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Ten years after the Arab Spring Revolution that toppled the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, young Tunisians are back in the streets in several cities to protest against the government’s inability to address high unemployment and socio-economic hardship. Sidi Bouzid, the cradle of the 2011 revolution, witnessed violent demonstrations in January 2021, as young protesters shouted: “dissolve the parliament!”; “the revolution isn’t over!”
Young Tunisians remain disgruntled with the situation in the country. In the 2019 elections, they backed Kais Saied who won a landslide victory to become President of Tunisia with 90 percent of the youth vote. The youth, who had been apathetic in previous elections, showed tremendous enthusiasm for a candidate they regarded as honest and untainted by partisan politics. Saied’s election was not accidental, nor did it occur in a vacuum; rather, it was made possible by the achievements of the 2011 revolution that opened up the political space for independent and horizontal forms of political and civic activism.
Most young activists maintain that the victory of Kais Saied represents a continuum in the long process towards systemic change initiated in 2011. Following the Arab Spring uprisings, the youth felt that the “old guard” hijacked the revolution. They therefore retracted from the national political arena and from formal politics, operating mainly in civil society and grassroots political activism. In the 2014 national elections the youth vote was very low. But in the 2018 municipal elections many young activists, women especially, were elected as mayors, general-secretaries and councillors in various municipalities. A survey conducted by Democracy International shows that the majority of successful youth candidates in these municipal elections were predominantly female, unmarried, and with no prior governance experience. Many were not formally employed but were better educated than their older counterparts. The results of the 2018 elections were a testament to young Tunisians’ grassroots local level activism and engagement.
The Saied-Youth alliance
In 2019 most young Tunisians rallied behind Kais Saied, a professor of constitutional law, who never belonged to a political party, never held political office, and was critical of the oligarchic elites. Saied was a relatively unknown figure in the Tunisian political landscape who built a reputation for honesty, transparency, and stern civic mindedness during the drafting of the 2014 constitution, when he appeared frequently on state television to explain and comment on complex legal debates. Saied offered a political agenda for government decentralisation, which bypassed political parties as necessary key players in the democratic process. As he put it: “The era of parties is ending. The people are organising in a new way. Look what is happening in France with the yellow vests, in Algeria and Sudan. The parties are destined to perish…” He proposed a very clear platform for change: a bottom-up model through which parliamentarians would be chosen from elected local council officials, rather than political party lists, emphasising decentralisation and local control of government. This proposal for constitutional reforms represents a direct threat to the establishment, especially to the political parties that have controlled parliament and much of Tunisian politics for decades.
Indeed, Saied’s agenda is premised on the devolution of power and resources to municipalities, strengthening their capacity to promote local development and address the country’s socio-economic imbalances – creating jobs and responding to local needs, especially those of the youth. This political message resonated with the youth’s rejection of the current political system and supported their efforts and interventions at local municipal levels. Using their civil society and community-based networks and their leadership at the local level, young activists led a strong grassroots campaign to elect their candidate. University students, activists in civil society groups and local civic associations, as well as unemployed graduates organised door-to-door campaigns to distribute pamphlets and mobilise others. Facebook was a critical vehicle to reach youth, as about 65 percent of Facebook users in Tunisia are aged 18–34.
Establishment candidates were swept away in the first round of the presidential elections, leaving Kais Saied and Nabil Karoui, a businessman and philanthropist popular among the poor, to dispute the second round. Tunisian political scientist Hamza Meddeb pointed out that the first round voting results illustrated youth’s deep disaffection with a political class that has failed to meet their expectations, hence the massive vote for outsiders. In the second round, Saied won with 73 percent of the vote. Despite being aged 61 and his conservative stance on some social issues, Saied was able to galvanize the younger generation. By electing Saied, young Tunisians rejected multiparty politics and the pseudo representative democracy espoused by the oligarchy – the select few who hold power, share special privileges among themselves, repress or limit people’s freedoms, and plunder the country’s resources. To them, politics represents a restricted space in which these elite groups compete for, and take turns among themselves to control, power, resources and privileges. Thus, politics becomes a way of masking corruption by affirming lofty notions of democracy. This is the reason why many young activists refuse to organise themselves around old or new political parties.
Despite all the excitement created by Saied’s victory, young activists remain apprehensive about the sustainability of this victory and the implementation of the policies they support. The experiences of 2011 still weigh heavy, not only on those who participated in the uprisings, but also on the young protesters who came of age after the Arab Spring. Riahi, a 28-year-old male journalism student, stated: “We are living a new phase of the process of transformation initiated during the revolution.… It promises to be exciting, but we need to be cautious because experience shows us that this can quickly be reduced to an enchanted parenthesis, abruptly closed, to restore the balance of forces to perpetuate the system. So, we need to be vigilant!”
I concluded my 2013 book Youth and Revolution in Tunisia by stating that young revolutionary Tunisians were already calling into question “the nature of ‘the political’ itself”; but they were struggling to respond to the challenges of the transition, and to seize the opportunities generated by the revolution. Saied’s 2019 proposal for bottom-up politics appears to have aligned with young activists’ yearning for a new type of politics and for systemic change. Young people’s grassroots activism and local level political interventions were a response to the setbacks of 2011. Therefore, much hope was placed in the 2019 alliance between youth and president Kais Saied. However, in 2021 the country continues to experience serious political challenges that are impacting the government’s ability to deliver on political reform and much-needed socio-economic development.
Governance challenges and renewed protests
The first year of Saied’s presidency has been marred by a divided parliament, and two failed governments. A third Prime Minister in one year was sworn in on September 2020. The first year has also been marked by tensions between the President and political parties, especially Ennahda, the Islamist party. Furthermore, pressures created by the Covid-19 pandemic have derailed the implementation of Saied’s transformative agenda.
In January 2021, ten years after the revolution, young Tunisians continue to protest the slow pace of change; the unremitting bickering between political parties and the fragmented parliament that hinders effective governance; the persistent high youth unemployment; and the growing socio-economic inequities between the coast and the interior of the country. Many of the protesters in 2021 were teenagers at the time of the revolution and are now joining forces with those who led the 2011 uprisings. Many are young women who are increasingly coming out into the streets and speaking out against the status quo.
The young appear to remain steadfast behind Saied. They blame the political parties in parliament for blocking the president’s agenda, which some see as “the armoured vehicle between the representative of the people and the People” as the slogan reads in the above photograph. However, others are becoming increasingly disappointed with Saied, “they think the president might have good intentions, but he has been outmanoeuvred by the Prime Minister and the parliament, and they are not impressed by his performance…” stated Tunisian social scientist Hajer Araissia.
President Kais Saied went out to appease young protesters in the streets of Mnihla, near the capital Tunis, urging them not to let others manipulate their anger and poverty, reiterating his promises for change and economic recovery. In this vein, a few weeks later the president announced the launch of a national dialogue involving politicians, the UGTT (workers union) and youth from all regions, “to correct the process of the revolution, which has been diverted from its true path [of] employment, freedom and dignity set 10 years ago.” The dialogue is also a response to the inability of various governments to address these problems as the country witnesses a wave of protests against widespread unemployment, corruption and bad public services.
President Saied continues to urge his government to accelerate the decentralisation process, but he possesses limited leverage as he does not have a political party, which in the current political landscape weakens his ability to forge alliances and cut deals with the major parties in the parliament. There are also serious tensions over the cabinet reshuffle between the President and Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, who is backed by the two largest parties in parliament, Ennahda and Qalb Tunis. This power struggle mirrors the establishment’s fierce resistance to change and affects the government’s ability to perform its duties and deliver on promises made to the people.
This stalemate is spurring further protests across the country. On 30 March 2021, young people in the southern city of Tataouine staged protests against the government’s failure to provide jobs. Given the massive discontent, such demonstrations are likely to continue. It remains to be seen whether the alliance between the youth and Kais Saied will be sustainable in the long run.
The current political situation in Tunisia illustrates a struggle between ‘old’ and ‘new politics’ or between the aspirations of a younger generation yearning for political change, and the desires of an older generation clinging to power. Even though Saied embraced the youth’s drive for change, his position as an outsider continues to hinder his ability to transform the system from within. Only time will tell how the political situation in Tunisia will evolve, and whether the country will manage to move towards systemic change.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent