Dreams of January
Tunisian youth carried the “Jasmine Revolution.” Fiver years on, their discontent with its outcomes is growing.
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.
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.”
“During that time, they used to be strict with everything and they would find an issue with everything so they could censor it,” Hammouda explains. The play’s title was a reference to labor or the working class; they were forced to stop the play because the government said it had a political and sexual connotation.
During the revolution, Hammouda was part of the first group to establish a union for the dramatic arts in Tunisia. Shortly after the revolution, he decided to create Mass’ART as an artistic outlet for his community of sixteen years.
Rather than creating a performance that presents a problem and proposes a solution. Mass’ART focuses each piece on a particular issue and follows the performance with a debate that the audience can participate in. Following a recent play on illegal immigration called “Albash,” the group came up with a list of recommendations to present to the Constituent Assembly. Mass’ART will continue to make art that challenges the status quo and engages with the social issues that gave rise to the revolution.
Mass’ART is best understood as a cultural space, or hub — one which has a direct relationship with the neighborhood in which it is located. For example, the young people who install the art are the same ones who scrub and clean once the art is removed. When artists visit from out of town, someone’s mother will make couscous and a neighbor will set up tables. Here, “the open space blossoms with art,” Hammouda says.
“We dream of making art which is close to people.”
As Hammouda explains, the group represents independent thinking and the political engagement of young people. Mass’ART brings artists, actors, academics, and political activists together and has served as a haven for free and open thinking in Tunis. Mass’ART also produces an independent newspaper, and holds monthly gatherings for political discussions with a broad spectrum of Tunisians.
“Our vision of art is that it is never neutral,” Hammouda says. “There is no — and cannot be — neutral art. Art has to be linked to reality, linked with human problems and issues anywhere it is.”
And the reality of the young reflected in the art that they produce is increasingly angry and somber.
Transitional justice after the fall of Ben Ali
Within a year after Ben Ali fled the country, Tunisia had made concrete steps to establish democratic rule, with the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), created in October 2011, tasked with creating a new constitution and drafting laws to guide the country’s transition. Designing and implementing transitional justice measures has been part of the process.
The Transitional Justice Law, passed in 2013, established an extensive framework to deal with abuses committed during the dictatorship period (from 1955–2013); the plan emphasized a truth-seeking initiative, a reparations program, and the pursuit of criminal accountability. The law provided for the creation of the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) as the formal body responsible for investigating and reporting on past violations of human rights. The TDC was inaugurated in June 2014, and has collected testimonies from over 20,000 victims.
“Truth-seeking is about being able to speak, to express and tell your story,” says Nidhal Hlaim, a young woman who works with the Ministry of Women, Family, and Children and is an activist with Amnesty International in Tunis. “It is only through your ability to speak your mind that you will be able to understand others and to achieve progress.”
Hlaim was raised in Gafsa, a mining city in southwestern Tunisia known for the role its citizens played in the revolution. In the early ’80s, when Bourguiba was in power, her father was fired from his job because he belonged to a union. Although she was too young to remember the day he lost his job, some of her earliest memories are of her mother getting up early to cook beans for her father to sell at the market.
While people working in cities like Tunis also lost their jobs for joining unions, the people in the marginalized south were poorer, and unemployment was always higher in rural and regional areas.
“The real people behind the mobilization was not me and other activists in the capital, but the average people in the south; the people that you don’t see on the TV screens,” says Hlaim, referring to the January 2011 uprising.
El Gantri stresses that there is little to no economic investment from the government in the interior regions, which is a key to understanding both what led to the revolution and why things have not improved much to this day.
“Most of those who lived in places like Tunis didn’t have any direct problem with Ben Ali,” she explains. “They believed in the image of Tunisia that their former president shared with the world because they were shielded from what was happening in the marginalized areas.
“For them, the revolution was about civic and political rights, but for those living in poverty with no access to education or employment in the interior, the revolution was a fight for economic and social rights.”
In truth, since the revolution, things have not gotten better for people who live in marginalized areas. In fact, the situation for many young people may be deteriorating. According to a World Bank report published in 2014, the unemployment rate for youth between the ages of 15 and 29 actually increased after the revolution.
Today, according to Hlaim, the current Tunisian government and the major political parties promote a narrative that blames the revolution for the country’s current social and economic problems. “[They] keep telling the average citizen that the revolution not only was fruitless but attributed to their deteriorated economic situation. They say that the revolution pulled people backwards. But this is wrong,” Hlaim claims.
She argues that the south is still miserable and marginalized even though the new constitution mandates decentralization. Changes have been made only on paper; nothing substantive has been done. “Not only is the economic situation bad, but police violations against young people have not stopped; they did not change their ways in dealing with citizens,” says Hlaim. “And demonstrations in Gafsa never stopped really; young people are still fighting for social justice. Gafsa is deprived of its wealth and of development.”
“I think our gain from the revolution is freedom of expression and freedom of thought, and our ability to stand up against any violation,” she says. “However, on the level of the living standard of the citizen, things have not improved and we have a lot of work to do.”
Hlaim remembers the outpouring of support shown to her family by members of their community in their time of need, when she was a child. She believes that community support is integral to enabling struggling families to meet their basic needs and the struggle for basic human rights.
“Ben Ali, or anyone, can issue plenty of security orders and arrest people and try to enforce a police state,” Hlaim says, “but the people will always have the upper hand. The community will have the final decision through their support for each other and what they teach their children.”
Hlaim’s activism was inspired by those early days. Her family remained deeply involved in union organizing, and continued to use their home for meetings despite finding it extremely difficult to afford food. “The community had our back,” she says.
Like many people her age, Hlaim welcomed the creation of the TDC but has remained wary of its ability to achieve its mandate. There is a huge difference between establishing such a body and achieving results, she points out. Hlaim says she has not seen any reason to believe that the TDC will be able to be successful — a situation she blames on the fact that it is not a totally neutral body.
Hlaim is referring to how TDC commissioners were selected — a process that was highly criticized, even though the NCA followed the formal guidelines outlined in the Transitional Justice Law.
In the minds of many activists, the NCA’s selection process was not sufficiently transparent or participatory and was, therefore, unable to accomplish a feeling of public ownership of the process.
The selection committee called for nominations for the 15 commission members just ten days after the Transitional Justice Law was published, having been given only ten days in which to receive them. Many civil society organizations and members of the international community viewed the tight deadlines as barriers to interested parties in regional areas and warned that this could lead to the politicization of the TDC.
What began as an ostensibly participatory process ultimately broke down when the selection of commissioners became politicized, says Hlaim. “[There was] this huge discrepancy between the solid process and the weak results… [which] can only be explained by the [process of selection of] members of the commission,” Hlaim believes. “The positions were divided between the controlling parties — this can only hamper the movement towards a successful result.”
“The TDC was established to satisfy a few political parties,” maintains former hunger striker Akrem Dhifaallah, “Not for everybody to enjoy it . . . One of our strikers said, ‘We need solidarity and unity for the whole country, coast or west.’”
Last April, Dhifaallah and a group of protestors occupied a municipal building just outside of Menzel Bouzaine and began a hunger strike. Menzel Bouzaine is deep in rural Tunisia, surrounded by vast stretches of desert, red rocky hills, and fields of olive and almond trees. The town lies just 70km south of Sidi Bouzid, the place where Bouazzizi ignited the revolution. Protests in solidarity with Bouazzizi’s action swept through the ordinarily quiet town after news broke of his self-immolation.
“I think our gain from the revolution is freedom of expression and freedom of thought, and our ability to stand up against any violation. However, on the level of the living standard of the citizen, things have not improved and we have a lot of work to do.”
In this region, the towns in disrepair tell their own story of decades of economic marginalization. Dotting the area are ghost estates, mostly single-story homes frozen in mid-construction, as though all the workers walked off the job at once. The workers that might otherwise be found building these houses, however, are not hard to find. Pass any open-air café with a television screen, and you’ll find (almost exclusively) men drinking tea or coffee and watching soccer.
The regional areas of Tunisia were the most marginalized under the dictatorship and remain so today. Nowhere in Tunisia will you find young people more frustrated and disenchanted with the promises of the revolution than in these more rural, western areas. Though activists here also express themselves through art and on social media, others have turned to more desperate measures.
The region, according to Dhifaallah, has been completely ignored by the government — there has been no economic development here despite progress in other parts of Tunisia. Their main demand was the right to have a job. But the hunger strike ended in June, without any of the strikers’ demands having been met.
The decision to go on hunger strike was made following a 45-day sit-in that produced no reaction from the government. “We moved to a more aggressive [protest tactic] because for now as we see things, [we must] either have work with dignity in life, or die in dignity,” says Dhifaallah.
The hunger strikers maintain that the answers must come from the government, not the labor unions, because in their minds it is the government’s obligation to provide employment opportunities.
To Dhifaallah and other hunger strikers, justice is about equality for all, but he emphasizes that it also means putting an end to the aggression against marginalized regions and the poor.
He links this concept of justice with the work of the TDC. He believes the commission is yet another example of the government having a preference for the coast over western or southern parts of the country. When the TDC was first set up, the marginal regions were promised more funding, yet according to Dhifaallah this never took place.
Despite getting off to a rough start, however, over 18,000 victims have submitted applications to the TDC, which began hearing oral testimonies in December. Among its specialized committees is a Women’s Committee, whose mission is to investigate gender-based violations — particularly against women and others — that occurred during the dictatorship, as well as the socioeconomic impact those violations had on women’s lives.
The TDC also plans to create twenty-three regional offices to allow it to expand its mission outside the capital city of Tunis and into more marginalized, underserved regions.
Still, the TDC appears to face an uphill battle to fulfill its mandate. Internal divisions have led to the resignation of four commissioners already. The TDC continues to lack support from the media, the state, and civil society. As head of the commission, Sihem Ben Sedrine is also regularly attacked in the press. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Ben Sedrine blamed her treatment on a collection of elites who are determined to hold onto power. “They don’t want to be accountable for their actions,” she said. “Democracy is not only elections, it is about the legality of all acts, and we don’t have that.”
One woman’s journey to the TDC
The brilliant, almost sparkling white building that houses the TDC headquarters stands out in marked contrast with the faded, sandblasted buildings that surround it. Potted flowers carefully line the front steps, their color matching the vibrant red of the Tunisian flag flapping overhead. Above the entrance, the commission’s name is inscribed in French and Arabic.
This spring, when the TDC opened its doors to receive testimony from victims, Hiba Ben Haj Khalifa, 28, was one of the first in line.
“I wanted to be there, in person, to see it,” she said.
Originally from Tunisia’s capital city of Tunis, Khalifa was a project coordinator at the Association Tounisiette, an NGO that focuses on the advancement of women at the cultural and socio-economic levels. Tounisiette works directly with victims of the former regimes.
“Before [the] revolution, I didn’t have any political affiliation,” Khalifa says. “I knew we couldn’t talk about Ben Ali or his family and we knew that his family and his cronies were monopolizing the economy . . . but I didn’t know [about] any of the atrocities happening in Tunisia until after the revolution.”
Khalifa, like many other young Tunisians, became aware of the demonstrations in Sidi Bouzid on Facebook. She admits that at first, she didn’t have the courage to participate in similar demonstrations taking place in Tunis. She was busy with school and doing an internship in occupational therapy — a promising industry in the midst of an otherwise dismal economic environment.
The turning point for Khalifa came on January 8, 2011, when she and her friends answered a call to action that was posted on Facebook. They took to the streets to protest and were subsequently beaten by police.
“Since then, I kept going every time, to every demonstration, just out of anger. I knew that something was happening in Tunisia,” Khalifa said. “I had this anger inside of me, against the Ben Ali regime. My family was saying ‘Don’t go, don’t risk your life!’ But I said, ‘It’s a must. I have to go.’”
As protests and demonstrations continued, Khalifa was on the streets nearly every day, closely following the political developments that came after Ben Ali escaped the country. She also worked to support the many victims and activists who traveled to Tunis from the regions. Turning to activism, Khalifa eventually left her studies in occupational therapy, even though she was four months from finishing her degree. She never finished her internship.
Today, Khalifa works with women victims on a daily basis, with a particular focus on connecting them with the truth commission.
Khalifa arrived at the TDC on the day it opened its doors, excited to engage with victims and get to work as a representative of Tounisiette. That morning, she stood at the TDC entrance for three hours, volunteering to answer victims’ questions on how to give their testimony and files to the commission.
Since it was established in 2014, the TDC’s relationship with the general public has been fraught with problems. This is largely due to the polarized, politicized discourse on the TDC driven by the media, which is still largely controlled by political interests. But it’s also partly due to the commission’s lack of a comprehensive communications and outreach strategy, which has left large parts of civil society — and victims in particular — uninformed and feeling frustrated and disengaged with the work of the commission.
As a result, many Tunisians still do not know what the TDC is supposed to do or how it will be able to conduct investigations and gather testimony. The concept of “indirect victimization” is particularly confusing, leaving some to believe that only former political prisoners are supposed to apply. Many victims — particularly women — continue to wonder about the benefits of participating.
According to Khalifa, many who have not seen their lives improve since the revolution question the TDC’s relevance.
“When I see that four years after revolution, people still die of cold and from hunger, it’s still hard work. You can’t talk about [dignity] to rural women being paid $2.50 per day,” Khalifa says. “They say, ‘OK, but will you provide me something to eat, will you provide a job for my children?’ It’s shameful to talk about democracy when they don’t have anything to eat.”
Despite the challenges, she remains hopeful that if Tunisia can make transitional justice work, things will get better in the country.
“I’m still hopeful, but it’s a critical situation,” Khalifa says. “Time is running out. And victims are waiting.”
TWIZA: Sharing Skills for a Better World
As dusk falls over the Medina of Tunis, lights begin to appear along twisting passages too narrow to call streets. There is soft, loose sand underfoot, which billows up and settles on your shoes. Stray cats cry from behind piles of trash in corners, and children dart between doorways in small packs. The amplified call to prayer blasts out overhead, startling birds from their perches on blossoming vines and on bright blue wooden shutters.
The stone buildings — most of which are white — appear to glow as the sky grows darker. Closer to the center of the Medina, the buildings’ antiquity is even more pronounced, as stone facades crumble and paint peels. Here, in the heart of the Medina of Tunis, is where you will find TWIZA, one of the city’s most progressive youth collectives, which hosts cultural events and workshops.
Twiza is a Berber word referring to a lifestyle based on sharing and collective participation. The group’s organizers chose the name to reflect their desire to create a space where as many people as possible can come together to share skills aimed at making the world a better place.
Inside the front door is a cramped space full of posters, where merchandise like t-shirts are sold for a donation. A small staircase curls up to a loft, where a workshop on Photoshop is taking place. Ten participants sit on pillows around the edges of the room surrounding a projector.
One of the collective’s projects stands out in particular. Downstairs, Oussema Bouajila, one of the founders of a graffiti group called Zwawla, explains its genesis. Zwawla is a movement, he says, not an organization, and describes its members as students, poor people, and the unemployed. Still in his 20s, Bouajila has a halo of brown curly hair and wears jeans, sneakers, and a grey t-shirt that says “Sports Department.” A plastic whistle hangs from a long cord around his neck.
“After the 2011 elections, we decided to create our movement — Zwawla — for debate about social and economic problems of the world [in] artistic form: with graffiti, with dance, with rap, and with music,” he says. At one point, Bouajila and a friend were detained in prison for painting graffiti in the center of Tunis calling for social and economic rights for the poor.
Bouajila didn’t pay attention to politics until after 2011. Today, his passion for his country’s future is tangible, although he’s ambivalent about how much good has truly come from the uprising.
“After the revolution . . .” he recalls, and trails off, lost in thought. “What revolution?” asks Bouajila facetiously, implying that the term commonly used for what took place in 2011 is too generous.
Bouajila says he recognizes the importance of creating a context for participation in public affairs. Yet political freedoms formally gained — “the only gain,” as he puts it — are continually undermined by government crackdowns on artists and activists.
“For example, you see someone who suffers injustice, right in front of you,” he says. “But if you try to film it or take a picture of it, a policeman comes up to you and pushes the apparatus away, breaking it, and then suddenly the situation is all your fault.”
Since the fall of Ben Ali, Bouajila’s political graffiti has caused run-ins with Tunisian security forces. In November 2012 he was arrested on charges of spreading messages that disturb the public order after he wrote “The people want rights for the poor” on a wall in Gabès.
“They took us to court because we said that we wanted rights for the poor, and they tried to put us in prison for five years.”
He was eventually acquitted, but still faced a fine for defacing government property.
Political freedoms formally gained are continually undermined by government crackdowns on artists and activists
Bouajila believes that the link between limitations on Tunisia’s new rights of expression and economic justice are of critical importance to the future of the country due to security concerns. Those who advocate for transitional justice in Tunisia argue that mechanisms such as the TDC and other anti-corruption bodies in Tunisia have been established precisely to contribute to economic and political security in the country.
He sees public frustration over the government’s inability to provide jobs as a kind of “perfect storm” for extremists, especially when it comes to recruiting young people. Experts argue that many young people with little to no access to employment are more susceptible to radicalization, and extremist groups tend to thrive in poor areas.
Bouajila’s concerns are particularly relevant in the wake of two terrorist attacks claimed by ISIS earlier this year. Twenty-one tourists were killed at the Bardo museum in Tunis in March; the second attack left 38 dead on a beach in Sousse in June.
Although the vision of the Zwawla movement ties in closely with the goals of transitional justice — “Uncover the truth, and to hold all those who committed crimes accountable” — Bouajila says he doesn’t have much to say about the TDC. “The truth commission was never explained well in the media,” he shrugs, illustrating yet again the gap that exists between official efforts to investigate abuses of the past so that a new, different society can avoid repeating them, and those who are its key constituents — Tunisian youth.
A “detour” from the revolution
In December 2014, Beji Caid Essebsi won the Tunisian presidential election from incumbent Moncef Marzouki with 55.5 percent of the vote, making him the country’s first freely elected president. The election was hailed as the completion of Tunisia’s transition to complete democracy following the 2011 revolution, the adoption of the country’s new constitution, and recent parliamentary elections. Yet Essebsi is a former official of the Ben Ali and Bourguiba regimes, and his party, Nidaa Tounes, is seen as less supportive of the transitional justice process
As El Gantri argues in a recent ICTJ briefing, many believe the new government lacks the political will necessary to follow through on transitional justice measures, despite the country’s commitments in the Transitional Justice Law to account for the past.
At the center of the controversy are two pieces of legislation, one new and one proposed, that threaten to derail much of the progress that has defined Tunisia since the revolution.
Following three days of parliamentary debate in July, the “Anti-Terrorism” law was passed by an overwhelming majority, partly in response to the Islamic State attacks earlier this year.
International human rights organizations have harshly criticized the law, calling attention to its overly broad definition of terrorism, and several particularly egregious allowances: the law allows for up to two weeks of pre-trial detention for suspects without access to a lawyer or family; private trials with anonymous witnesses; and may permit the death penalty in some cases.
Critics of the law call it a throwback to authoritarian rule.
“We are especially concerned with the passage of the Anti-Terrorism law. We believe it limits the space for public dissent, as well as a proposed piece of legislation being referred to as the ‘reconciliation law’,” says El Gantri. “If passed, this legislation would, amongst other things, allow the government to control a process through which former public servants accused of the misappropriation of funds or other economic crimes could be given amnesty and protection from prosecution.”
The “reconciliation” bill was introduced shortly after the Sousse attacks and is backed by the Essebsi administration. Its purpose is to create a pathway to amnesty and protection from prosecution for former public officials who have been implicated in financial crimes, provided they return any misappropriated funds to the government.
Proponents argue that the law’s provisions are necessary for Tunisia’s economic recovery and that any prosecutions of these crimes will prevent the country from moving forward.
Nidhal Hlaim calls the law a “detour” from the revolution: “This law is the biggest proof that the current government and big political parties, the people who issue laws, are trying to make a detour on the demands of 14 January revolution.” Demands that are as real and unfulfilled today as they were almost five years ago, such as holding corrupt people accountable; breaking the system of corruption; building a fair democracy; and establishing real social justice. “The suggested law [defies] all these demands.”
If passed, the law would also directly impact the work of the TDC, overriding part of its mandate covering corruption and economic crimes and putting the future of other anti-corruption bodies at risk.
In essence, it would allow corrupt officials and businessmen to circumvent the entire transitional justice process and damage the ability of the TDC to uncover the full truth about the extent of crimes and violations committed during the dictatorship.
The attempts to undermine the ongoing transitional justice process is leaving the young feeling angry and somehow cheated
“Many Tunisians today have given up and many think that their mission ended with forcing Ben Ali to leave or with the elections,” explains Bouajila. “Policy makers are aware of this, and they are trying to keep the decision-making process inclusive for their elite circle.”
Bouajila is one of a number of activists who started the “I’m not forgiving” campaign. Originally a reaction to the “reconciliation” law, the campaign raises awareness about the dangers of the law and demands that the president withdraw it. “We’re not affiliated with any political party, and will not give up until these issues are resolved.”
It is clear that the attempts to undermine the ongoing transitional justice process and the hopes for a reckoning with the legacy of all-pervasive corruption of the dictatorship is leaving the young feeling angry and somehow cheated.
“The campaign also stands in the face of these political parties that are promulgating the idea of ‘reconciliation’ and forgetfulness for past crimes,” says Bouajila. He believes the idea that one must forget about the past if they care about the future is a myth used by those in power who would like to avoid accountability. The current transitional justice efforts, the transitional justice law, the TDC, the special chambers, they have the potential to deliver on the youth’s hopes, but they must be boosted, not tempered with and undermined. This sentiment resonates in every conversation.
“How can they say that we don’t care about the future?” asks Bouajila, incredulous. “We are the future and we are the ones who should decide about Tunisia’s future. We are not looking backward. To move forward, we need truth-revealing, then accountability, then reconciliation. The government and its supporters use this language to avoid this process.”
“I always say, why can’t we move forward while holding corrupt people and perpetrators accountable?” asks Hlaim. “It’s obvious that this government and its allied parties don’t want this. But the young will continue the struggle. We are in a building phase; this phase started decades before January 14  and will take decades more. Whether we win or lose the battle of the reconciliation law, the struggle will keep going.”
Back at Mass’ART’s block party, Hammouda is thinking about the state of his country and wonders what became of his efforts and the efforts of other young people like him who took to the streets in 2011: “What can we say to ourselves? What accountability did we achieve?”
“We feel that we are slowly, little by little, forgetting the story of transitional justice,” Hammouda says.
“We see criminals who are guilty of crimes against this country [committed] by politicians, business men and the police . . . None of them were ever held accountable. So, the story is not about reconciliation [based on transitional justice]. Now the story is about ‘national unity’ and how we are supposed to protect the country against terrorists, the ‘enemy’,” says Hammouda.
As Hammouda speaks, the opening chords of a Mass’ART-produced rap song criticizing the delays in transitional justice in Tunisia can be heard. The party going on in the streets is a clear indication that with or without their physical community space, the vibrant network built in this small section of the city will carry on.
“The people want another January,” a voice sings in the distance.
Originally published at www.ictj.org.