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Seven years on, Tunisia’s youth still talking about a revolution

Sarah Leduc, AFP | A Fech Nestanew activist parades on Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis on January 14, 2018, the sevent anniversary of Tunisia's 2011 revolution.

Led by media-savvy young activists, the Fech Nestanew (What are we waiting for?) campaign has been at the forefront of Tunisia’s recent protests. It aims to scrap unpopular austerity laws and breathe new life into the country’s unfinished revolution.


The party is long over, but Avenue Bourguiba, the Tunisian capital’s main thoroughfare, still bares the traces of the revolution’s anniversary: flags and pennants hanging from lampposts and buildings, security barriers straddling the sidewalks, and police vans everywhere to be seen. On January 14, the cradle of the Arab Spring commemorated the fall of its longtime strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, climax of a revolution most Tunisians regard – at best – as unfinished business. Seven years have gone past since those heady days, and the country’s increasingly disgruntled youth are tired of waiting.

That is precisely the message carried by activist group Fech Nestanew, whose name translates as “What are we waiting for?” Its members have gathered on a terrace overlooking Avenue Bourguiba to plot the next stage of their protest. Their immediate aim is a complete repeal of the unpopular austerity law recently passed by the government, which has exacerbated the effects of Tunisia’s enduring economic crisis. In the process, they hope to inspire a nationwide movement that can mirror the tidal wave of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.

But for now, the group’s priority is to fine-tune its communication strategy. Speaking in turns, huddled together in a circle, the activists pitch catchy new slogans, press conferences and door-to-door campaigns to raise awareness in disenfranchised communities. All are keenly aware of the need to boost their all-important social media presence. “That’s where our strength lies, in combining the street and the social networks,” says Henda Chennaoui, a 34-year-old journalist turned spokesperson for a day, courtesy of her impeccable French. So far, the method appears to be working.

‘Tunisians are angry’

Fech Nestanew’s campaign has gained traction across the country, drawing people onto the streets in places as diverse as Gafsa (south), Sfax (east) and Tabarka (northwest). While the movement proclaims its independence from political parties, it has already won the support of several opposition groups, including the leftwing Popular Front and the centrist Republican Party. The powerful UGTT trade union is yet to adopt an official stance, though several of its branches have already joined the demonstrators.

Journalist and blogger Henda Chennaoui (centre) speaks during a meeting of Fech Nestanew activists in Tunis on January 15, 2017.
Journalist and blogger Henda Chennaoui (centre) speaks during a meeting of Fech Nestanew activists in Tunis on January 15, 2017. Sarah Leduc, FRANCE 24

But with the revolution’s anniversary now behind them, and the month of January – traditionally an auspicious time for uprisings in Tunisia – past the halfway mark, Fech Nestanew’s activists know they’re at a crossroads. Despite a lull in protests this week, veteran campaigner Linda Ben Mehnni is confident the movement won’t peter out. The NGO worker has been a thorn in the authority’s side for well over a decade. She notes that the dire social and economic context is still propitious.

“Tunisians are angry,” she says. “I don’t know whether we’re witnessing the start of a new revolution, but Fech Nestanew continues to mobilise, in Tunis and beyond. The objectives of the [2011] revolution haven’t been attained, particularly when it comes to the economy. The situation is getting worse by the day, most notably in the marginalised regions that triggered the revolution. For youths in those areas, nothing has changed.”

Bleak prospects

The North African country has enjoyed a relatively smooth democratic transition since Ben Ali’s ouster, at least when compared with other countries swept by the Arab Spring. But while the revolution raised many hopes, Tunisian youths still lament a lack of progress on civil liberties, corruption, joblessness and the escalating cost of living. According to the latest official figures, more than 625,000 people – in a country of just 11.4 million – are currently out of work, almost half of them with university degrees.

Those fortunate enough to have a job, like Linda Ben Mehni, still struggle to make ends meet. At 34, Ben Mehni earns 900 dinars a month (around 300 euros) working as spokesperson for Doustourna, a human rights advocacy group. It’s an average wage in Tunisia, but too little to afford life in the capital city, where she works. Instead, she has to settle for a 25-kilometre commute from her home outside Tunis.

>> Read more: 'The social costs of austerity are not on the government's radar'

Ben Mehni paints a somber picture of youths’ prospects in Tunisia, a choice between protesting in the streets, joining the jihad or leaving the country – even if it means putting one’s life at risk crossing the Mediterranean. But the daughter of political dissidents also strikes a defiant note: “Despite all the hardship, there are young people who create start-ups, those who provide community services, and others who set up anti-terror groups that are active in the most deprived areas,” she says. “And when we go out and protest, we do so to put pressure on the government and change things.”

Carrot and stick

In order to really “change things” and have a lasting impact, the protest movement will need to go well beyond the rallies and targeted actions of Fech Nestanew, says Alaa Talbi, director of the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights. “One cannot change society merely by opposing the financial law or the reconciliation law,” he says, referring to controversial legislation granting amnesty to businessmen accused of corruption before the revolution. “Those stages are important, but a follow-up is necessary. They [The protesters] need a political platform with more room for manoeuvre and foresight. They need to work on a long-term strategy.”

The government, on the other hand, has a proven strategy when it comes to snuffing out dissent. After a week of sometimes violent protests, President Beji Caïd Essebsi announced a series of measures on January 13, including free healthcare for unemployed youths and an increase in state aid to the needy. “Just band-aid!” scoffs Talbi, dismissing the package as “half-measures aimed at placating protesters, but without fixing the problems".

Talbi says the government has also reverted to the authoritarian tactics of the past by seeking to “criminalise the protest movement”. Conflating demonstrators with rioters, the interior ministry responded to the rallies with the hashtag: “Don’t destroy your country, Tunisia needs you”. More than 900 people have been arrested since the start of the unrest, which saw riots break out in Tunis and other urban centres. Many of those detained are minors, Talbi notes, expressing concern about the arbitrary nature of detentions. “There are always a few troublemakers on the sidelines of protests,” he says. “But we don’t know how many of those detained are rioters and how many are just demonstrators.”

It will take a lot more to intimidate the young activists of Fech Nestanew, says Ben Mehni, whose group is planning a major new rally on January 26. “You can attempt to silence Tunisians, arrest them and beat them up – but they’ll resist,” she warns, adding: “It’s not easy to change what has been done by years of dictatorship. When you look at the history of revolutions around the world, this change doesn’t happen in just a few years. It takes time.” The questions is, can Tunisia’s youth wait any longer?

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