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Tunisia Celebrations And Protests Mark 7 Years Since Revolution


Now to Tunisia, where, seven years ago today, Tunisians forced the country's dictator from power and began a transition to democracy. That was followed by uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Syria. It became known as the Arab Spring. Today, some people are celebrating, others are protesting. NPR's Ruth Sherlock is here to tell us more. She's in the capital, Tunis. There have been some clashes but mainly peaceful demonstrations.

Ruth, welcome.


MARTIN: So what have people been doing to mark the anniversary?

SHERLOCK: Well, several thousand people gathered here on Habib Bourguiba, which is the main avenue in downtown, and it's also where the mass protests happened in 2011. And of all the countries that protested in the Arab Spring, Tunisia has fared the best. As you mentioned, it's a stable - semi-stable democracy. So some people felt they had a lot to celebrate. There was lots of music.

In one area, supporters of the more religiously conservative Ennahda party chanted and sang songs from the revolutionary days. And then in another area, these liberal supporters watched a belly dancer and dancers - kind of modern pop music. I asked Fadila Kaeish (ph), a supporter from the more conservative Ennahda party, what is the main thing that's changed in her life since the uprising began?

FADILA KAEISH: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: So she tells me here that the best thing that survived from that revolution is freedom of expression. This country was ruled by a dictator before, and people felt afraid to speak freely. It was also a secular regime, and they often oppressed observant Muslims. Women found it difficult sometimes to wear headscarves in public. All of that has now gone, and she says that that is something really to celebrate.

And that was the same sentiment - I spoke to young people, old people, religious or not - everybody had the same opinion that this freedom of expression is the best thing. There's still some police harassment but it's generally much, much better.

MARTIN: And yet I understand it - I understand that there have been protests this week about austerity measures and the economy. What did people tell you about that?

SHERLOCK: Well, that's the other side of this anniversary event. There were also people who came here because they're furious. They're angry at a terrible economic situation. People are furious because there's been a new budget that's passed this year that's increased the cost of basic goods. And the government is struggling to pay off an international monetary fund loan.

So it's imposed austerity measures. It won't expand the public sector. And that just means there's a lot of people without jobs. I asked Amel Berrejab, who trained as an English teacher, why she'd come to demonstrate.

AMEL BERREJAB: No, today, we are not here to celebrate, just to protest, just to pressure the government to give us our right to choose recruitment, which is employment. I'm now, for example, a graduate since 2007. So 10 years, yes, since my graduation. I've got more than six years experience teaching in private school, in colleges and universities. I also taught in the U.S. as part of the Fulbright program. But in my country, I'm jobless.

SHERLOCK: So you hear this kind of frustration and this lack of hope. We spoke to a lot of people who said their friends are all leaving this country, either legally, if they can, or illegally if they can't, and trying to find jobs elsewhere. That's how bad it's become.

MARTIN: Is there a sense that it's getting worse?

SHERLOCK: Yes. There's been protests this past week. There's a group that's been created that's called What Are We Waiting For. It's a youth activist group, but it's had a big impact. It sparked these massive protests all over the country. The government was unnerved. It's responded by arresting some 800 people according to U.N. figures. These people, who are protesting, want the government to repeal the 2018 budget - the one I mentioned that's raised prices for basic goods.

MARTIN: That's Ruth Sherlock. She's in Tunisia, where they are observing the anniversary of the Jasmine Revolution which set off the Arab Spring. Ruth, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SHERLOCK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.