A week after the death of Tunisia’s first democratically elected president, Béji Caïd Essebsi, 92, the only stable democracy post the Arab Springs across the region of North Africa and the Middle East is set to face challenges to its hard-won democracy.
In January 2011, after a month of protests against an oppressive and corrupt autocratic regime, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown and eventually replaced by a developing democracy. Tunisians had been protesting high unemployment, corruption, lack of freedom of speech, food inflation, poor living conditions and injustice. The country had been witnessing widespread dissatisfaction and anger by ordinary citizens, and the death of fruit vendor Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi who self-immolated to protest harassment by city officials who had confiscated his fruit cart and subjected him to harassment & humiliation, exacerbated the tense socio-political situation in Tunisia.
Political observers believe Bouazizi’s death acted as a trigger for the start of the Tunisian Revolution of 2011 and the Arab Springs that spread across North Africa and the Middle East.
A month before the Tunisian Revolution began, Tunisian rapper Hamada Ben Amor, who performs under the name of El Général, released a political rap song called ‘Rais Lebled’ in December 2010. The approximately four-minute song was a powerful protest against the corruption of former autocrat Ben Ali and resonated particularly with Tunisia’s youth, making it the anthem of the Tunisian Revolution.
“Mr. President, today I am speaking in the name of myself
and of all the people
who are suffering in 2011,
there are still people dying of hunger
who want to work to survive,
but their voice were not heard
get off into the street and see,
people have become like animals,” rapped El Général.
In the weeks that followed, Tunisia successfully managed to overthrow Ben Ali and his government. Béji Caïd Essebsi was made interim Prime Minister, a post that he held for the remainder of 2011, resigning in December of that year to establish a secular political party, the Nidaa Tounes. In December 2014, Essebsi won parliamentary elections, Tunisia’s first free presidential elections and became President of the country.
Tunisia, with it’s free elections, secularism and democratically elected head of state, was the only success of the Arab Springs, with Libya, Yemen & Syria having fallen into civil war and uprisings crushed in nations like Bahrain and political instability elsewhere in the region.
However, the political optimism that followed Essebsi assuming office did not resolve issues of unemployment or prevent criticisms that he was trying to consolidate power in the country. According to a report by Reuters, “unemployment stands at about 15%, up from 12% in 2010, due to weak growth and low investment.” Al Jazeera reported that Essebsi did not want to contest in the 2019 presidential elections in November because he wanted a “younger” person to lead the country. According to Al Jazeera, Essebsi faced criticism that he was attempting to hand over power to his son in a play of dynastic politics.
Dismal employment opportunities and a lack of authority following Essebsi’s death are some of the problems challenging Tunisia’s hard-won democratic freedoms. In 2019, eight years after the Tunisian Revolution, El Général’s raps from ‘Rais Lebled’ are particularly relevant;
“Mr. President your people are dead
many people eat from garbage
and you see what is happening in the country
misery everywhere and people who have not found a place to sleep
I am speaking in name of the people who are suffering
and were put under the feet.”
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