TUNIS — March 12 was a regular Tuesday morning in the Tunisian capital. Employees were on their way to work and the sun was shining on Avenue Habib Bourghuiba. Yet two events were about to happen that would exemplify the struggle for the soul of Tunisia’s revolution. The question surrounding Tunisia's "dignity revolution" is: Which dignity should take priority, freedom of expression or a job?
In front of the opera house, a well-dressed crowd gathered, sporting trendy sunglasses. They were there to protest against the arrest of their friend, actress Sabrina Klibi, who had been taken at 4 a.m. the previous morning by security services following her participation in a video called "The police are dogs," which criticizes violence by the police.
They had gathered in favor of freedom of expression, something which many secular Tunisians feel has suffered since the initial torrent of opinions following the revolution. However, suddenly, the reason why the revolution broke out in the first place manifested itself again in front of their eyes.
Muttering to himself, a man began dousing himself in gasoline. “This is Tunisia, this is unemployment!” he shouted as he went up in flames, echoing the actions of Mohamed Bouazizi which started the uprising in December 2010.
But this was not Sidi Bouzid or some other provincial town, where the 150 other self-immolations since the fall of Ben Ali have taken place. This was the heart of the capital.
“Of course I am shocked, it’s 8:30 in the morning,” expressed Rahma Ben Hassan, 19. Although lamenting the incident and the unemployment that caused it, she was also shocked at the fact that the police stopped her taking photos of the self-immolation. “'You in the red pants, stop taking pictures,' they said.” She then launched into a passionate plea for her friend and explained the threat her arrest posed to freedom of expression.
“She didn’t do anything, it’s not legal that she was arrested,” she said. The authorities disagree, and stated that the director and actress were being held due to incitement of hate.
These two simultaneous incidents illustrate the shift within Tunisia since the start of the revolution. Initially a social movement, with a call for dignity and bread, the focus has now shifted from economic to rights issues and a battle for the role of religion in the Tunisia of tomorrow. The constitutional assembly has been working for two years, but has failed to pass any meaningful economic legislation. Instead, it bickers over how many times the word Islamic will be mentioned in the introduction to the document.
Indeed, it is the role of religion which has secular Tunisians continuously worried. In the capital, demonstrations for freedom of expression are rife. These range from spontaneous flash mobs dancing to promote citizenship organized by the Art Solution collective to performances of the Harlem Shake in front of ministeries, and indeed all across the country.
But the self-immolation, on the eve of a new government being sworn in, highlighted that the economic situation in the country has not changed. For many, it has gotten worse, as businesses are relocated and tourists vacation elsewhere. The hotels of the southern town of Tozeur, usually flush with tourists, stand largely empty.
“There are some Germans, some English people,” says Kamel Elbouby of the tourism office. “But we are missing the French, who usually form the bulk of our visitors.” The town’s film industry — most famously, it was the location for the shooting of "Star Wars" — has also fallen flat.
“Most people are filming in Morocco now,” laments Kamel Meshrawy , who used to organize extras. He has been unemployed for more than two years.
All across the country, young men linger in cafes, which are packed during working hours. That is, if they can afford to go. Others, like Adel Khedri, the vendor who set himself on fire in Tunis on Tuesday, are forced into a subsistence existence peddling cigarettes. Unemployment stands at almost 17%, but tops 30% in the interior and among highly educated youth.
But it is protests for the freedom of expression which have taken center stage. The funeral of assisinated opposition leader Chokri Belaid saw more than a million people hitting the street in protest against the growing influence of the islamists in government. As a result, prime minister resigned.
Those most affected by the current situation, the youth, have been vocal during protests for freedom of expression, but largely absent from the political process which holds the power over their future economic situation.
“Civil society is more and more able to mobilize, but not into a political force,” says Belhassan Handous of Reporters Without Borders. “There is no youth movement like we saw during the revolution.” Many young people still seem most comfortable in subversive structures, as was the case when Ben Ali ruled. Internet blogs, NGOs and countercultural outlets such as hip-hop are where young voices resonate most clearly.
Some activists realize that Tunisia might not be ready for their battle for freedom of expression while the economic situation remains so poor.
“First, the people need economic change; only then will they need entertainment,” admits Chouaib Brick, co-founder of the dance collective Art Solution. He is the organizing force behind “Dancers-Citizens,” flash performances bringing music and dance to Tunisia’s streets with the aim of showing Tunisians “that their culture is not just Muslim-Arab; we are a mix.” But he would also like to inspire young people that there is more to life than sitting around unemployed in cafes, or studying for a job that might never materialize. His means for this is breakdance, a form of dance banned under Ben Ali.
“I am from the ghetto,” he explains, before listing the places he has traveled for breakdancing festivals: France, Germany, the Netherlands. Not bad for somebody who learned his trade off the Internet. “Breakdance was my way out.”
For those without rhythm, the drum of economic reform is beating too slow. Steps have been taken to increase public expenditure in the interior regions and banking laws have been reformed to increase investment. But it is not enough, says Antonio Nucifero, chief economist at the World Bank’s Tunisia branch. “The reforms currently being prepared constitute only a first part of what is required to foster a thriving environment for private sector-led growth and good-quality jobs creation.”
Nucifero says there is no time to be wasted and reforms, especially to the labor code, should be implemented now.
But other economists say that Tunisia needs to figure out what kind of state it wants to be before dealing with its economic woes, which means writing a constitution and organizing the subsequent elections.
“It will really start improving a year from now, after the elections,” says Monghi Boughzala, economics professor at the University of Tunis- El Manar.
Fernande van Tets is a journalist based in Beirut. She has written for the Economist, the Interdependent and Executive Magazine, as well as being regularly featured in Dutch national newspapers such as Trouw and het Parool. She has a MA in War Studies (distinction) from King's College, London. Follow her on Twitter @fernandevtets.