TUNIS — They were young men in wheelchairs and mothers gripping portraits of lost sons. The years since the 2011 revolt had whittled down the size of their gatherings but not the urgency of their demand: that Tunisia recognize those killed or wounded in that uprising by publishing an official list.
Walid Kassraoui, 31, was among the demonstrators that day in December, sitting on a low wall, his rolled-up slacks revealing a prosthesis of silicon and metal where his right calf used to be. For him, the past decade had been a grim cycle of protest, poverty and pain, with struggles to find work, two dozen surgeries and an amputation.
For him, the list means everything.
It would bring financial reparations. It would prove the revolution had mattered, especially now, when some politicians were arguing for a return to the old authoritarian system. “Loyalty to the blood of martyrs,” the protesters chanted, before police dispersed them.
Ten years after the Arab Spring uprisings began in Tunisia with a street vendor’s lonely protest, revolutions elsewhere in the Arab world have ended in failure. Only in Tunisia has a fragile democracy endured.
At the heart of its success lies a willingness, unique among those countries buffeted by the uprisings, to compromise and accommodate a range of forces, including Islamist political parties. At critical moments when the Tunisian experiment has appeared to be on a cliff edge — after assassinations or terrorist attacks — dialogue and concession have pulled the country back from the brink.
Tunisia’s robust and resilient democratic experiment stands virtually alone in the Arab world. Many other governments, led by monarchs or autocrats, remain fearful of democratic contagion and have stepped up repression of dissent since 2011.
And yet, pluralism and democracy haven’t delivered the improvements many Tunisian protesters sought. Corruption and uneven development still plague the country. Unemployment remains high. Thousands of disillusioned Tunisians have migrated illegally to Europe or joined extremist groups. Protests that erupted across Tunisia last month have been some of the most sustained and widespread since the revolution, reflecting anger over the deepening economic crisis and dismay at politicians accused of ignoring impoverished citizens.
If Tunisia demonstrates that progress can depend on political accommodation, its experience also reveals that compromise can be a curse, muffling forces for change while leaving corrupt or anti-democratic interests intact.
The path of Ennahda, Tunisia’s most prominent Islamist party, highlights this quandary. It emerged from the 2011 uprising as a standard-bearer for Tunisia’s revolutionary ideals and became a dominant political force, even as other Arab countries banned Islamist movements. But along the way, Ennahda has abandoned some core principles and forged alliances that have angered some supporters — prioritizing stability and its own survival over radical change, its critics and Ennahda defectors say.
Yamina Zoghlami, 50, who joined Ennahda as a teenager, embodies the party’s success after the revolution. Once excluded from public life as a conservative Muslim, she won election to the parliament and helped draft one of the region’s most progressive constitutions. But she concedes that critical demands for change remain unmet.
“We enjoy this freedom,” she said. “But democracy and freedom weren’t converted to economic wealth where the youth can work.
“The Tunisian democratic experiment is always in danger as long as we haven’t achieved the economic and social revolution,” she said.
Driven to the streets
Kassraoui lost his leg after running for his life.
The revolt sweeping Tunisia in 2011 had driven Kassraoui and his friends to the streets. The anger animating the protests — over corruption and a lack of freedom and dignity — resonated in his neighborhood, Kram West, a poor suburb of Tunis perched below the glitzy seaside stomping grounds of Tunisia’s elite.
Kassraoui’s home, a block of whitewashed cement with rebar protruding from an unfinished roof, was a 10-minute drive from the gilded presidential palace where then-President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali lived.
His father worked as a street cleaner who picked up trash after Ben Ali’s in-laws. Kassraoui held odd jobs washing linens from nearby hotels and once cleaned a beach where Ben Ali’s daughter sunbathed.
“We used to see injustice and marginalization more than people in any other area,” Kassraoui said.
On the night he joined the protests, the authorities showed little mercy, firing live rounds. A friend of Kassraoui’s was the first to fall. The streetlights suddenly cut out, and the protesters dashed through dark streets to escape. In a patch of light, Kassraoui stopped to catch his breath.
A black-clad figure emerged from the shadows and Kassraoui heard a crack. He felt the heat of blood spilling from his leg, took a step, listened to his bone break. Looking down at his leg in shock, he fell to the ground.
A sympathetic neighborhood policeman probably saved his life, Kassraoui said. The hospital was overflowing with injured protesters, and the officer risked arrest to drive Kassraoui to a top-flight military hospital. He remembered waking up from a coma five days later to a doctor and nurses applauding at his bedside. “Bravo,” they said. “Ben Ali fled the country!” When Kassraoui returned home after three months, he expected to find Tunisia transformed.
“The hope after the revolution was very big,” he said.
A path into politics
Zoghlami also had towering expectations after the revolt, seeing new possibilities for conservative Muslims like her and a bright future for Ennahda.
She had joined the movement at a time when her wearing of a veil earned her derision from her mother and expulsion from her high school, which, along with other public institutions, banned the headscarf.
Zoghlami soon joined one of Ennahda’s secret cells. She worked in electoral politics during a brief political opening in 1989. But after Ennahda members performed well, Ben Ali banned the party and arrested thousands of its members. Some leaders fled the country. Others were imprisoned and tortured. When her husband, also a party member, was jailed in 1991, Zoghlami gathered all her books and files related to Ennahda, put them in a steel container and burned them.
In 2011, she joined the protests. After Ben Ali fled, Ennahda tapped Zoghlami to run in elections to represent a district encompassing many of the capital’s poorer neighborhoods and she was elected to parliament.
“I used to belong to a category of women that was excluded from political life,” she recalled on a recent day, sitting in an ornate room in Tunisia’s parliament covered with ceramic tiles.
She started advocating for Kassraoui in 2012, when she led a parliamentary committee on the “martyrs and wounded” of the uprising, at a time when she and Ennahda were leading Tunisia’s first, fitful attempts to deliver post-revolutionary justice.
She also helped pass landmark legislation establishing a “truth commission” charged with investigating crimes dating back to 1955, the year before Tunisia gained its independence from France.
Some media outlets and secular-leaning elites greeted the veiled lawmakers with suspicion or scorn, Zoghlami said. Over time, though, she learned to collaborate with, and even befriend, politicians across the aisle as they embarked on a monumental task: writing a new constitution.
Zoghlami and other lawmakers vowed that the document would mark a decisive break with the past. But fights over the place of sharia, or Islamic law, and women’s rights divided the country and caused rifts within Ennahda. The party, facing a harsh backlash, decided not to propose including sharia. Zoghlami, who describes herself as part of the movement’s “moderate” wing, helped enshrine gender-equality provisions.
But the process of drafting the constitution almost came apart. In the aftermath of Tunisia’s revolt, the country was lashed by threats from within and without — assassinations, terrorist attacks and a counterrevolutionary wave that was cresting beyond Tunisia’s shores.
Saved by compromise
The dangers came into focus in February 2013, when gunmen assassinated Chokri Belaid, a lawyer and prominent leftist activist, as he was leaving his home in north Tunis. His killing — the gravest act of political violence since the revolt — deepened a festering sense of polarization in the country, between Islamist and secular-leaning forces, and threatened to shatter the fragile transition.
Zoghlami and her colleagues in Ennahda immediately recognized the danger. “We said, ‘The democratic experiment is finished. Tunisia is over. We will go back to prison,’ ” she recalled.
The willingness of the country’s dominant political movements — including Tunisia’s powerful labor union and Ennahda — to pursue compromise saved the country.
Ennahda was known for its pragmatism. But its flexibility was also motivated by fear of the fate that had befallen another Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Like Ennahda, the Brotherhood had been propelled to power in the aftermath of an Arab Spring revolt in 2011, winning the presidency the next year. But by 2013, the Brotherhood and its leader, Mohamed Morsi, were facing growing popular anger fueled by a conviction that the Islamists had gathered too much power, too fast. When Zoghlami visited Egypt, she could tell it was headed for trouble. In July of that year, the military deposed Morsi amid a brutal crackdown on his backers.
“I didn’t expect a coup d’etat, but I knew there would be a failure,” she recalled.
To stave off an Egypt scenario, Ennahda leaders agreed to cede power as part of a national dialogue brokered by civil-society actors, including trade unionists, lawyers and human rights activists, who later won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.
That decision paved the way for Beji Caid Essebsi to win the presidency in 2014. He was 88 years old at the time and seen by some as a unifying figure and others as a guardian of the old order. He showed little enthusiasm for prosecuting crimes of the past.
Ibrahim Fraihat, an international conflict resolution expert at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, attributes Tunisia’s relative stability partly to its ability to strike a balance between victor’s justice and blanket pardons for past abuses — particularly in a region that has often struggled to do so.
In neighboring Libya, retaliation against former government officials helped fuel the country’s descent into civil war. Yemen, which also collapsed into civil conflict, faced the opposite problem: A post-revolt deal spared Ali Abdullah Saleh, its former strongman, from prosecution, allowing him to keep meddling in the country’s politics.
Tunisia was defying the worst predictions about the Arab Spring.
But the country’s path was dashing the revolutionary hopes of those like Kassraoui, and consensus was sapping Tunisia’s political lifeblood. “When you build all your political orientation on the basis of consensus, there is no democratic debate,” said Selim Kharrat, a Tunisian political analyst.
An unraveling of hope
Kassraoui registered a complaint with Tunisia’s truth commission in 2015, as part of his never-ending quest to identify and punish his shooter. His determination bordered on zeal: Kassraoui instructed doctors not to remove bullet fragments lodged in his thigh, hoping they would one day be used as ballistic evidence in a trial, he said.
“It’s not all about reparations or money; when you judge someone and hold them accountable, it’s a message that it will never happen again,” he said.
But the Interior Ministry refused to cooperate with the commission. Essebsi tried to grant amnesty to people accused of corruption and succeeded in securing immunity for some civil servants.
By the time it closed its doors in 2019, the truth commission had investigated tens of thousands of rights violations and produced a report of more than 2,000 pages chronicling Tunisia’s authoritarian past and proposing reforms. It referred 200 cases, including Kassraoui’s, for prosecution in special courts. But the trials stalled after powerful police unions pressured officers suspected of crimes not to show up in court, and after political leaders, even within Ennahda, made little effort to pursue accountability.
In the meantime, nothing much had changed in hard-pressed quarters across Tunisia. In fact, for many people of Kassraoui’s age, things had gotten worse.
More and more disillusioned young Tunisians were risking the dangerous sea crossing to Italy. Kassraoui said several friends had made the journey, a form of protest against the government’s failures. Last year, 13,000 Tunisians reached Italy’s shores, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Kram West faced another danger: extremist groups recruiting young people there. In a society where overt religiosity had been repressed for decades, extremists surged into the vacuum after the revolution, taking advantage of the new openness.
There was a security vacuum, too. In Kram West, after protesters burned down the local police station, it was never rebuilt. Radical groups moved into the neighborhood, including Ansar al-Sharia, which went from hosting preaching tents in its streets to pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda within a few years. Authorities said the group was complicit in assassinations and a 2012 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis.
Zoghlami said lawmakers hadn’t grasped the urgency of the security threat. “We were extremely busy in the struggle over belief and sharia,” she said.
The government declared Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist organization in 2013 and cracked down on the group. Still, thousands of Tunisians traveled to Iraq, Syria or Libya to join the Islamic State and other militant groups — among the most from any country.
And even after the defeat of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate, young Tunisians remain susceptible to radicalization, researchers say. A study published in 2018 by Mobdiun, an organization that works with youth in Kram West, found that nearly 40 percent of young men there said they knew someone who had joined a terrorist organization. Sixteen percent said they had been approached about adopting jihadist ideology.
‘I’m asking for the minimum’
In November, as Kassraoui was preparing to receive Zoghlami at his home, he resolved to bother her with only a modest request: government money to build an extra room onto the family’s cramped house.
The two seemed an unlikely pair. He was once a star break-dancer in his neighborhood and now spent his days — when he wasn’t protesting — playing video games. Zoghlami was in constant motion, often in her long black coat, a cellphone glued to her hand, as she rushed from parliament meetings to visits in her district, where constituents call her “Madame Yamina.”
When Zoghlami arrived, Kassraoui’s mother ushered her into the small house, shared by the family of 10. Kassraoui sat across from Zoghlami with his 7-year-old daughter on his lap. Kassraoui, his wife and their two young children slept in one room.
The entire family survived on his father’s pension, which came to a few hundred dollars a month; the money his brother made working at a grocery store; and a monthly grant of around $70 that Kassraoui received from the state. Jobs available in the neighborhood pay low wages. Public-sector positions are hard to come by, and Kassraoui’s disability limited his prospects.
The state had offered Kassraoui a permit to sell tobacco. He hoped instead for permission to open a small corner store where he could sell sweets, juice, maybe even flowers.
“I imagined that 10 years after the revolution, I would have a little bit of dignity. I’m not asking for something very big; I’m asking for the minimum,” he said.
Zoghlami promised to help with the home renovation and with the paperwork Kassraoui would need to get a new prosthetic leg.
‘A real confidence crisis’
Last year, Tunisians elected an assortment of populists to office, in a sign of growing disenchantment with the political class.
Kais Saied, an independent law professor and champion of the 2011 protesters, won the presidency with 73 percent of the vote. But a hard-line Islamist party siphoned off former Ennahda voters who believed it had betrayed its revolutionary principles.
And the populist wave also elected to parliament Abir Moussi, a former official in Ben Ali’s party who has called for restoring the police state and cast the 2011 uprising as a coup. Opinion polls show that two-fifths of Tunisians would now vote for her party.
“There is a real confidence crisis between people and the authorities,” said Kharrat, the political analyst. “That’s why the old-regime political groups are seducing more and more Tunisians. Because Tunisians used to think, before the revolution, even if you were not free, you were able to eat.”
In December, Tunisians across the country went on strike and blockaded companies to press for jobs and better working conditions. Those calls intensified last month when young people took to the streets with signs by day and stones by night to vent their rage and demand the parliament’s dissolution. Much of the anger was directed at Ennahda, increasingly seen as part of the stubborn and unresponsive power structure.
Zoghlami, who represents many of the Tunis-area neighborhoods that saw clashes, said that some of the demonstrations were “legitimate protests with real demands” and that she and her colleagues needed to listen to young people. But change could not come through violence or dissolving parliament, she added. “We must all preserve democracy in the country,” she said.
As Tunisia braced for a new season of unrest, Kassraoui kept up his lonely vigil. He had managed to obtain a new prosthetic leg with the president’s help. But he continued to press for the publication of the list of dead and wounded from the 2011 uprising, and in December began a hunger strike and sit-in with about a dozen other people. Some sewed their mouths shut with thick black thread. Others threatened to light themselves on fire. After several days without food, Kassraoui developed kidney pain and his blood sugar dropped so significantly that he was briefly hospitalized.
Bowing to pressure, the government pledged last month to publish the names by late March. The protesters remain skeptical. “If the list is published, it will be a recognition from the Tunisian state that there was a revolution,” Kassraoui said. “The list is the only guarantee.”
Fahim reported from Istanbul. Ahmed Ellali contributed to this report.