Tunisia: five years since the revolution
The Jasmine Revolution turned five in January. Although it stayed the path of democracy, the country is still faced with challenges including unemployment, popular discontent and terror.
São Paulo – In January, it was five years since Tunisians rebelled and put an end to the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the president who had been in power for two-plus decades, triggering a wave that spread across the region and became known as the Arab Spring, and kickstarting a transition to democracy unprecedented in the Middle East and North Africa.
Events that took place in the anniversary month of the so-called Jasmine Revolution, however, show that a revolutionary process doesn’t happen overnight and Tunisia has a long way to go before it achieves political, economic and social stability. The year kicked off with a split in the government party, which several members of parliament quit, and popular protests for employment broke out.
The demonstrations brought to mind the events that led to the 2011 uprising, since they picked up steam following the death of a young unemployed man, Ridha Yahyaoui, 28, who was electrocuted after climbing a utility pole to protest against his removal from a list of newly-admitted public servants in Kasserine, in the Tunisian Midwest. On December 17, 2010, street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself after having his goods confiscated, and his death, on January 04, 2011, was the spark that ignited the Tunisian revolution.
Unemployment in Tunisia is now higher than 15% and prevalent among the youth, many of whom hold university degrees. “After the revolution, popular demands and social protests never ceased again,” the Tunisian ambassador in Brazil, Sabri Bachtobji, told ANBA via email. “Keep in mind that the slogan Tunisians would chant during the revolution was ‘labor, freedom and dignity.’ While freedom is here to stay, encouraging jobs creation takes considerable effort and funds,” the diplomat added.
International political and economic analysts acknowledge that Tunisia has made progress when it comes to freedoms. “Being able to protest and still have democratic rules in place is a major step ahead,” said the International Economics professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP), Antonio Carlos Alves dos Santos.
To Sílvia Ferabolli, an International Relations professor at Vale dos Sinos University (Unisinos) and at UniRitter, both in Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul state, the presence of structured civil society organizations such as unions and civil rights defense organizations, even prior to the revolution, “has enabled a smoother transition” than in other Arab Spring countries.
Proof of that is the role played by the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet as a mediator between the country’s different political players, an effort that culminated in parliamentary and presidential elections in 2014 and the formation of the current government. The group comprises the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA), the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers (ONAT), and it won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for its role throughout the transition process. “But that doesn’t mean these organizations can single-handedly solve each and every problem,” Ferabolli remarked.
In its latest review of Tunisia, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) highlighted the government’s efforts towards maintaining macroeconomic stability, including policies and reforms the Fund believes can lead to stronger, more inclusive growth “amid a difficult global and regional scenario.” The IMF points out, however, that “economic activity has weakened under the impact of negative shocks.”
And a few shocks were indeed devastating. In the first half of 2015, terror attacks sent shockwaves through Tunisia, claiming several lives at the Bardo National Museum, in Tunis, and in the beach town of Sousse. The events dealt a blow to the Tourism industry, one of the country’s primary revenue sources, causing the government to revise down its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth outlook from 3% to 0.5% last year. This year, 2.5% growth is expected. “The hard blow from last year’s terrorist attacks on tourism does not make this task [of creating jobs] any easier,” said ambassador Bachtobji.
Santos, of PUC-SP, adds that Tunisia also struggles with the same economic issues that plague nearby Mediterranean countries such as Portugal, Spain and Greece. Ferabolli adds that in 1995, Tunisia enthusiastically joined Euromed, an intra-Mediterranean cooperation arrangement including an association agreement between the Arab country and the European Union; since then, Tunisia’s economy, which already sustained strong ties with Europe due to its colonial past, grew even further attached to the continent.
Because of the Eurozone crisis, according to the professor, Tunisia “struggles with responding quickly” to economic issues of its own.
Following the protests in January this year, the government rushed to put in place a set of measures designed to fight unemployment. According to the ambassador, the measures included recruiting 23,000 unemployed people, integrating some 30,000 young people into the army, rolling out a program to hire at least one unemployed person from each poor family, entering into an agreement with Utica to create 50,000 jobs, etc.
To Ferabolli, at times of crisis, ever since the United States’ “New Deal,” it has become the State’s task to rise to the role of “driver” of economic development, but both she and Santos warn of the dangers of too heavy-handed an approach, which could lead to fiscal imbalance, a swollen state apparatus and other problems that will ultimately undermine the development of industry. “The focus must be on creating the conditions for the private sector to develop,” said Santos.
Bachtobji noted that lately, Utica, an employers’ association, and UGTT, a union center, reached an agreement on private sector wage raises.
For Santos, European countries must help Tunisia now, through investments and incentives to tourism, despite their own domestic economy issues, because the country’s stability is in the continent’s interest. “Unless it shows concern, Europe could pay a high price,” he asserted. As a case in point, he mentioned the serious political and economic repercussions of immigrant flows from the Middle East and Africa to Europe. “I believe Europeans have learned their lesson, namely that it’s cheaper to ensure political and economic stability [in struggling developing countries] than to allow a crisis like Syria’s to erupt,” he added.
Additionally, Santos claimed Tunisia is foreign investment-friendly, a stable country considering the regional scenario, and a small one which therefore doesn’t require huge amounts of funds.
For him, the fastest way to creating jobs and attracting cash is encouraging tourism. The professor believes Tunisia can become a tourist attraction again in the medium run, and cites Colombia, which staged ultraviolent drug trafficker and guerilla warfare for decades, but is now a hub for leisure and business tourists alike. “Colombia rebuilt its image and tourism is now a key part of its economy,” he said.
Ferabolli believes the diversification of economic relations is also important, and points to the Summit of South American-Arab countries (Aspa) as a relevant effort in this regard, including attracting tourists from Brazil and other South American countries. The ambassador revealed that for the first time ever, the Tunisian National Tourist Office (ONTT) will be at the industry show World Travel Market Latin America, set to take place in late March in São Paulo.
The political, economic, social and security challenges that still lie ahead for Tunisia, however, are unlikely to bring to a halt the consolidation of its democracy. “The space of freedom has been conquered and the concept of a revolution is understood in the departure from the old ways of governing and thinking,” the ambassador remarked. “These problems cannot be solved within a short timeframe,” said Santos, adding that Tunisia’s great strength is that so far, it has succeeded in producing and strengthening its democratic process. “A revolution is not a single action; it is a process with steps back and forward. We might see an occasional step back, but never a return to the previous stage. People have realized that popular mobilization can bring about change, so the country will never go back again,” Ferabolli concluded.
*Translated by Gabriel Pomerancblum