Arab Spring Watch: Where is Tunisia now?

Published September 4th, 2012 - 12:12 GMT
Tunisian women of the revolution - is it really 'V' for victory nearly two years on?
Tunisian women of the revolution - is it really 'V' for victory nearly two years on?

Sun, sand, sea and modernity: that was the premise for Tunisia’s holiday destinations. An oasis of liberalism in a region of strife. That was what the tourists wanted to hear but what has become of the country that pioneered free living and sexual equality? 

It’s been exactly 20 months since Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight and the Tunisian revolution was ignited. Since then the world has changed: after more than 20 years in power, President Ben Ali was ousted and the spark was set for similar protests across the region. But how have the original Arab-Springers fared since then?

Tunisians were known for their progressive attitudes to women’s rights with an astonishingly liberal law upheld since 1965 granting women full equality with men. It might not have been true in practice but that didn’t stop some 6,000 Tunisian women taking to the streets to protest proposed changes last month.

The post-revolution government, facing pressure from Salafis to tone down women’s rights, wanted to pass a bill, defining women as “complementary to men.” Just this week Islamists called for the reinstatement of legal polygamy, something outlawed since 1954 in the North African nation.

Clearly most Tunisian women are not on board with the potential destruction of their rights, judging by the demonstrations. However, without the Ben-Ali-style oppression of religious groups, they are free to try to turn back the clock.

In fact, liberals of all genders have been bearing the brunt of the Salafist’s new-found freedom to express themselves. Mid-June, these same Islamists destroyed an art exhibition in the capital and staged a sit-in at a comedian’s show in the far North of the country. 

Tunisian cyber activists, who were instrumental in ousting Ben Ali, have had enough. A campaign has been launched to support artists against Islamist attacks and they have lodged a bid with the Interior Ministry to stop the infamous internet censorship law, nicknamed ‘Ammar404’.

So religious extremists are ruining the liberal revolution? Well not exactly. Those first protests in Sidi Bouzid in January 2011 were more concerned with unemployment and corruption than the liberal arts. So surely those at least have improved? 

‘Quite the opposite’, say Tunisian activists. Just last month anti-nepotism protests were suspiciously banned in the capital. Clashes with police ensued and cameras were confiscated: not exactly a victory for freedom of expression.

Protestor and president of the association for young Tunisian medical doctors, Zied Hechmi told Al Jazeera: “It's like in the past. We don't even have the right to express our opinion without being aggressed.”

Appointing a former police commissioner to head up a state-run newspaper did nothing to endear the government to anti-corruption protestors either. But if all else fails, an improvement in economic policies would likely save them from all-out revolution.

Back to Sidi Bouzid, the town where tough economic realities under Ben-Ali sparked the protests than deposed a dictator, the situation shows few signs of change. Earlier last month, sick of water shortages and low standards of living, the residents of this industrial backwater took to the streets again.

The demonstrations ended with 45 arrests, including two journalists. In one fell swoop the new government had shown an inability to solve the underlying problems this country faces and an unwillingness to take any criticism of their bungling policies. So where do they stand now? Post-revolution Tunisia has a few more Islamists, a few less rights for women and scenes reminiscent of those that started the revolution in the first place. 


What do you think about the rise of Islamist politics in Tunisia? Has anything changed? Tell us what you think below.

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