Tunisia's independence is not yet complete

Tunisia's independence is not yet complete
In its selective celebration of independence day, the Tunisian regime is unlikely to do justice to the significant historical moment. Instead, it will roll out official events against a backdrop of repression, writes Tharwa Boulifi.
5 min read
19 Mar, 2022
Tunisians will be celebrating independence day amidst rising state repression. [GETTY]

Ever since I can remember, independence day has always been a special occasion for Tunisians. Cultural events, military parades, and performances from children singing patriotic songs would take place all day long. The national television channel would dedicate exclusive programming to the celebration, which would include interviews with historians, and veterans. I witnessed the Independence Day celebrations under many regimes, before and after the 2011 revolution.

Despite the succession of different governments, festivities haven’t varied much and the issues debated haven’t really kept pace with the rapidly changing global scene. However, given recent events, both at the national and international level, this independence day, Tunisians find themselves unable to just accept the same wooden language and hollow gestures of the state.

Independence day has always been weaponised, especially under the two first Tunisian presidents. Habib Bourguiba, the first president following Tunisia’s independence from French colonial rule in 1956, is considered a key actor in the liberation of the nation, in many ways a founding father. Under his rule, independence day was heavily utilised as a means of building popularity.

"Unfortunately it is likely that Tunisians will mark their independence day with much uncertainty about their future, and the fear that any and all revolutionary gains from 2011 will soon be lost."

When Zine El Abidine Ben Ali followed as the second president, under his 23-year-long dictatorship, the celebration would similarly be used to maintain the image of a stable country united around a supported leader. All of this was shattered of course when in 2011 Tunisians rose up to claim a ‘second independence’ from the grips of his regime.

In post-revolution Tunisia, things did not really change for the better. Under Kais Saied, who took office in 2019, the dictatorship is still very much in place. In July of last year, he dismissed prime minister Hichem Mechichi and froze parliament's activity, which was dubbed a coup by Western media.

In this period, Saied maintained total control for a considerably longer period than it should have taken for him to select another prime minister. Eventually, he chose a woman by the name of Najla Bouden to head government which was considered a first in the Arab world. This move was perfectly in line with Said’s leadership practices and populist discourse which has always been filled with empty, unrealistic promises. Moreover, under the pretext of purifying the nation of traitors and rampant corruption, Saied has undermined the people’s human rights through arbitrary arrests and a travel ban restricting individual liberties.

These authoritarian practices were supported by a large proportion of the people, thirsty for so-called anti-elitist revenge. However, Tunisian organisations and activists raised alarm over the rise in the number of civilians being judged by military courts.

An ultimate insult came when Saied violated the sovereignty of the people by changing the date of the revolution’s anniversary from January 14th (the day Ben Ali fled the country) to December 17th (the day that Bouazizi set himself on fire). On January 14th, people were actively blocked from accessing the Habib Bourguiba street, a symbolic space for the revolution. Nevertheless people bravely protested the repressive measures and were - alongside journalists who covered the event - brutalised by the police.

Saied’s revenge on opponents has also been at the centre of public debate. Reuters reported the imprisonment of lawyer Abd Errazak Kilani, a fierce critic of the president, who was accused of inciting the police to break the law - a common pretext for criminalising dissident voices.

On the eve of independence day, Kamel Thameur, Tunis's governor and a close friend of Saied, allowed only cultural activities in the Habib Bourguiba Avenue and banned political protests. The president's opponents intended to march against his restrictive policies, especially after the recent arrests of journalists from the Mosaique FM a prominent radio station.

Unfortunately it is likely that Tunisians will mark their independence day with much uncertainty about their future, and the fear that any and all revolutionary gains from 2011 will soon be lost.

This depressing reality is also an international one.

Neo-colonial presence of the EU and US in particular continues to define Tunisia’s political and economic decisions. From restrictions on local products by Western nations, to the fact that their aid and “donations” are all intended to keep my country under their control.

I remember the heated debates I would have with friends who would tell me that whilst Tunisia was independent on paper, and that France’s presence was no more, the people were still very much colonised. Maybe it was that I studied under a French system and naively disagreed in the past, but eventually it caught up with me that the constitution’s declaration that “Tunisia is a free, independent, sovereign state,” was just ink on paper.

Alas, Tunisia’s freedom remains at the mercy of Western interests on the territory, and the ongoing regime that also rules in its favour. One thing that can and should be celebrated, however, is Tunisians’ continued resistance in the face of historical repression. Whether it is the struggle against sexual harassment at home, or the oppression of Palestinians abroad, Tunisians continue fight for freedom within and beyond their borders, that is the essence that should carry any commemorative national event.

Tharwa Boulifi is a Tunisian freelancer who writes about feminism, human rights, and social justice. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Newsweek, the New African, African Arguments.

You can follow her on Twitter: @TharwaBoulifi

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff, or the author's employer.