Tunisia’s Arab Spring: Three years on

The country is preparing to adopt a new constitution, but its economy remains weak and its political situation unstable.

On Thursday, Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh of the Islamist Ennahda party announced his resignation, following through on a compromise negotiated by the ruling party. His exit comes as the Tunisian constituent assembly prepares to adopt the country’s post-revolution constitution, capping a two-year process. 

Three years ago on Tuesday, mass protests forced the ouster of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. 

“The Tunisian revolution was the result of dictatorship and oppression,” said Mourad Bouselmi, 44, who was jailed for a year as a political prisoner under Ben Ali. “Whether the first ousted dictator or the second, the Almighty God puts them all in the trash can of history.” 

Three years after setting off what would become known as the “Arab Spring”, Tunisia continues to struggle with overlapping economic, security, and political challenges. But Tunisia’s transition – at times promising, often stalled, and at several points near collapse – seems poised to pass another milestone with the expected completion of the constitution in the coming days. Compared to the coup and ongoing crackdown in Egypt, the horrific civil war in Syria, and suppression in Bahrain, Tunisia’s revolution stands out among “Arab Spring” countries thus far for having survived.

“The people have become free, but we must pay for this freedom with this hard transition,” said Mahmoud Boualif, a 68-year-old retired professor in a cafe in downtown Tunis. He compared the new freedoms Tunisians now enjoy to a berserk bull released from its pen.

A new constitution

Tunisia’s constitutional drafting process has been plagued by delays and fallout. At its most fierce, debate revolved around the relationship between religion and state. Last week, the assembly adopted constitutional articles on women’s rights praised by many observers. Representatives fell short of their goal of adopting the whole document by Tuesday’s anniversary.  

Tunisians reflect three years on

While many are relieved by progress on the constitution, not all are satisfied. Nidhal Hlaiem, a 29-year-old activist with Amnesty International, said she was disappointed the assembly did not abolish the death penalty, a sentiment shared by President Moncef Marzouki. The abolition of the death penalty would have represented a historic watershed in the Arab world, Hlaiem said. “Human rights principles are not divisible.” 

The assembly’s quick work comes after months of paralysis brought on by the assassination of opposition politician Mohamed Brahmi in July. The murder plunged Tunisia into months of protests and a standoff between the largely secular opposition and the ruling Islamist party, resolved only recently due to efforts led by civil society, especially the powerful UGTT labour union. It was the second assassination that year, following the killing of leftist leader Chokri Belaid in February. 

Violence has rattled the transition, with multiple attacks, including a suicide bombing, shocking the country. Homegrown extremists have propagated the instability and next door, chaos in Libya has made border security more difficult. Since last year, Tunisia’s armed forces have fought militants on Chaambi mountain along the country’s western border with Algeria. The military has suffered casualties and regularly reports arrests and killings of suspected militants in bombing and raids, although details are often hazy. 

Tunisia’s ‘terrorist’ group

On January 10, the US State Department declared Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST), a group with alleged ties to al-Qaeda, a “foreign terrorist organisation”. In an accompanying release, the State Department blamed AST for the September 2012 riot at the US embassy, where vandals burned embassy property and that of a nearby school. “Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, which is ideologically aligned with al-Qaeda and tied to its affiliates, including AQIM, represents the greatest threat to US interests in Tunisia,” the statement said.

The group was already banned by the Tunisian government. In May, lethal clashes with AST supporters pushed the government to declare AST illegal. After the assassination of Mohamed Brahmi, the government was pressured to further act against the group. In August, the Ministry of Interior declared AST a terrorist organisation, banning the group’s activities and beginning an active hunt for its members. 

Poor security and unstable politics are squeezing the nation’s economy. Improved living standards – one of the basic demands of Tunisia’s revolution – have not materialised for most Tunisians. The government has struggled to attract investment and create jobs while reforming public spending. 

“I have a decent income, and still I feel it’s not enough for me alone, let alone for someone with a family,” Hlaiem said. “The state’s duty is to help poor and middle-class citizens.” 

Protests erupt in Tunisia over poor conditions

Budget troubles

In what may have been his last major act as prime minister, Ali Laarayedh on Thursday suspended tax increases on vehicle registration set to take effect as part of the 2014 budget. The decision came after days of sometimes violent demonstrations over the budget in a number of interior cities. In the western city of Thala, which saw considerable violence during the revolution, rioters attacked police. In El Kef, also in the west, taxi drivers blocked roads to protest the tax increase. Budget-related riots have also spread to Tunis.

The budget, which cuts food subsidies and raises certain taxes, reflects reforms called for by the International Monetary Fund, which agreed to loan Tunisia $1.74bn in June. The IMF has delayed disbursements, saying Tunisia’s economic reforms, upon which the loan is contingent, have not kept pace. 

“There’s no doubt that Tunisia is in a financial noose,” Boualif said. “The West does not have much trust in Tunisia since Islamists took power. They do not trust these people.”

Unemployment continues to drive Tunisians’ simmering frustrations, especially among the youth. Roughly 35 percent of young people are jobless in Tunisia, compared to about 16 percent of the whole population. “Tunisians are fed up,” Imen Ben Ali, 22, told Al Jazeera. “Half of the factories have closed; there are no jobs.” 

The crisis is worse in the interior regions, which are deprived of the public and foreign investment that developed the coastal cities. It was, after all, in the central town of Sidi Bouzid where Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a local government building, overcome by police oppression and lack of opportunity – a grim act that led to Tunisia’s revolution. 

While many are bitter over the economy, Bouselmi urged patience. “The unemployment Tunisians have [long] experienced cannot be solved in one or two years. We should be united.”

Recent breakthroughs seem to have revived some Tunisians’ hopes for the future.

“When things get serious, I have confidence that people will put Tunisia’s interests first,” Hlaiem said. “The situation is foggy, but I have hope, and I do not regret protesting against Ben Ali.”

Source: Al Jazeera