Since 2011, the North African country has held free and fair elections on more than one occasion, seen incumbents peacefully step down, and – in a first for the region – pushed forward legislation to grant women equal inheritance rights.
But eight years after street protests forced Tunisia’s long-time authoritarian ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to step down, the economic malaise that prompted the popular uprising has anything but subsided, particularly in the historically marginalised southern and central regions.
“What can be described as a dramatic transformation at the political level has not translated into economic and social gains for the majority,” said Larbi Sadiki, a professor of political science at Qatar University.
“The shift from popular uprising to institutional politics has not been smooth and has benefited the few, various cliques, often at the expense of the immediate interests of citizens throughout Tunisia’s various regions.”
The scale of the regional imbalance in economic resources was evident in Ben Ali’s final budget prior to his January 2011 overthrow, which allocated a mere 18 percent of state funds to the country’s inner regions. The rest, 82 percent, went to the coastal towns.
In fact, such has been the traditional disparity between the industrialised coast and the north, and the rural southern and central areas that its easing was enshrined in Tunisia’s post-revolution constitution, which envisioned devolving some powers and economic resources to the neglected regions.
But the persisting inequality, coupled with rampant unemployment (estimated at more than 15 percent), and anger at the failure of successive governments, has repeatedly led many Tunisians in recent years to take their grievances to the streets.
Most recently, the apparent self-immolation of an underemployed photojournalist in the central city of Kasserine brought once again the country’s wide economic imbalance and the authorities’ response to it into sharp focus.
“I am going to set myself on fire,” 32-year-old Abderrazak Zorgui can be heard saying in a video shared on Facebook prior to his death last month.
“The government needs to take an interest in what’s happening in Kasserine… Are we not human in Kasserine?”
Like Mohamed Bouazizi, the young fruit vendor from the impoverished city of Sidi Bouzid who set himself on fire and triggered what later came to be known as the Jasmine Revolution, Zorgui hailed from a town that seemed to be neglected by the central authorities.
And while Zorgui’s brother has maintained the journalist was only trying to rally support for his cause, and that a gang of youth actually set him on fire against his will, acts of self-immolation have nevertheless witnessed a threefold increase in the period between 2011 and 2016.
Sarah Yerkes, a fellow at Carnegie’s Middle East programme, said the government has sought to implement policies aimed at reversing the imbalance.
“One of the pillars of the 2014 constitution is the concept of positive discrimination, which prioritises the traditionally disadvantaged regions,” Yerkes said.
“The problem is that the decentralisation process that will actually implement the policy of positive discrimination has been delayed multiple times.”
In May last year, after several postponements caused by a number of logistical and political hurdles, Tunisians finally headed to the polls to vote in the first free municipal elections since Ben Ali’s January 2011 overthrow.
Yerkes said local officials still lack the funds and adequate human resources to “carry out the projects and policies that will help bring the marginalised areas on par with the coast”.
Many question the feasibility of decentralisation, at least in the current challenging economic context, with international lenders pressuring Prime Minister Youssef Chahed to push ahead with unpopular reforms that include letting go of lossmaking state companies and cutting the public sector wage bill, which accounts for roughly half the national budget.
In an effort to boost the comepetitiveness of its exports and in line with recommendations by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) authorities have allowed the Tunisian dinar to depreciate.
But that policy hasn’t been without consequence.
As a result, those most vulnerable have been forced to accept exorbitant hikes in the price of basic commodities as the country turns to foreign markets to meet food shortages.
Tunisia’s import bill for the first eight months hit a record $13.9bn – a 20 percent increase compared with the previous year.
Meanwhile, the powerful UGTT labour union threatened to stage a nationwide strike on Thursday if its demands for higher wages for public sector workers are not met, putting Chahed in a difficult position.
The prime minister’s problems, however, don’t stop there.
An agricultural engineer by training, Chahed is at the heart of an ongoing dispute between President Beji Caid Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes and the Muslim democratic Ennahdha Party. The melee has already led to the end of the two parties’ partnership, which formed the nucleus of the national unity government.
The 43-year-old prime minister drew the ire of Essebsi, 92, after launching a crackdown on corruption that implicated prominent business people and officials from the Ben Ali era, an important component of the nonagenarian’s support base.
The implications of the “divorce” are not quite clear. Some analysts suggest it will lead to further fragmentation and polarisation of Tunisia’s political scene.
Others, more optimistic about the democratisation process, say the split is long overdue and allows parties to focus less on the politics of consensus and more on coming up with ideas and initiatives of their own.
Still, observers say tackling corruption remains a top priority.
On January 4, Transparency International denounced a request by the Tunisian foreign ministry to unfreeze the assets of Mohammed Marouen Mabrouk, a businessman and son-in-law of Ben Ali.
Youssef Belgacem, senior project manager at I Watch, Transparency International’s chapter in Tunisia, said the request was made “under instruction from Prime Minister Chahed”.
“With Mr Chahed seeking to launch a new political party one year before the elections in Tunisia, this request to unfreeze Mabrouk’s assets – out of nearly 50 sanctioned individuals – strongly suggests some kind of deal has been struck,” said Belgacem.
The government has already passed legislation aimed at rehabilitating members of the pre-revolution establishment.
One of President Essebsi’s first and few projects in 2015 was an administrative reconciliation law that grants amnesty to former Ben Ali officials.
Although watered down from its initial version, the legislation ignited controversy.
“This law is in essence part of the counter-revolutionary assault that Tunisians, as well as those in several other Arab countries, are struggling against,” said Noha Aboueldahab, a visiting fellow at Brookings Doha Center.
Sihem Ben Sedrine, the president of the Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD by its French acronym), a body set up in 2014 and charged with investigating crimes committed under president Habib Bourguiba (1957-1987) and Ben Ali (1987-1989) deplored a lack of cooperation on the part of Tunisia’s new kingmakers.
In March, the IVD, whose work includes recommending policies to strengthen state institutions and prevent corruption, saw its request to extend its mandate by another six months rejected by parliament.
Ben Sedrine contended that seeking approval from Tunisia’s popular assembly was not mandatory but merely a ceremonial procedure, prompting a debate over whether the legislature had any authority over the commission.
The issue could’ve been resolved swiftly with the intervention of the constitutional court, the establishment of which was supposed to take place no later than a year after the October 2014 parliamentary elections.
But more than four years since the date of its creation, none of the 12 judges has been appointed.
“Most were quick to label Tunisia’s transition as ‘smooth’, ‘a beacon of hope’, or even a ‘model’ for others in the region to follow,” Aboueldahab said.
“Such overly optimistic accounts have overlooked the gravity of continued socioeconomic injustice in Tunisia.”