Five years that transformed the Middle East: What went right, how it’s gone wrong and why it got so ugly
On Monday morning, the Tunisian government shortened the curfew imposed last Tuesday, saying the security situation had stabilised. The North African state has witnessed a tumultuous 10 days.
On January 14, Ridha Yahyaoui, a young man from Kasserine, a small town in the country’s interior, committed suicide – by electrocuting himself – in desperation over his economic plight. Over the next two days, protests in solidarity with Yahyaoui spread to the nearby towns of Siliana, Kairouan, and Sidi Bouzid (where in December 2010, the street vendor Mohamed Boazizi had set himself on fire).
The demonstrations spread to 16 governorates and eventually to the capital Tunis. On January 16, after a day of clashes, the government declared a curfew – in addition to the state of emergency imposed in mid-November after a deadly bus bombing in the capital.
Aware that it was protests in southern Tunisia, and subsequent unrest nationwide, that triggered the downfall of the Zain Abidin government in January 2011, the Tunisian government this time struck a sympathetic tone.
“These protests are legitimate and evidence that Tunisia respects its constitution,” said the president, Beji Caid Essebsi, though he added. “We understand these movements, but they should not be exaggerated.”
First Arab democracy
Tunisia is often hailed as the first Arab democracy, the lone success of the Arab Spring. The Nobel Peace Prize of 2015 was awarded to the coterie of lawyers, activists and politicians who negotiated the transition.
In Tunisia, the Ennahda Movement’s strategic decision to allow hundreds of Ben Ali regime officials to participate in the political process ended a dangerous political gridlock and allowed for a peaceful transition (in contrast to Egypt, where former Mubarak officials, excluded from government, helped launch the counter-revolution that toppled the Morsi government). Ennahda lost the 2014 election to Nidaa Tunis, a secularist party, that includes officials from the ancien regime.
The North African state has thus had to turn to its colonial master for assistance.
What the recent unrest shows, however, is that while Tunisia’s political transition may have been skillfully orchestrated, economic policy has not been as prudent. Inequality remains dangerously steep. Inflation rates have been high – one young activist quips that “all we got out of this uprising was inflation”.
Unemployment is at 15 percent – with a third of jobless youth being university graduates. The country’s tourism, a critical source of revenue, has been reeling from multiple attacks, claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, including an assault on the Bado National Museum last March, that left 22 dead.
Economic disaffection has led to strikes and sit-ins. In 2015, 64,000 teachers went on strike, and protests by workers in southern Tunisia in May 2015 in four towns brought phosphate production, a major export, to a standstill.
The urban centres along Tunisia’s northern coast have since the colonial days been more developed than areas inland.
“Unemployment exists everywhere in Tunisia, with a rate of 15 percent, but why is it 10 percent higher in Kasserine?” tweeted Mohamed Haddad, a Tunis-based reporter. “Why is life expectancy at birth seven years lower in Kasserine than in the capital?”
Residents of these marginalised areas claim to have seen little improvement since Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was deposed. On December 17, 2011 – on the first anniversary of Bouazizi’s death – Tunisian politicians visited Sidi Bouzid, promising jobs and development projects. A year later, the President Moncef Marzouki was heckled off stage and had rocks thrown at him.
What is striking about this latest wave of unrest is that even the police – who are the frontline in the fight against Islamic militants – have joined in, with police officers marching yesterday on the presidential palace demanding higher wages.
“We are looking to improve our situation like other sectors, especially as we are the frontline in defending the country,” Chokri Hamada, a police union spokesman, told Reuters. “We don’t have any trust in the government after all their promises.”
The government has indeed issued conflicting statements. On Wednesday, the prime minister’s office announced that 5,000 new public sector jobs would be created. But Zied Ladhari, the employment minister, swiftly rejected this statement, claiming the government was unable to provide thousands of public sector jobs.
With revenue from tourism dwindling, and little financial support coming from the Gulf states – who are unhappy with the Ennahda movement and the ruling secular coalition – the Tunisian government has found itself turning to the West for economic assistance.
In May 2015, Essebsi visited Washington, and the State Department reiterated its call to Congress to double US assistance to Tunisia to $138m to promote economic development and greater security. Congress approved an aid package of $50m, with most of the funds earmarked for improving security along the Libyan border.
The North African state has thus had to turn to its colonial master for assistance. On Friday, Francois Hollande said that France would provide one billion euros ($1.1bn) in aid to Tunisia over a five-year period, “to help poor regions and young people [with a focus] on employment”.
After the November 13 attacks in Paris, French authorities are wary of violent extremism among North African youth – and a number of French public figures have called openly for greater French support for the Tunisian government.
While meeting with Hollande, Habib Essid, the Tunisian prime minister, said that the situation in Tunisia was “under control”; but then he told French media: “We have no magic wand to solve the unemployment problem.”
Hisham Aidi is a Harlem-based writer. He teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.