Eight years after the Arab Spring, Tunisia is still holding firm

As large swathes of Europe and America fall for the lures of the far right and the cheap tricks of pound shop populism, Tunisia continues to provide hope

Simon Speakman Cordall
Monday 17 December 2018 15:53
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Beyond the political atrophy, progress is being made
Beyond the political atrophy, progress is being made

Mohammed Bouazizi never set out to change the world. Born into a provincial Tunisian governorate far removed from the traditional power centres of Washington, Europe, or even his own capital, Bouazizi was an unlikely catalyst for bringing about one of the most profound changes the 21st Centuries has witnessed.

Waking up eight years ago today, there likely wasn’t much on Bouazizi’s mind beyond taking his small cart into Sidi Bouzid’s centre and selling the fruit and vegetables he’d bought on credit the night before.

He didn’t even make it through the morning. Shortly after 10.30am, Sidi Bouzid’s police embarked upon another grim episode in the campaign of harassment Bouazizi’s family claim they had been waging against him for years.

On that day, that it was a female police officer who reportedly slapped the street vendor in the face, in this conservative quarter of Tunisia’s conservative hinterland, and subsequently confiscated his goods likely didn’t help.

One hour later, Bouazizi appeared outside the office of the governor who had earlier refused to see him, doused himself in petrol and set himself on fire.

What happened next changed the world.

Tunisians seek justice for old regime crimes

Tunisia was already ripe for revolution by the time of Bouazizi’s last desperate act. The corruption that had festered within the Presidential Palace of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his clan in Carthage had seeped out, infecting all strands of public life and finding fertile ground within the ranks of the country’s brutal police force.

Low wages, inflation and endemic joblessness had all become facts of life for many, with the police’s savage repression fuelling the simmering resentment that would boil over into open revolution following Bouazizi’s last protest against the powerlessness of his position.

By the end of the following year, the entire region had already undergone a profound tectonic shift, opening the door for the prospect of freedom, yet – more often than not – ushering in the dismal spectres of repression, dictatorship, and ultimately fuelling the bloody rise of Isis.

Only Tunisia appeared to escape the anarchy, falling back upon its entrenched state institutions and widespread civil society groups to help the country weather the ensuing storms that had consumed the region in the wake of its own revolt.

Eight years on, few would argue against the notion that Tunisia has gained its democracy and its people their voice. Elsewhere, little else appears to have changed. The political class of the Ben Ali regime is gradually returning to the political fold.

Corruption, nepotism and cronyism remain widespread. Police brutality, though no longer mandated by the state, appears to enjoy the same impunity as of old and the dire economy, one of the principal springboards of the 2011 revolution, shows little sign of recovery.

That there’s real cause for hope here is beyond doubt. Beyond the political atrophy, progress is being made. Last year, a law was passed further criminalising violence against women. In October, all forms of racial discrimination were outlawed. A bill is currently underway equalizing inheritance across the genders, a prospect unthinkable to most traditionally minded religious minds.

However, elsewhere, Carthage is continuing to fiddle while the country burns.

The country’s police force, former attack dogs of the old regime, have returned to the cities they fled after the revolution. Under the cloak of a three year state of emergency, their power has grown as any case for their accountability has waned.

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Torture remains widespread, with the constant stoking of fear over the threat of terrorism proving justification enough for extrajudicial house arrests, beatings and the arbitrarily imposition of travel restrictions.

Unemployment remains desperately high. According to the 2014 census, joblessness averages around 15 per cent across the country, rising to 30 per cent some of the more hard-pressed towns of the interior.

Worse hit are the graduates, who accepted the promise of a better life after university, emerging to little but hopelessness and handouts. All the while, Tunisia’s international donors, led by the International Monetary Fund, continue to squeeze the country’s fragile dinar still further while inflation bites and prices rise.

Yet even here, Tunisia continues to provide hope. As large swathes of Europe and America fall for the lures of the far right and the cheap tricks of pound shop populism, Tunisia still holds firm. No matter what Bouazizi’s thoughts were that morning eight years ago, he proved instrumental in setting a high bar for all that followed.

No one would claim that Bouazizi started the revolution. However, that last desperate howl against a vicious and corrupt state at least provided a central point around which the public’s commitment to human rights, a competitive democracy and an accountable police force could gather.

One day they may even get it.

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