Tunisian Youth Voices: Between Incertitude and Determination
By Samia Fitouri
Last January, Tunisian youth took to the streets in a manner reminiscent of the revolution that sparked what came to be known as the “Arab Spring”. Arms were raised up into the air, banners with the word “degage” were lifted and all heads were turned towards the dark walls of the Ministry of Interior. “Degage” reverberated in the air only for the sake of memory. Ben Ali was gone. One year ago, Tunisian youth from all walks of life bravely gathered in the same place, the Habib Bourguiba Street, chanting the same slogans. Here they were again, less united and more diverse, each holding the Tunisian flag but waving new pictures to pride themselves on belonging to this or that political party. The revolution continues with roots deeply embedded long before January 14, 2011. Before the revolution, Tunisian youth felt a combination of apathy and growing frustration. A total disengagement was almost an imposed rule. Being civically engaged meant being politically engaged and that was likely to unveil the dark realities of an oppressive socio-political system. The regime pushed people in the direction of acting “for the regime” rather than “for the country”. Participating in the public sphere thus became threatening. I am one of those who tried to get involved in spite of all the discouraging factors. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that no matter how independent civil society strove to be, it was always doomed to bump into that gigantesque portrait of the ousted president reminding them that he was in control of their action watching every single step they made forward. In 2011, Ben Ali announced an International Youth Year that came to be part of the usual propaganda to portray an image outside that was very different from the situation on the ground. Launching a series of roundtable discussions in order to discuss youth needs with ministers, and from time to time kicking off an endless lecture with the ultimate purpose of lavishing praise on himself as the self-proclaimed “changemaker”, fuelled up young people’s despise and deepened their frustration. This was coupled with other activities like football games and music shows to divert our attention from claiming our civic rights.
January 2011 was a turning point. Hundreds of thousands of young people dominated the first rows of protest setting in motion a process of change that continues to this very day. Few months after the Revolution, hundreds of associations and political parties bloomed. The Tunisian civil society spectrum seems to be taking a new shape. In parallel, social networks and the cyber community continues to grow bigger facilitating communication across generations and within burgeoning civil society organizations.
Young people have changed as well with a new feeling of empowerment. That energy needs to be efficiently deployed and used to serve the country’s democratic transition. As the new political life in Tunisia starts to take shape through the birth of more than one hundred political parties, youth remain energized but confused. After decades of political oppression and ignorance, youth found themselves exposed to a new terminology; a new arena that was fluctuating between hope and skepticism. Many find in social media a space for an exchange of ideas and many others have not yet lost faith in the political game and still think that they need to be there, where an action is taking place. Young people went to the voting polls not because they had strong faith in the range of political parties running for elections but because they had faith in the future, they strongly believed in voting as a democratic tool.
Aymen Gamha is a 23-year-old student who joined Congress for the Republic Party (CPR) that came in second in the National Constituent Assembly elections under the leadership of Moncef Marzouki, the current Tunisian president. “It was exciting to learn politics and to see people freely debating about various topics. Many youths of the CPR are assisting with the Constituent Assembly sessions, they are discussing with the deputies of their party and giving their feedback and opinion about what had been said in the plenary sessions,” he said. “Speaking more generally, there is a generational gap in political life in Tunisia and youth are generally ignored. They are doing their best to bring innovative ideas by getting involved in associations, political groups or media. On the other hand, older politicians still follow a classical way of doing politics and don't take what youth have to say into consideration,” added Gamha.
Wafa Ben Hassine, a 23-year-old international law student thinks that the gate holders are still remaining.
Photo courtesy of Hend Hassassi
A drawing in one of the popular neighborhoods downtown Tunis.
“Even though Tunisia has seen bustling activity since Ben Ali's departure, the youth are not getting their fair share of decision-making ability and capital. While you see plenty of youth in the protests (now a regular sighting in Tunisia), you rarely see them in decision-making spaces with a seat at the discussion table. For example, at the Constituent Assembly, the only youth you may catch sight of would be younger journalists,” she said. “It is not enough to have the token of a 28-year-old working as a public service employee in a ministry. It is not enough for the youth to study the development plans the government drafts and give feedback on them. We need to be the ones actually drafting the plans. We need to be on that committee, in that negotiations group,” she added. Many others still do not have faith in politics; the taint of hypocrisy and of double standards continues. That said, many prefer to work in NGOs, whether local or international, to contribute to the overall change that is sweeping their country. Change is not limited to the behavior of youth and their new roles in the new Tunisia. Laws and codes have changed as well promoting a deeper reaction from organizations and grass-roots movements, which now are presented with excellent opportunities to contribute to the transition towards democratization. Simplifying the associative code and making the process of founding and managing an association much easier than before has engendered the birth of approximately 2700 associations operating in different domains mainly related to human rights, citizenship and democracy.
Examples of those newly-founded associations are countless. Let’s have some portraits of young people who played a leading role in taking the initiative.
Mohamed Ali Akari is a 23-year-old polytechnic student. He, along with several other classmates, initiated the “Tunisian association for young poly-technicians”. “Before the Tunisian Revolution, creating an association was difficult and even impossible. A group of students working together on something different from their studies represented a big danger for the old government. It is a huge loss for Tunisia; these students are full of energy and motivation. They are ready to develop their universities and their country. They have plenty of free time that they need to utilize efficiently and productively. Now everything is permitted unless you harm the public security,” he said. Akari voiced his criticism of some young people who still don’t believe in volunteering. “They don’t accept the idea of working on something for free. This mentality exists in many institutions and we need to fight it. They are students who don’t believe that working in associations is very important to develop personal skills. After the revolution, their number is getting smaller,” he added. Youth’s euphoria was tamed for short but did not fade away. In the pre-elections period, they felt that they were about to witness the fruit of what they had accomplished. They felt that running democratic elections was well-deserved and that they needed to be there as gatekeepers watching their revolution and protecting its achievements. Many enrolled as national youth observers. Many sacrificed the fun times of the beach during their summer holidays to undertake a number of training sessions and to run awareness-raising caravans.
Photo courtesy of Adam Le Nevez
A house that used to belong to Ben Ali's son-in-law, located in the northern suburb of Tunis Gammarth.
It has come to be known as the Tag House.
Marwa Ben Salah is one of those who joined an association working on civil rights and democracy one year ago and she experienced memorable times when she took part in a caravan organized prior to the elections to answer people’s questions and persuade them to go and vote on the elections day. “Before the constitutional elections, we visited different regions to explain to people concepts like interim parliament, constitution and the status of a citizen with its attendant duties, rights, and privileges. We persuaded them to go out and vote,” she said enthusiastically. Marwa thinks that the Tunisian civil society is facing huge challenges today. “Existing associations have the will, activism and enthusiasm to sustain a positive change. However, the major problem faced by organizations is the lack of financial resources. In addition, civil society is largely young and under construction which leads to the second problem that is the need to support these associations in designing their action plans and in fundraising. It is therefore urgent to allocate resources not only for funding but also to support their proposals and put them into practice.”
Sinda Garziz is a 22-year-old who joined Amnesty International sees that Tunisia’s new environment of freedom has made it easy for international NGOs to be effective players in the Tunisian arena. “I think it is a sign of awakening, maturity, willingness to change, commitment to be active. It’s pretty positive. I hope it lasts and gets even stronger,” she said. “The voice of youth, in my opinion, is being heard. I see that a new spirit is being spread, it is that of valuing more and more young people in Tunisia, and I also think that we no longer have much choice, the Tunisian population is young and it is up to them to decide for their future,” she added.
Other forms of civic engagement have found their way in art performance. Cyrine Mami and Marwa Manai are both members of a newly-founded association called “Culture for Citizenship”. Its goals are to help young talented Tunisian artists and to promote human rights and active citizenship through cultural activities. This is done within the framework of creating an artistic network which promotes sharing and creates a platform for young and culturally-engaged Tunisians to support each other and work together towards promoting the value of citizenship.
“There is a respectable margin of freedom. I deeply believe that art is the means to advocate citizenship, human rights, tolerance and free speech towards a more creative tomorrow. We share a passion for what we do. We believe that united we can make a difference.” Cyrine said. Marwa expressed openly her opinion about the new atmosphere ruling the civil society scene today. “I fear lest this turns out to be a transient phase, a momentary overwhelming enthusiasm which is but a reaction to years of threat and dire repression,” she said. She believes that it is crucial that some coalitions be made, projects grouped and gathered to make the work efficient.
Individual initiatives are certainly valuable, yet, when some hundred associations are doing the same work more often than not, they are either doing it with limited budgets that minimize the scope of action to small projects, or they are all stuck in the research phase, doing and redoing the same work and acting in the same sectors where action is possible, namely education, culture and charity and these, vital as they are, leave out many other issues that require a tremendous amount of involvement from the side of civil society.
Photo courtesy of Megan Radford
A drawing in the Old Medina, Tunis.
“I was unpleasantly surprised the other day when I was brainstorming in one of the strategic planning seminars I had over possible new sectors to work on and among the topics that were mentioned was transportation and it was brought to my attention that we practically have no constituencies working on a problem that is affecting our people’s lives on a daily basis, influencing the quality of work they deliver when they get to their jobs exhausted and the quality of life they are leading all together. Domains like transportation to name but one are crucial,” she added. Marwa continued with a small criticism saying, “Civil society continues to operate on a very limited sphere, whereas other major issues remain either under the monopoly of international and prestigious organizations, the admission to which is tricky and under-mediatized which makes it inaccessible to young active members of the civil society and which undermines and reduces their desire to be active at all, or remain utterly marginalized.”
Culture continued to be a special space to which young Tunisians resort to pouring out all their fears and frustrations. Graffiti and street art have tremendously occupied a huge status in this year. You cannot keep up with the number of tags on the walls. Wherever you turn your head, you would come across a small tag meaning something and you cannot help feeling an exquisite sensation of freedom. Youth again are teaching the system a lesson. While the demonstration of April the 9th turned out a bloody fiasco as the police blocked the street and prevented people from protesting in the avenue, a few weeks later, young people invaded the avenue, this time without banners and slogans, without shouting and hassling, they were armed with books. Ideological conflicts have indeed touched the Tunisian youth. Diversity is more acute today than anytime before. “I am liberal, you are communist, I am nationalist, you are progressive, I am leftist, you are a rightist, I am ….you are…” This is indeed the new age of diversity that can take sometimes a violent stream. The University of Manouba witnessed this year violent clashes between Salafi students and the Student Union that is mainly composed of liberal and communist members. Tension escalated to reach a violent peak which resulted in the suspension of classes for one month. Marches and protests in front of the Ministry of High Education multiplied.
Maysa Arfaoui joined most of these protests and had a lot to say: “Some of these demonstrations took place in front of the Constituent Assembly, and some others were running in the outer court of the Ministry of High Education. The slogans raised were many, most remarkably ‘Our university is free, Salafism, away!!’ and ‘Mannouba is a tower of bravery. No for Salafism’. My participation in these protests was not actually intended to support any of the two conflicting streams but was mainly intended to stress the unpoliticized role of Tunisian Universities and our role as Tunisian youth to help it resist to all attempts of politicization.” Following these acts, the “Tunisia Reads” event took place. Books that were exposed on that day were various reflecting the diversity that has hit our youth. Maysa was amazed by this diversity and said: “Marx’s Capital was sitting next to The New Imperialism of David Harvey, a plethora of books; each collides and harmonizes with the other.” Youth outside the city of Tunis had a different experience. The variables are different. When doing some road trips across the country, I come across dozens of young people sitting in cafés with a look of disdain and despair. They have been waiting for so long indeed. “Nothing has changed, freedom is not food!” This is what I get as an answer to the question “what changed?”
Being actively engaged in the process of change is definitely thwarted as young men and women continue to lack the basics needs of life. How can young people be seen active in youth organizations when they have been the victim of a suffocating economic system? In spite of all this cynicism, I always got a final sentence concluding on a note of optimism “at least now I can speak!”. “Tunisian youth are making their own revolution on their own, that of the minds and the spirits and are building future Tunisia, a potential future homeland that can stretch out enough to encompass all our dreams.” That was one of the concluding statements and an adequate one to the article. Wise words were spoken by Wafa who said: “A wise professor once told me that, "90% of success is being present.” Young people’s presence should be indeed more enhanced, that’s the way to guarantee that tomorrow will certainly be better than yesterday and today.
* Samia Fitouri is an exchange student majoring in Journalism and Mass Media in the US. She obtained her bachelor's degree in English literature and civilization in Tunisia in 2011. Fitouri's first piece was published in August 2011 in the Guardian and has worked as a journalist TunisiaLive until June 2012. Fitouri was selected to be a youth delegate to the UN twice. She is also currently an advocate of youth's active participation in social and political life through peer-to-peer education.