Emel Mathlouthi is a Tunisian singer-songwriter.

Ten years ago, Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in a poor town in Tunisia, driven to despair by life under a corrupt regime that saw common people as subjects to be neglected or oppressed. The nationwide protests that erupted in the wake of this tragic act sent our dictator fleeing less than a month later, launching our effort at democracy and inspiring the greatest show of people power in memory — a murky series of events which came to be known as the Arab Spring.

I have fond memories of singing “Kelmti Horra” (My Word Is Free) on Avenue Habib Bourguiba during the first days of the revolution — a song I had not intended to become an anthem for the Arab Spring, yet whose message still reverberates today. At that time, I had no idea so many people across the region would rise up and occupy public squares. I had no idea that the protester, arm held high and fist clenched, would become such a potent force in an era defined sadly by democracy’s backslide.

As the world marks the anniversary of these charged events, Tunisia is held as the lone success story. But many Tunisians are not so sure. The flowering of democracy has been slow and the process confusing. Today, many Tunisians show a solemn mix of apathy and nostalgia for the predictability of pre-revolutionary days.

This paradox defines life today in Tunisia. Never before has the country been more open to cultural forms of expression, from independent film, to underground hip-hop, to a freer media. Yet economically and even politically, it often feels like little has budged since the days of dictatorship. Many wonder whether it has been worth all the effort.

Progress in many areas has stalled. Our education system carries more than 100,000 young people every year to unemployment or poor job prospects. Our economy is on the verge of bankruptcy. Young people are still sent to jail for tweets or Facebook posts critical of the government. Nearly 1 in 5 people are unemployed. Religious obscurantism is never far from influence. And corruption remains rife; we just don’t know who is doing the stealing anymore.

Young people today can no longer believe that a revolution will solve all our ills. Many have given up. Tales of Tunisian migrants drowning at sea while fleeing for Europe symbolize the hopelessness endemic here.

Democracy is difficult, but nostalgia for the Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali era is wrong. The Tunisia I grew up in was a country of lawlessness, a place where people were tortured or executed for their beliefs. A place where dreams didn’t happen. A country empty of hope or prospects, where justice did not exist. Opposition politicians and political activists were jailed. Artists and thinkers were persecuted or, like me, silenced from speaking out or performing live.

Yes, there was stability, and the price of staple goods such as bread was kept low. But at what price for one’s soul? Dictatorship leads to a false sense of security, yet deadens the imagination for a better life.

Tunisia remains a fragile democracy, but we have taken important strides toward being an open society. We have some of the most progressive laws for women in a region rife with misogyny and patriarchal norms. And a vibrant civil society — an achievement worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize bestowed on it in 2015 — ensures that political parties across the spectrum share power more or less peacefully.

The capital, Tunis, saw throngs of Black Lives Matter protesters jam Avenue Habib Bourguiba this past summer. An openly gay man ran for president, something unthinkable in the region. And the appointment of a Jewish politician to a ministerial post two years ago demonstrated Tunisia’s embrace of its rich history of diversity.

While all of this is remarkable, it falls short of what we hoped for a decade ago. We demonstrated not just to drive our dictator from power, but to rid the country of tyranny, to live in greater dignity and to shape the decisions that affect our lives. What we didn’t expect was how strong the foundations of our autocracy were — and how quickly we would hand over our freedoms to those we elected, who would take advantage of it to exploit us.

Early in the pandemic, I streamed live performances online from the rooftop of my childhood home in Tunis. Those concerts felt partly like nightly vigils, partly like cries to reclaim our slipping sense of national purpose — an attempt to revive the unique spirit that animated us during and after the revolution. That same revolutionary fervor was visible in the United States this summer. It was the American folk singer Joan Baez, a hero of mine, who said “action is the antidote to despair,” and we have seen that channeled in protest movements worldwide since.

Ten years on, I am neither naive nor nostalgic. What I do know is that democracy is still worth singing for, loudly. And that although the fight may seem vain at times, ultimately there is only one path that leads to freedom: people’s voices and their power to break the chains of servitude.

Read more: