Africa Personal Travel

A Tunisian Awakening

Story and photos by Mohamed Horchani

The day is January 7th, the year is 2021 and the time is 5:00 p.m. My flight from Boston has just landed at Tunis Carthage Airport. Right when I stepped out of the plane, I felt the warm Mediterranean breeze caressing my skin—a feeling I will never get enough of. It is now my fourth year traveling back and forth between Boston and Tunis. Every year I come back home for a few weeks, receptive to all the beautiful energies I encounter in the streets of the Old Medina, the Souks, the busy Downtown avenues and the gold sand beaches. These trips back home represent the semestral break I needed from my hectic city life. However, this time…it felt different.

The rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has had ravaging effects on Tunisia’s general atmosphere. A curfew at 8:00 p.m. has been in place since September 2020. When need be, the curfew was advanced as early as 4:00 p.m. Consequently, many small and medium-size businesses have permanently closed. Inflation was reaching its highest level and the economic crisis was now coupled with unprecedented social and health crises. The usual feeling of warmth and hospitality that I used to fill myself up with was slowly fading away. Leaving frustration, resentment and bitterness to overwhelm Tunisians’ everyday lives. On the ride home, my sister was filling me in on all the recent news I have missed. Each story was more poignant than the other. She spoke about a doctor’s dreadful death in a municipal hospital caused by a dysfunctional elevator in which he got stuck. As we were driving through one of the main highways of the city, she mentioned a young man’s death in a frightful car accident, as she was pointing to the exact spot where the tragedy occurred. Apparently, the police took three days to notice the accident, and that was enough time for the young man to take his last breath. Finally, she let down a tear as she was speaking about the concerning increase in COVID-19 deaths in the country and the incapacity of the Tunisian government to properly react to the crisis.

As I walked the steps of my porch, the smell of my mom’s cooking and my parent’s warm greeting made me forget, for a little while, the atrocities I just became privy to. From my windowpane, the streets that were once vibrant seemed empty, almost deserted. The beach bars, lounges and coffeeshops’ terraces had their dusty tables arranged on top of one another, as if they would never be used again. I was obliged, by state regulations, to quarantine for a week. The end of my quarantine period ended right on time for the tenth anniversary of the Tunisian revolution, on January 14, 2021. Many of my friends were texting me about protests and riots they were planning to attend in order to voice their clear dissatisfaction with the current governing system. In fact, since the revolution, the consecutive governments have only worked to impoverish the people even more. Their demands are clear: more jobs, less inflation and systematic political corruption and heightened respect for individual and civic rights. However, on the night of January 13, Prime Minister Mechichi announced a complete lockdown for the next four days, including the anniversary of the revolution. Tunisians across the country felt appalled by this undemocratic decision. The Prime Minister did not only restrain their freedom to voice their concerns through peaceful protests, he deliberately politicized the pandemic to his government’s own benefits.

After the lockdown, thousands of protesters stormed the streets of the capital for several days. The demonstrations were fueled by politicians’ numerous lies and empty promises. Ten years after the revolution, angry protestors were still shouting the same slogans: “Work, Freedom and National Dignity,” “No more fear, No more horror! The people have the power” and “Police Everywhere, Justice Nowhere.” Young people represented the vast majority of protestors as they were the social group that was mostly hit by the acute economic conditions. Following many arrests of young protestors made by police officers, young Tunisians organized several other demonstrations to counter what they called “the comeback of the Police State.” Images of the protests went viral on social media. Seeing those shots filled me up with hope. The colors of the pride flags, the freedom in the words of protestors and the endless determination in their eyes, reminded me of our shared purpose in this world. One particular image, showcasing a young woman lighting up a cannabis joint in the face of a police forces embargo in the main avenue in Downtown Tunis, grasped the attention of national and international media. In fact, the consumption of cannabis is strictly prohibited in Tunisia, and many young Tunisians have found themselves imprisoned because of it. When they leave prison, they are completely disoriented, with no future ahead, as the government has never put in place any societal rehabilitation process after incarceration. The image is quite symbolic and holds a lot of meaning. It spoke to the millions of young Tunisians that have been deprived of their futures and dreams. Moreover, it shed light on numerous other issues, such as police corruption and police brutality.

Almost every day, a new protest is being organized. The Tunisian youth are eager to hold accountable those who have governed the country on empty promises for the past ten years. A whole new movement was born, and the current health situation only added insult to injury. No more injustices will be tolerated! No more police brutality will be allowed! The current culture of impunity will be dismantled! As I take a step back, I realize that this movement is truly universal. Youth movements around the world are reclaiming power. They are voicing their demands loudly and proudly. But most importantly, they are dismantling a system that has only benefited few at the expense of many. As a conclusion, I will simply quote one of the young Tunisian activists: “We are the youth, we are the Future, and we will never step back!”

This story is featured in Spring 2021 (Print Edition).

%d bloggers like this: