Rainy Tunis
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Rainy Tunis
Last updated: January 27, 2016
Shattered Tunisian economy puts political transition at risk

"They see the democratic transition as something good in theory, but rather disappointing in practice"

Banner Icon Maghreb The social unrests in Tunisia are a warning shot to be taken seriously, Ragnar Weilandt writes.

In December 2010 a young man doused himself with petrol and set himself alight in front of the local government office in Sidi Bouzid, an impoverished town in central Tunisia. Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation was an act of desperation caused by poverty and lack of perspective. His death ignited local protests that quickly spread across the country and ultimately ended the 23-year-rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January 2011. 

History may not repeat itself, but as Mark Twain allegedly once suggested, it more than occasionally rhymes. A few days after the fifth anniversary of Ben Ali's ouster, a young man climbed up an electrical pole and was electrocuted in front of the local government office in Kasserine, a similarly disfranchised town about an hour’s drive from Sidi Bouzid. Ridha Yahyaoui, an unemployed university graduate, committed suicide on 16 January 2016 after he learned that his name had been removed from a list of potential public sector recruits. His death triggered the biggest wave of social unrest since the Tunisian revolution.

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It was the second major crisis in post-Ben Ali Tunisia. In the summer of 2013, the assassination of two left-wing politicians and major public disenchantment with the Islamist-led government had already brought the country to the brink. At that point, a National Dialogue led by four civil society organisations mediated between government and opposition, facilitated the creation of a technocratic government and enabled the development and adoption of a progressive constitution. 

Its role in preventing the country from sliding into chaos and violence earned the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. It also showcased some of the main reasons why Tunisia did not follow the disastrous path of the other “Arab Spring” states: It has a strong civil society and a set of political forces that are willing and able to compromise. 

Politically, Tunisia has indeed undergone a transition that warrants cautious optimism. The parliamentary and presidential elections in 2014 marked the second time that political leadership was changed through relatively fair and competitive elections whose outcome was accepted by the defeated parties.

The Tunisian economy, however, remains in tatters. And as the recent social unrest highlights, the lack of socio-economic progress puts the political transition at risk.

The ouster of the Ben Ali regime has raised enormous hopes among Tunisians, but the problems that made them take to the streets persist. Unemployment is at 15.2% and thus above the pre-revolutionary level of 13%. The country’s youth is particularly affected. According to the OECD, 37.6% of those aged 15 to 24 and 62.3% of university graduates are unemployed. In the impoverished in-land provinces such as Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine the situation is even worse.

"His death triggered the biggest wave of social unrest since the Tunisian revolution"

Improvements are not in sight. Focusing all energy on maintaining peace and writing the constitution came at the cost of conducting meaningful structural reforms. Tunisia’s endemic bureaucracy and corruption continue to discourage local entrepreneurship and deter foreign investments. Meanwhile the terror attacks in Sousse and in the Bardo National Museum have crippled the tourism industry, a sector that made up roughly 15% of Tunisia’s gross domestic product in 2014. 

Following the suicide of Ridha Yahyaoui, several other young Tunisians threatened to kill themselves. Two young men were reportedly injured in an attempt to throw themselves off the roof of the local government office in Kasserine. Their desperation helps to explain one of the most puzzling developments. Tunisia is one of the most liberal countries in the Arab world and the region’s only democratic success story. Yet it has become one of the most fertile recruiting grounds of the Islamic State. Seifeddine Rezgui, the engineering student who slaughtered 38 tourists at a beach resort in Sousse last year reportedly had a girlfriend, drank alcohol, was a local breakdancing celebrity and supported Real Madrid. This is not the kind of young man who becomes an Islamist terrorist by default. 

The failure to enhance socio-economic development and to reduce the gap between the relatively affluent urban coastal provinces and the impoverished in-land regions has become a major threat to the political transition. Tunisians across society are of a split mind. They see the democratic transition as something good in theory, but it has proven to be rather disappointing in practice.

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Many are proud of having brought down Ben Ali and his corrupt and repressive regime. “Tunisia, first democracy of the Arab World” reads a graffiti in Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the Tunisian version of the Champs-Élysées. However, democracy has not delivered on the high expectations it raised. Unemployment has risen, public services from garbage collection to transportation have deteriorated and going out at night has become more dangerous. Across society, many feel that things were better before 2011.

In the wake of last week’s protests, Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid has called for patience. But as all post-2011 governments have failed to create jobs and to fight poverty, Tunisians are getting more and more impatient. For now, the protests might have largely ebbed off. Its underlying reasons, however, are likely to persist for the foreseeable future. What Tunisia experienced last week was only a foretaste of what might come if things are not improving soon.

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