TUNIS, Tunisia — Basma Balaai was 17 when she first got involved in charity work through a mosque in her native village of Menzel Bouzelfa, near the Mediterranean coast. “I believed I was doing good, serving free meals to the poor,” she said. But Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali disagreed. Like countless others, Balaai was imprisoned and tortured along with immediate family members for “terrorist” activities. “I was flogged, kicked and sexually abused for days on end," Balaai, now 54, told Al-Monitor. "I cannot have children because of what they did to me. They were unspeakable things.” Balaai now joined fellow citizens in a march along Tunis’ main Habib Bourguiba Avenue on Jan. 14 to mark the eighth anniversary of the Jasmine Revolution.
Tunisia is the sole democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring protests that ripped through the region over the past decade. Protests began after Mohamed Bouazizi, an impoverished young Tunisian fruit vendor sick of corruption and police harassment, set himself on fire. Eight years on, many of the same problems that drove Ben Ali’s fall — such as rampant graft and youth unemployment — persist, casting a dark shadow over Tunisia’s infant democracy. Last month a struggling journalist in Kasserine, a perennially neglected backwater bordering Algeria, burned himself to death to protest the lack of change. Anti-government protests are erupting with greater frequency. Allegations of police impunity continue to fuel resentment. "ACAP," the acronym for "All Cops Are Bastards," inspired by the eponymous Italian movie, is scrawled across many walls in the country.