Zaid m. Belbagi
The self-immolation of street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi in December 2010 became a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution and the wider Arab Spring. Having grown up in a rural town blighted by corruption, where he was rejected from public jobs and therefore unable to earn a living, his plight personified those of millions of others eking out an existence in the informal economies of the Arab world. Almost a decade on, Tunisia’s fledgling democracy is no closer to alleviating the problems of its citizens.
Following the toppling of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisia was widely perceived as the only democratic success story of the Arab Spring. Its political system was viewed as a model for democratic progress in the Arab world, with free elections and a modern constitution. However, since then the small North African country has had nine governments, none of which have been able to tackle its growing economic problems.
The imposition of higher taxes on gasoline, phone cards, housing, internet usage and basic foodstuffs on Jan. 1 has greatly affected the cost of living. Customs on agricultural output, responsible for as much as a quarter of GDP, have also hit the small subsistence farmers that make up the bulk of the sector. As protests have rocked the country since, it is clear that the lives of Tunisians have yet to see the improvement that was envisaged.
In 2002, the Arab Human Development Report ominously warned that a “poverty of opportunities” in the Arab world was the greatest challenge to stability in the region. As the schoolchildren of that era came of age in 2011, their fatigue with the failure of governments to provide them with opportunities was unleashed. Several years on from the events of 2011, the most recent report maintains “youth empowerment is the key to development in Arab countries.” As unemployment in Tunisia has remained just below its record high of 2011, it is clear that a great deal more needs to be done so as to pause the cycle of protests and government reshuffling.
A great deal of Tunisia’s transformation since 2011 has been cosmetic. Though power may no longer be in the hands of one man and public participation in the decision-making process is the largest it has ever been, Tunisians still live with significant hardship. Political freedom has not allowed ordinary Tunisians to supplement their diets with meat, and many (who live just a 90-minute boat ride away from Europe) still light their homes with candles. It is no wonder that January’s Finance Law was met with such opposition, as the government tax hikes even affected medicines. With more than 800 arrests, 100 policemen injured and one protestor killed, the ensuing looting and rioting has caused a great deal of chaos.
The protests will not be unfamiliar to 91-year-old President Beji Caid Essebsi. A veteran of the Bourguiba years, he will no doubt have drawn parallels with the January 1984 bread riots that broke out following the withdrawal of food subsidies. Back then, the president was forced to cancel the measures, but today the Tunisian government has no choice but to follow through. Under incredible pressure from the IMF to curb public spending in return for emergency financial assistance, the government must urgently address its public debt, which jumped from 39.2 percent of GDP in 2010 to 65 percent in 2017.
Alas, Essebsi, whose political career started in 1941, lacks the energy and vision to address the issues of a population with an average age of 31.
The current Tunisian government is made up of an uneasy alliance between the Islamist Ennahda party and the group that worked so hard to defeat them, the secular Nidaa Tounes. With the leader of Ennahda urging restraint and the Nidaa Prime Minister Youssef Chahed declaring that 2018 will be “the last difficult year for Tunisians,” the government is increasingly a spectator in the country’s wider political story.
This year’s protests have been organized by young activists, many of them leftists from parties and groups outside the formal political establishment. It was such forces that ignited the Tunisian Revolution in 2011 and the government would do well to address their concerns.
The heavy hand of the state characterized the regime that was ousted in 2011. With scores of policemen hospitalized and a regional security center in the west of the country torched by protestors last month, the government must remain wary of stoking public anger and resorting to the security-led solutions of the past.
The best way to protect Tunisia’s fragile consensus-based constitution is through inward investment, which will create the jobs and opportunities that will help improve living standards. Many of those who pontificate as to the importance of Tunisia as a democratic symbol in the Arab world have failed to deliver on their economic promises. As the EU warns against growing instability in the country, Germany would do well to meet the grand promises it made to invest in Tunisia.