Seven years after Arab Spring revolt, Tunisia's future remains uncertain
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Tunisia marks seven years on Sunday since the start of protests that spread across the region and came to be known as the Arab Spring. Although praised for its relatively peaceful transition to democracy, Tunisia is still struggling economically.
On December 17, 2010, a frustrated street vendor set himself alight outside a local municipal office in Sidi Bouzid to protest against repeated harassment from authorities, who often confiscated his goods or fined him for selling without a permit. In the demonstrations that followed, fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi became a symbol of Tunisia’s disenfranchised, those forced to eke out a living on society’s margins.
Bouazizi’s desperate act sparked a wave of self-immolations and mass street protests. Within less than a month, Tunisia’s longtime ruler, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, fled to Saudi Arabia as demonstrations against other autocratic regimes erupted across the Arab world.
Known variously as the “Jasmine Revolution” or the “Dignity Revolution”, Tunisians from all walks of life had risen up to protest against the corruption and economic stagnation that had seen jobless figures spike to 850,000 in 2011 (up from 600,000 the year before) in a country of 10 million people.
Seven years later, the anger in the streets looks all too familiar. Tunisians demonstrated anew this week after a mother of five set herself on fire. Like many Tunisians, she was unemployed and her welfare checks had stopped a few months ago.
Such desperate acts highlight the urgency of the economic crisis still faced by many Tunisians in the wake of the revolution. Many are demanding more employment opportunities – or as they see it, the right to live with dignity.
Unemployed protesters took to the streets of Sidi Bouzid again on Sunday to protest the persistent lack of economic opportunities. Police fired tear gas at demonstrators a day earlier after they blockaded roads with tyres.
Despite being hailed internationally as a model of peaceful transition, Tunisia remains a fragile democracy facing an urgent economic crisis, widespread corruption and terrorist threats.
‘A tricky situation’
Chief among the structural obstacles is Tunisia’s economic stagnation. The country continues to suffer from a lack of investment and large deficits, as well as high levels of unemployment.
Tunisia's unemployment rate hovered around 15.3 percent for much of 2017, according to the National Institute of Statistics (NIS), up from a pre-revolution rate of 13 percent. And many of those who cannot find work are highly educated. In the first quarter of 2017, nearly 260,000 people with higher degrees were unemployed in a country of 11 million, according to the NIS.
Tunis-based political analyst Youssef Cherif says Tunisia is trapped in a vicious circle. “It is a tricky situation, a chicken-or-egg scenario: Tunisians are in the streets protesting the economic stagnation that is, in part, caused by lack of investment,” he told FRANCE 24. “But as long as this unrest continues, other countries will look elsewhere to spend their money.”
Tunisia’s economy was also badly hit by two terrorist attacks in 2015 – on the Bardo Museum in Tunis and a Sousse beach resort – that crippled the tourist industry, a major source of income for the North African state.
Cherif notes that the unrest in neighbouring Libya has contributed to Tunisia’s economic troubles. “After the European Union, Libya was Tunisia’s second partner – so Libya’s fall into chaos [after the 2011 ouster of Muammar Gaddafi] has had a knock on effect and only contributed to the crippling of Tunisia’s economy.”
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a $2.9 billion loan for Tunisia in 2016, but froze the second installment last year after the government failed to make adequate progress in reforming its state finances.
Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s response was to push through a reform budget in early December that sought to trim deficits and stimulate growth by reducing subsidies, reforming the pension system and shrinking the public sector with a hiring freeze.
But as the reforms begin to take effect in 2018, they risk fuelling more unrest. “These measures are painful, and 2018 will be the most difficult year for Tunisians,” said Jilani Hammami, an official in the left-leaning Popular Front movement, in comments to Reuters earlier this month. “I don’t think it will go without a popular reaction.”
Cherif sees the prospect of increasing unrest as an unfortunate – but understandable – byproduct of the country’s fledgling democracy.
“Tunisia needs more time,” he said. “If these reforms were taken slowly and passed years ago, we would not be in this position. But owing to the collapse of several successive governments, they have been pushed back until the need for reform is at breaking point – but there is little time to deliver it.”
But Cherif remains optimistic that Tunisia is unlikely to see the kind of unrest it saw seven years ago. He points out that Tunisians can now engage freely in public discourse and use social media to share their views.
“Anger can be diffused more gradually, meaning popular rage like we saw in 2011 becomes less likely,” he said.
“This is, in part, the legacy of Mohamed Bouazizi.”