Tunisia year 1: Five ways Tunisia has changed for the better

One year ago tomorrow Tunisia will celebrate the first anniversary of the flight of Ben Ali and his reviled wife to Saudi Arabia. And yet, to talk to Tunisians, nothing has changed. This chorus of negativity has been a common theme since the revolution, leading to protests that later fell the first interim government, and now are a thorn in the side of Tunisian industries and the newly elected government itself.

Since the new year, a wave of self-immolations across Tunisia has shocked Tunisians. The BBC reports that in the 6 months since Mohammed Bouazizi’s death, 107 Tunisians attempted to light themselves on fire. Meanwhile, following a wave of protests in the phosphate mining industry, Tunisian petrol workers began striking this week. On the same day, protests erupted in front of the Ministry of the Interior over the perceived lack of concrete changes to the security apparatus.

Euronews reports today that “resignation replaces revolution in Tunisia.” They quote a young man saying what I have heard over and over:

A year after the revolution nothing’s changed. At least before things were safe on the streets, you could go out when you liked. Unemployment’s gone up to at least 800,000 today. Nothing’s changed in Tunisia.

While distress is natural for a people that have undergone the biggest cultural change since their independence from France in 1956, can one really say that nothing has changed? Change in Tunisia, imperceptible to many, far too slow to others, has indeed come to Tunisia. Here are five concrete ways Tunisia has changed, for the better.

1) Freedom to Criticize: This came almost instantaneously after Ben Ali’s departure – and is perhaps the freedom most exercised by Tunisians – criticizing their government. I noted that only one day after Ben Ali’s departure, the cafes were louder. What before had to be said behind closed doors and in the company of only the most trusted confidants, Tunisians loudly and proudly shouted on the streets. Magazines proliferated. Everyone under 30 seemed to be practicing citizen journalism.

While the Stasi-like police state has been dismantled, Tunisians’ ability to protest has not come without problems. The well reported stories in the west about the attack on a Tunisian cinema (for airing a film about an atheist in Tunisia) overshadowed more sinister stories, such as the stories of Nabil Hajlaoui and Samir Feriani. Both men were held in Tunisian jails for openly criticizing the military and the interior ministry, respectively. Other cases, such as restrictions on internet freedoms or the continued government control of key media outlets are also cause for concern.

While concerns remain, Tunisians do not appear on the verge of easily giving up their long-repressed rights to criticize their government. And there are signs that the government itself is taking this into account. Following journalist protests, the government has promised to review its nominees for key press positions.

2) Protests: Protests have been complicated in post-Ben Ali Tunisia. Seen as a hard won right by those who risked their lives against the regime, they have also frustrated Tunisians who think that protests have held back the country from getting its economy back on track. Stories such as that of the Japanese company Yazaki, which has threatened to pull out of the country because of ongoing worker sit-ins, are frequently reported.

Strikes in Tunisia are further complicated, like so many things, because of the corrupt policies of the previous regime. Worker unions had been co-opted by the previous regime; they were unable to protect the interests of Tunisian workers. This allowed the government to suppress wages and attract foreign investment. The foreign investors who profited from this arrangement have undoubtedly been nervous about the waves of protests since the uprising.

Despite government calls for moratoriums on sit-ins (both under the interim regime and the current, elected government), Tunisians continue to exercise their right to free assembly and organization. Worker protests are bolstered by the ongoing support of civil society activists who have called on the government to protect their rights and prosecute corruption under the previous regime. Immediately following the investiture of the constituent assembly, various groups from around Tunisia staged daily protests to urge legislators to uphold their campaign promises.

3) Police: Feared under Ben Ali, and for good reason. Police in Tunisia were well-known not only for their undercover surveillance, but also their brutality. You don’t have to go far to meet Tunisians who were themselves, or had close family members, tortured in one of the interior ministry torture chambers under Bourguiba Avenue.

Police reform remains an absolutely vital issue in Tunisia, witnessed by this week’s protest at the Interior Ministry. However, most Tunisians would admit that the threat of arbitrary arrest has significantly decreased, to the benefit of religious fundamentalists and civil libertarians alike.

4) Corruption: One of the key criticisms of the post-Ben Ali era has been that the vast majority of officials have stayed exactly where they were before the uprising. There have been no major changes to key ministries and many of those close to Ben Ali remain at the helm of Tunisia’s largest businesses. One element that has changed, however, has been the decrease, if not elimination of coercive corruption. As I noted last month:

Entrepreneurs were increasingly punished under Ben Ali. If you ran a successful business, the family would demand ownership. If you were a taxi cab driver, your permit would be renewed only if you bought a car from a Trabelsi dealership. If you were a civil servant, you were obligated to take out loans from one of the Trabelsi owned banks. While the government touted economic growth figures, the average Tunisian increasingly felt marginalized.

While corruption will continue to be a part of Tunisian life, and is a continued risk no matter which party is in power, the kind of coercive economic corruption practiced under Ben Ali has all but disappeared.

5) Mentality: Perhaps most importantly as Tunisia begins to build and rebuild its institutions that will guarantee its liberties, Tunisians more than ever before have a mentality that is premised on basic freedoms – and they know that their voices count. The wall of fear built by Ben Ali has been destroyed. Rather than being the subjects of history, Tunisians today know that they have the power to affect change.

I cannot pretend that all is well in Tunisia. Millions still suffer from poverty and lack of opportunities. The political risks remain enormous, and according to history – the odds are against Tunisia’s success.

At the same time, I look at Tunisia today and see that I have more freedom today than I did one year ago.  I look at Tunisia today and see that I have more rights today than I did one year ago. That’s progress.

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