In January, I was on a bus in Denver, Colorado en route to a gathering with a Tunisian friend of mine next to me. Excited to take a break from speaking predominantly English in our everyday lives, we chose to speak to each other in Tunisian Arabic. It was not too long before we got spotted by another Tunisian who happened to be on the same bus. She seemed very excited to see other Tunisians in the small city that is Denver. She came up to us, greeted us, and we got to know more about each other. Quickly enough though, her few seconds of excitement ended. As we delved deeper into our conversations about Tunisia, she became more and more bitter about the country and its people. As a Tunisian myself, I could understand that the initial joyful sense of home that our conversation sparked might have brought with it a load of unpleasant memories and sufferings of the past. “I don’t want to go back to Tunisia, even to visit,” she expressed. Even as she was getting off the bus, she made sure to remind us to never go back.
“I don’t want to go back to Tunisia, even to visit.”
These few minutes of resentment and discontent that I experienced on the bus in Denver were very representative of the emotional state of Tunisians during that time. After the government announced its plan to increase prices on basic goods and necessities as a last resort to paying its debts in December 2017, Tunisians took to the streets a few weeks later under what became the “Fech Nestanaw?” (What are we waiting for?) movement. Prices have been increasing every year since the Jasmine Revolution in 2010, putting more financial and social burden on the decaying middle class and the struggling lower class. For the youth who rebelled primarily due to economic hardships and high unemployment rates back in 2010, their revolution has not yet met their needs and demands. This has created a strong sense of disaffection amongst youth, that unlike what many think, has not mostly manifested in the form of protests like the “Fech Nestanaw?” movement. The majority of Tunisian youth have lost their willingness and motivation to fight and voice out their concerns. They are, instead, looking for every opportunity to leave and become a similar or different version of that young Tunisian woman I met on the bus.
A few weeks after the protests stopped, Emmanuel Macron visited Tunisia for two days. During his walks on the streets of Tunis, the president was approached multiple times by youth who were either asking for actual entry visas to France or demanding that visa procedures become easier. Only strong feelings of disaffection and helplessness could have led these youth to think that going to France could solve their problems, let alone think that there was a slight chance that Macron would hand them visas if they asked for them.
More frequently Tunisian youth are, again, choosing to leave as the burden at home is becoming heavier with time. We have reached the point in Tunisia were protests are actually a good sign. They at least show that there are still some youth who care. But is just caring enough?
In an interview that I conducted with Hayfa Sdiri, a Tunisian activist who was featured as a youth changemaker by UN Women, Sdiri expressed how Tunisian youth activists behind the “Fech Nestanaw?” movement “lacked concrete demands and a change plan.”
“Although the demands of the “Fech Nestanaw?” movement are legitimate, the improvement of the Tunisian economy can only stem from concrete ideas and plans,” said Sdiri.
Angry youth protests demanding the removal of the budget law, under which the prices of goods increased, are both inefficient and destructive in regards to the current economic hardships that Tunisia faces.
While the unstructured protests during the Tunisian Revolution succeeded in overthrowing a dictatorship, protests within a democratic state need to be accompanied with concrete measures for change. In a country with almost non-existent think tanks and lobbyists, it is hard for the demands of the people, especially on complicated topics like economic policy, to be expressed and made reality. It is also hard to harness momentum around unstructured protests that are likely to appear to the public as destructive, aimless and inefficient.
The political parties and organizations that have backed many of these fading movements—"Fech Nestanaw?", "Menich Msemeh" (I Will Not Forgive)— need to invest in the young-adult demographic, so that they can become effective leaders who can execute their visions. Creating temporary opposition momentum through the support of these angry movements does nothing productive for Tunisian youth. It actually contributes to deepening their disaffection and disenchantment with the system.
Instead of having the president of France invest in bolstering the “Francophonie” of Tunisia (as if seven decades of French colonialism were not enough to reach that goal), the Tunisian government should cooperate with members of the civil society to train youth on governance, public policy and leadership. Only then will youth be well-equipped to take leadership positions, organize efficiently and be part of the decision making process that can contribute to the prosperity of Tunisia and its people.