater when he was a boy scout in the Tunisian Organization for Children and eventually moved to Tunis to study and pursue the creative arts. After graduating from university, Hammouda wrote and directed plays, one of which was banned during Ben Ali’s regime due to its title, “Shwat Alhuka” or “Alzunoos.”