Five years after Tunisia’s revolution, the pride and the high hopes for a better life seem to be fading.
Yanees, a part-time taxi driver, told me on a trip to the northwestern city of Beja that “life under Zine was much better and the streets much cleaner”, referring to Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted following unprecedented mass protest movement that spread across the country in 2010 and later came to be known as the Arab Spring.
I was in Tunisia two days after Ben Ali fled the country … The scenes of thousands of people celebrating new-found freedoms were beamed into living rooms all over the world … A nation turns the chapter of decades of tyranny and heads towards a transition to democracy.
Today, hope of a better life is hanging by a thread, and those brave young protesters who risked their lives feel bitterly abandoned by their political leaders.
For Yanees and the many young unemployed people I met in Beja, Kasserine, Tunis and many other areas told me exactly the same thing: “Political freedoms are a great thing but, by the end of the day, you want to walk back home confident it’s safe and financially secure”.
It was this frustration over the lack of jobs, pervasive corruption and poverty that triggered unrest in Tunisia.
This wave all started in Kasserine, when a group of angry people took to the streets following the death of 28-year-old Rida Yahyaoui. He was electrocuted after climbing a transmission tower in protest against missing out on a government job.
Anger soon spread in heartland towns of Gafsa, Sidi Bouzid and reached the capital and coastal areas. It was the biggest political crisis facing President Beji Caid Essebsi.
Kasserine stands for everything that went wrong with Tunisia’s social development programmes since its independence: The infrastructure is poor, the private sector is almost nonexistent, and the public sector remains the main job provider.
But the government has cut spending to tackle its declining economy; it may not be able to offer jobs to its 700,000 unemployed who are frustrated, feeling betrayed and not willing to listen to promises any more.
And here lies the problem: The economy has been in tatters for quite some time. Tourism has been hit by deadly attacks targeting holidaymakers, and rainfalls do not seem to be promising in recent times, although agriculture is the backbone of the economy.
The government faces a delicate balancing act … Austerity measures are needed to fix the economy, but growing demands for jobs must be addressed swiftly so that protests don’t degenerate even further.