Lina Ben Mhenni: 'Young people in Tunisia feel betrayed by politicians'

In February 2016 Lina Ben Mhenni began an initiative to open libraries inside prisons across Tunisia as a way to counter extremism. When she announced the initiative on her Facebook page she was inundated with phone calls from people across Tunisia – from all social classes, ages and religious denominations – asking her to come and collect their books. 

“It is my small contribution to fighting against extremism,” she tells me. “People usually have a bad idea about prisons and prisoners and I want to change that; I want to say that prisoners are human beings and they have the right to have the majority of rights except of course the right of movement.”

Mhenni – who rose to prominence as an activist and blogger during the Tunisian Revolution and was later nominated for a Nobel Prize – continues to work on the project, distributing books to jails across the country, organising workshops for collective reading and writing sessions and training detainees to care for the libraries they will eventually create there. “The majority of people here in Tunisia and even abroad are supporting the initiative,” she says. Mhenni now has over 20,000 books.

Tunisia has certainly witnessed some horrific attacks in recent years. In March 2015 tourists were fired upon as they entered the Bardo museum in the capital Tunis, then just three months later a gunman killed 39 people at a tourist resort in the city of Sousse. These attacks are well known in the UK but as Mhenni points out they were not the first, they were simply the most publicised because they were targeted tourists and they took place in major cities.

The first government to take office after the 2010 revolution was a coalition between Ennahda, Ettakol and CPR known collectively as Troika – this is where the problem began, believes Mhenni, because they didn’t work hard enough to stamp out the early signs of radicalisation. 

Terrorism is not just a domestic issue – Tunisia is infamous across the MENA region for having one of the highest numbers of foreign fighters in Syria. In the last seven years none of the governments in charge of Tunisia have been able to fulfil the goals of the revolution, Mhenni offers as an explanation, which means unemployment and the abuse of political power are still rife in the country. 

Young people in Tunisia, especially in the marginalised areas, thought their lives would change rapidly after Ben Ali fled and that real reform would come about quickly: “A few years later things didn’t change at all,” says Mhenni, pointing out that many Tunisians are disappointed by how the post revolution years in Tunisia have unfolded. “Terrorist groups take advantage of that and they target people who feel despair and start to attract them and start to teach them their extremist ideology.” 

A physical manifestation of this despair is currently taking place on the edge of the Sahara in Tatouine, a city in the south of the country, where Tunisians have been protesting for several weeks now to secure jobs for local people in oil companies and environmental agencies. Whilst the demonstrations in Tatouine have caught the media’s attention because they are linked to oil production and international companies, young, unemployed people across Tunisia have taken to the streets from Tunis to Sidi Bouzid, Douz and Kebili to voice their concerns.

“Young people who took part in the revolution feel betrayed by politicians and are protesting to show that they are angry and that they don’t accept what is happening,” says Mhenni. “Moreover, corruption is growing in Tunisia. People who have power are getting richer and richer whereas people who took to the streets asking for jobs, asking for freedom and social justice, are in the same situation; they feel marginalised and forgotten by all.”

“It’s true that the Tunisian revolution started in 2010 and 2011 but seven years later the protests are still going on,” she continues. “I know that we can’t change things in a short period and we cannot create jobs in a short period but none of the governments really worked on the fulfilment of the objectives of the revolution. They didn’t even present plans or strategies to show their willingness to reform things, to change things.” 

In October 2014 Beji Caid Essebsi’s party Nidaa Tounes won 85 seats in the parliamentary elections and Essebsi was later elected president. Essebsi has been accused by many people as belonging to the old guard as he served as Interior Minister under Habib Bourgiba and speaker of the parliament under Ben Ali.

In May this year a senior official announced that four prominent businessmen had been arrested on charges of corruption but Mhenni does not believe this is a sign of real change. At the same time the government is trying to pass the economic reconciliation law for the third year running: “It is a law that will guarantee impunity especially to businessmen who were involved in corruption with the regime of the dictator Ben Ali.”

“Beiji Caid Essebsi is from the old regime even if he’s pretending that he’s not,” she continues. “I think that one of the promises he gave them during the election campaign is to guarantee them and the corrupted businessmen who worked for the regime of Ben Ali reconciliation and impunity.” By contrast, Mhenni is part of the grassroots movement Manich Msameh – we shall not forgive – that works against the reconciliation bill and pushes for top politicians from the Ben Ali era to be tried and face justice. 

Civil society has also worked to counter attacks on women’s rights in Tunisia and have blocked several attempts to change legislation to this effect. In fact, Tunisian women have succeeded in gaining more rights, Mhenni tells me, and are always at the forefront of demonstrations. But there is still work to be done, she says. There are female ministers but they don’t occupy prestigious positions such as the ministry of defence or interior, they are generally appointed into the ministry for women or the ministry for youth.

Compared to the other Arab Spring countries Tunisia has been labelled a success story, a beacon of democracy in the region, because it has not erupted into bloodshed as Yemen, Libya, Syria and Egypt have. But does Tunisia deserve this reputation? 

“It is true that in comparison to other Arab Spring countries Tunisia is not witnessing civil wars and blood baths but when we talk about a revolution we talk about real change, we talk about establishing a real democracy. It’s true that we have succeeded in organising transparent, free elections, it’s true that we have succeeded in writing a new constitution but when it comes to real life things are not really good as people around the world are seeing. I don’t think Tunisia is a model of success of the revolution.” 

“Even when it comes to human rights things are regressing now,” she continues. “When it comes to freedom of speech things are regressing. I feel that we are progressively going back to the past state.”

Despite this, Mhenni is confident for the future of her country: “It is a revolutionary process, it takes a long time and it will take a long time. The ouster of the dictator Ben Ali was the first step but the whole system is still in place and we have to work to change this system. Seven years is nothing – we did the first step, we have to persevere.”

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor