65 years after independence, Tunisians divided about their future

While some yearn for a return to the days of autocratic leaders, others push for more change towards democracy

FILE PHOTO: Demonstrators protest to mark the anniversary of a prominent activist's death and against allegations of police abuse, in Tunis, Tunisia February 6, 2021. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi//File Photo
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As Tunisians celebrate 65 years of independence from France on Saturday, and in the shadow of the 10-year anniversary of their revolution, they are deeply divided about the future of the country. With the economy reeling from the effects of the pandemic and unemployment surging, a rift has emerged between those looking to the vestiges of the past for stability and those pushing for the pace of change to quicken.

The National spoke to Tunisians in the street this past week to ask what they thought the future should look like and who would lead them there.

The only thing people could agree on: the current system is not working.

“We see no clear strategies, or a well-crafted plan to clearly show us our future or the future of our children,” said Hafedh Blaij, a craftsman working in Tunis. “There is not a single politician you can rely on. As soon as you give them your trust, they show you their horns.”

“In Bourguiba’s era, life was better, everything was cheaper, job opportunities were better,” he said.

Habib Bourguiba, who led Tunisia from 1956 to 1987, was viewed on the global stage as a visionary with the will power to push forward reforms that thrust Tunisia into the modern era. He expanded access to education, pushed for modernisation of agriculture and industry and instituted a landmark Code of Personal Status that gave women rights unheard of in the Arab world – among them the abolishment of polygamy, the right to a civil divorce, and state-funded access to birth control and abortion.

“Bourguiba was the greatest leader Tunisia ever had – or ever will have,” said Abdelrahman Chokri, a vendor in the medina of Tunis whose shop is graced with half a dozen photos of the late prime minister and president.

But Bourguiba’s legacy is tarnished by his brutal treatment of opposition from both the left and the right. Both he and his successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who took over the presidency in 1987 in a medical coup, carried out a campaign that saw tens of thousands of leftists and Islamists jailed, tortured and killed over the course of three decades.

Ben Ali was toppled in the January 2011 revolution, ushering in an era of newfound political freedoms, but also economic instability and political uncertainty. Since the revolution, GDP growth has dropped from 3.5 per cent in 2010 to just over 1 per cent in 2019. Overall, 16 per cent of Tunisians are unemployed, but that number more than doubles for those under 30, according to the World Bank. The country has had nine prime ministers in 10 years.

Some Tunisians urge patience with the pace of reforms. “No transition is easy,” said Azzouz, a milliner in Tunis who declined to give last name. “It is quite normal to undergo a certain level of distress when you go through a shift from one regime to another.”

But others are leaning into the nostalgia for stability and prosperity at the voting booth.

In 2019, a former Ben Ali era official, Abir Moussi, whose bombastic rhetoric denies that the 2011 revolution took place and brands the ruling moderate Islamist Ennahda party terrorists, was elected to parliament. Since then, her Free Destourian Party (PLD), and their Ben Ali-era policies, have gained traction among voters. Two recent polls suggest the PDL could win a majority of seats in Parliament if elections were held this year, though they are slated for 2024.

“Abir Moussi will get the Islamists out of Tunisia and get unemployment down,” said Bilal, a taxi driver in Tunis, adding, “Ben Ali never should have left.”

Tunisian protesters shout slogans against police forces during a protest against the government on March 6, 2021 in Tunis. This demonstration was organised at the call of opposition parties and civil society organisations under the slogan "liberate Tunisia", against the government's economic policy, and the strategy of repression in the face of social mobilisations.  / AFP / Fethi Belaid
Tunisians protest against the government in Tunis on March 6, 2021, at a demonstration called by opposition parties and civil society organisations under the slogan 'liberate Tunisia'. AFP

While older generations debate the merits of the Bourguiba and Ben Ali years, the younger generation is pushing for the revolution to continue. Dozens of anti-government protests have taken place since mid January.

At one protest that month, Aya, a 21-year-old student, expressed her frustration at the lack of progress. “Nothing has happened in the 10 years since the revolution. In fact things have only grown worse.

"We want jobs, we want dignity, we want to live," she told The National.

“There will be a second revolution, we are sure of that,” said another of her compatriots at the protest.