Tunisia marks five years since revolution, but challenges remain

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A woman shouts slogans during celebrations marking the fifth anniversary of Tunisia's 2011 revolution in Habib Bourguiba Avenue in the capital Tunis on Jan. 14. Photo by Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters

A woman shouts slogans during celebrations marking the fifth anniversary of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution in Habib Bourguiba Avenue in the capital Tunis on Jan. 14. Photo by Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters

Thousands of Tunisians gathered in the capital Tunis on Thursday to celebrate Revolution Day, the five-year anniversary of the overthrow of the 23-year dictator President Ben Ali.

But as they celebrated, the North African nation was in the throes of more political upheaval, economic problems and criticism from human rights groups.

Tunis was the epicenter of the Arab Spring of 2011, a move to establish democracy that spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East, and is considered one of its few success stories. After the Arab Spring, Tunisia established a new constitution and held free elections.

Last October, the negotiating team known as the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet won the Nobel Peace Prize for its widespread democratic political reforms.

Despite praise of the democratic transition, Tunisian youth, the population that started the revolution, reported feeling excluded from the nation’s prosperity. According to a 2015 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development survey cited by Middle East Eye, 40 percent of Tunisians under the age of 35 are unemployed and actively seeking work. The figure does not include those in education or training.

During the elections held in November 2014, only 10 percent of youth turned out to vote, according to Al Monitor. At the time, the youth blamed it on the political parties that hijacked the revolution. There’s trouble in those political ranks as well. On Wednesday, 10 senior leaders resigned from Tunisia’s ruling party over a dispute about the party’s leadership.

Since the revolution, not only is job growth weak, but there also are growing security concerns over incidents such as a shooting rampage last summer on a popular tourist beach. Tunisians make up one of the largest group of foreign fighters for the Islamic State in Syria and Libya, and security forces have increased raids and arrests in their efforts to thwart attacks, according to the New York Times.

In a report released Wednesday, Amnesty International said that its research showed that six people died in police custody since 2011. The individuals claimed they were accused of terrorist activities and tortured in prison, the group said.

“Torture and repression were hallmarks of former President Ben Ali’s regime,” Said Boumedouha, Amnesty’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement to the New York Times. “They must not be allowed to become defining features of post-uprising Tunisia.”

When asked about the allegations by telephone, Faycal Gouia, Tunisian ambassador to the U.S., said, “We cannot say that the same practices and methods are still being used in Tunisia. … People are subject to all law protections, and Tunisian institutions are asked to protect those Tunisian laws.”

As for people’s security concerns, he said, “We have had a lot of success with security. Unfortunately we are subject to terrorist attacks. We need the cooperation with the U.S. and its allies to secure our borders and the population.”

Gouia praised Tunisia’s civil society, saying it is “playing a major role in controlling government action. They are the watchdog for the government and the party. This is due to having the most progressive constitution in the Arab World and the result of three years of hard work.”

He acknowledged that economic prosperity for all, including youth, plays an important role in social change. “In spring 2016, organizations in Tunisia will begin conferences on youth concerns and participation in civil society and other economic opportunities,” he said.

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