Tunisia: Freedom and the pursuit of unhappiness

 
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By Khaled Diab

With greater freedom has come greater unhappiness in Tunisia. Behind this apparent paradox is economic hardship and nostalgia for a past that never was.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Tuesday 6 November 2018

In these dark times for the Middle East and with democracy on the retreat even in its oldest and most established strongholds, Tunisia is the exception that proves hope is not just for optimistic fools.

With the revolutionary wave that began in Tunisia at the end of 2010 and swept the region with its infectious demands for economic empowerment, social dignity and political freedom, this small North African country is the exception that proves that despotic rule need not be the rule in the Arab world.

Across the region, many pro-democracy, progressive and liberal activists, opposition figures, human rights defenders and ordinary citizens who believe in freedom, Tunisia inspires them to believe that they are not being delusional in believing their own countries can be reformed.

Over the past almost two years of living in Tunisia, I have found the country’s newfound freedom remarkable, as have other Egyptians based here or visiting. For a start, despite fears that freedom would lead to extremist-led chaos, Tunisia has managed, unlike so many revolutions throughout history, to maintain stability and pass or draft landmark legislation to ensure fundamental rights and equality.

“Tunisia has a vibrant civil society, exceptional record on women’s rights in the Arab world, as well as, overall, a politics, while far from perfect, that is continuously being negotiated forward,” contends Amro Ali, an Egyptian sociology professor whom I met during his recent visit to Tunisia. “What started with them was no ordinary feat; they raised the standards and they’ll be held up to it. So they will be treated like a political beacon, whether they like it or not.”

The street continues to be a major pillar of Tunisian democracy and political direct action continues apace, albeit with less intensity than in the heady early days of the revolution. Barely a week goes by without a demonstration or a strike somewhere in the country, to protest economic hardship, unemployment, government action or government inaction.

Tunisians, both friends and strangers, have plenty of opinions on politics and other issues and they have no reservations about sharing them, even during brief encounters at cafes, parties or on the street, especially when they find out you are an Egyptian.

Although I have no personal pre-revolutionary reference point, Tunisians tell me that this is a far cry from how things used to be in the days of the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Tunisian broadcasters have built up an impressive track record in a short span of time, and I am regularly impressed by the depth and breadth of public debate on the airwaves.

Taxi drivers have been a colourful, engaging, eccentric and diverse source of political commentary, and I have compiled enough amusing anecdotes to write a short book. But this was not always the case. One taxi driver admitted to me that, in the past, he would have been afraid to even think Ben Ali’s name while on the job, whereas now he had turned his taxi into a political salon on wheels.

Tunisian broadcasters have built up an impressive track record in a short span of time. Whereas there has been a trend in the media of maturer democracies towards dumbing down their content, Tunisia has been wisening up its coverage. For instance, many FM music radio stations in Europe and America either carry no political content or cut it up into tiny, bite-sized morsels, out of fear their audiences will switch off. Not so in Tunisia, where even the most commercial music stations carry hours of news, in-depth coverage, discussion and debate.

Despite the immense political, social and cultural progress, the sense of widespread disillusionment and despondency is palpable, and this is confirmed by surveys and polls. The number of Tunisians I encounter who are unhappy with the situation, are sceptical about the path the country is taking and are pessimistic about the future is truly astonishing.

“I think that the Tunisians had built up high expectations about what the revolution could bring, but the political class quickly disappointed,” observes Sarah Ben Hamadi, a blogger, former journalist and deputy secretary-general of the Tunis-based Democratic Lab think tank. “The economic crisis felt by the middle class, which is making the daily lives of Tunisians increasingly more difficult, makes it harder to appreciate progress in terms of freedom.”

Although Tunisia’s economy has slowed down, it continues to grow, but not at a rate that has enabled it to make any serious dent in joblessness numbers nor to improve people’s sense of economic welfare. In fact, with a weakening currency, rising inflation and the phasing in of austerity measures, including the removal of subsidies and raising of fuel and other prices, Tunisians feel worse off today than before the revolution.

“[Tunisians] don’t really count social and political progress as wealth,” asserts Karim Benabdallah, a blogger, activist and photographer. “They usually see things in their own narrow perspective.”

Tunisia’s economic woes have hit young people, who spearheaded the revolution but still make up the bulk of the unemployed, particularly hard, leading them to “feel neglected, unheard and invisible,” according to Omezzine Khelifa, the founder of Mobdiun, which researches the status of youth from neglected neighbourhoods in Tunis and seeks to find ways to empower them politically.

“Those who live in marginalised areas feel the state is not doing anything for them and have witnessed how any form of protest can turn against them in a violent way,” she adds. “They say police is not here to protect us, rather to harm us.”

Although Ben Ali’s repressive state is largely gone and protest is a protected constitutional right, police brutality and violence remain a problem, with class and age affecting how the police treat citizens, as reflected in how the police overreact to protests in poorer neighbourhoods.

In addition, youth in marginalised areas are more likely than their better-off counterparts to experience other forms of violence, including from their peers on the street and domestic violence at home. The alienation and frustration feeding this violence can also be turned inwards. According to Mobdiun, between 6% and 10% of teenagers in one poorer neighbourhood of Tunis have attempted to commit suicide. More alarmingly, similar suicide rates exist among youth in better-off areas.

This points to an existential crisis among young Tunisians, with dreams of emigration their escapism from their dispiriting reality, with some numbing the pain and the unbearable heaviness of being through self-medication. “I said to myself: I’ll find a job, I’ll manage, I’ll find… and nothing, I did not find anything,” confessed one young man who spoke to Mobdiun. “A friend comes to me and suggests we ‘fly’ on a train (i.e. ride on the outside) because we have no money, we are obliged, how else will we buy cannabis to smoke in the evening and to escape a little?”

Some find escapism in the past. While many young Tunisians appreciate the freedom under which they are growing up, others see it as overrated, especially since a whole generation is now emerging that never experienced the bad old days first hand. “The social and political progress seen by outsiders, it’s honestly a big joke,” contends Malek, a law student. “It only proves that they have no idea about how it used to be before.”

This sense of a paradise lost actually originates with and is more common amongst older people, who have established a veritable nostalgia industry, which is slowly trickling down the age pyramid. To hear Tunisian nostalgists speak, one is left with the impression that everything was better prior to the revolution: the economy was better, people were better off, people had a greater sense of civic duty, etc.

Some of those who subscribe to this sort of narrative do so out of frustration at their present hardships or fear of what lies ahead. Others do so as an expression of their authoritarian tendencies. They believe, or have been conditioned to believe, that Arabs do not understand or are not ready for democracy, and that they need a “strong” leader to keep them in check. The number of times I have heard this view, often combined with admiration for the likes of Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi or, worse, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, is shocking.

“The fact that no leader has emerged also means that there is always a certain nostalgia for a time when the president enjoyed great authority,” explains Sarah Ben Hamadi.

However, what nostalgists do not seem to comprehend is that if the calibre of leadership that has emerged since the revolution has been found wanting compared with the Ben Ali era, which I am not sure is the case, this is, in reality, the legacy of decades of dictatorial monopoly over power and the accompanying elimination or sidelining of a viable opposition. In addition, Tunisia is no longer a one-man show and is founded on consensus politics and pluralism, which appears messier but is fairer and holds leaders to greater account and scrutiny.

A similar confusing of cause and effect, of symptom and disease, afflicts the question of economic welfare and prosperity. If life was so great under Ben Ali, the question begs itself: why was there so much desperation, symbolically represented by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi and Hosni Kalaya, and why did Tunisians rise up to demand not just freedom but also bread?

Linking the current economic crisis to the revolution, as many Tunisians do, is wishful thinking, in my analysis. Decades of economic mismanagement and crony capitalism cannot be reversed in a few short years.

If anything, the reason why Tunisia’s economy is performing relatively poorly, failing to create enough jobs and to distribute wealth more evenly, is not because the revolution demolished what came before but because the revolution left the country’s previous economic architecture too intact. In fact, I am personally convinced that if Ben Ali were still in power, the Tunisian economy would likely be in crisis.

In addition to Tunisia’s own internal faults, there is the regional and global dimension contributing to its economic woes. Not only is the fallout of the global economic crisis of 2008-09 still hurting Tunisia, the upheavals and conflicts across the region, especially in neighbouring Libya, have had a negative impact on the Tunisian economy.

The austerity-driven approach of international financial institutions are making a bad situation worse, as is the unfair structure of the global currency regimen, which excessively rewards rich countries and penalises poorer ones. In fact, with an economy barely larger than that of a multinational corporation, Tunisia is being crushed by the old titans of the West, who are desperately clinging on to their old privileges, and the new titans, foremost among them China, who are carving out a space for themselves, not just at Europe and America’s expense, but more brutally at the expense of developing countries with higher labour costs and smaller economies.

Constructing an a-historical narrative about the splendour of the Tunisia of Dictatorship Past will not restore a lustre which never existed. Instead, if believed by enough Tunisians, it risks leading to the Tunisia of Dictatorship Future, and the deconstruction or destruction of the most significant gains the revolution has delivered: freedom, dignity and collective decision-making.

The creativity, intelligence, wisdom and guts that overthrew a dictator and built a vibrant democracy should and can be harnessed to develop an economy that serves all Tunisians.

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This article was first published by The New Arab on 18 October 2018.

 

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