Today marks the seventh anniversary of the fall of Tunisia’s dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But instead of celebrating, Tunisians are out in the streets again. What went wrong?
The dictatorship established in the 1950s, which morphed into a police state in the later decades, banned politics and pushed citizens away from their country’s public affairs. The Tunisian revolution swept away that closure and created the Tunisian homo-politicus. Since January 2011, Tunisians have become incredibly politicised and the political system has been opened to all. Yet what the Revolution did not do was create a Tunisian homo-economicus. The Tunisian economy remained mismanaged.
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Anger boiled over when the political opening reached its limits and that mismanagement was no longer tolerable.
In fact, the economic situation has worsened since 2011. The country’s public debt jumped from 39.2 percent of the GDP in 2010 to 60.6 percent in 2016. The Tunisian dinar, the local currency, lost around 40 percent of its value to the US dollar. Unemployment persisted, especially among youth (around 35 percent now).
The prices of basic goods have been continually rising. Tunisians of all walks of life complain that their living conditions are deteriorating and that they are unable to make ends meet each month.
This is the main trigger of today’s protests. And in a way, it was also the trigger of most of the demonstrations the country has witnessed for the past seven years. What sparked this wave of protests is the finance law which came into effect on January 1. The parliament passed the law last year and although it was discussed in the media, it did not catch the public’s eye. It was only when prices went up that people paid attention.
A group of mostly young activists launched a protest campaign against the law called “Fech Nestanaou” (What are we waiting for?). They were a few dozens whose means were limited to tags on walls and distributing tracts. The police, unreformed and still working with the Ben Ali-era methods, harassed, brutalised and arrested (briefly) many of them. A smear campaign against the movement followed.
But because of the latent anger, many people went out demonstrating, independently from “Fech Nestanaou”. Leftist political groups, some of them with anarchist tendencies, joined the movement as well. Protests spread in the streets of Tunis, Sfax, Jebeniana, Sousse, and other cities across the country. Criminal elements managed to take advantage of the situation and there were incidents of looting in some areas.
A political elite without a people
This latest crisis comes amid a larger one which has gripped the country since the fall of Ben Ali’s regime.
The elections of 2014 elevated two winners: centrist party Nidaa Tounes and the Islamist Ennahdha. Nidaa Tounes, whose political campaign was built on countering Ennahdha, accepted to form an alliance with the latter.
This led to a general disappointment among the party grassroots and a wave of resignations ensued. Then, when the party leader Beji Caid Essebsi left the party to become president of Tunisia, a succession crisis erupted and the party felt apart.
The alliance was, therefore, from the beginning, a weak one and based on mistrust. The “consensus”, which was mainly the result of agreements between Caid Essebsi and Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi, could not go deep into the constituencies of the two parties. It remained purely nominal. Ministers and members of parliament were disconnected from their bases and many laws and measures they passed reflected their self-interest and had limited reach.
But while weakened as a political party, Nidaa Tounes remained symbolically strong. For many “secular” Tunisians, it is the secular alternative to Ennahdha. For members of the Tunisian bureaucracy, it is the old state-party. For the international community, it is the “modernist” facade of Tunisia. As for Ennahdha’s leadership, fearing the local and global hostility towards Islamism, Nidaa Tounes was a good smokescreen in which to hide. The “consensus”, as dysfunctional as it is, remains the best alternative for two exhausted enemies.
Therefore, when the Parliament examined the finance law drafted by the government and largely inspired by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), there was very little opposition among the “consensus” MPs. They voted for the law, but they did not defend it in public and could not present it to their constituencies.
Additionally, due to disagreements between Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and the leadership of the political parties within his coalition government, communication about the finance law and its implementation was limited. His relationship with the president is also said to be rather dysfunctional, which adds another level to the existing deep-rooted crisis.
Empty political promises
The finance law was, furthermore, a blow to many Nidaa Tounes voters’ expectations. During the 2014 electoral campaign, Nidaa Tounes rallied its supporters with the promise not only to counter the Islamist Ennahdha, but also to strengthen the state. Its followers saw in this promise the comeback of the strong state as it was under Tunisia’s nationalist leader Habib Bourguiba (in power 1956-1987). They imagined an idealised past, where the state would provide jobs, subsidies, social security and so on, coming back.
Likewise, expectations were high among those who voted for Ennahdha; many were expecting better distribution of wealth, social welfare and more social projects. In reality, however, the Nidaa-Tounes-Ennahda government gradually applied austerity measures, decreased subsidies and limited public-sector employment.
This situation has been repeating since 2011. Economic problems lead to popular anger. Popular anger leads to popular revolt. Political parties exploit that anger to gain power by means of false promises, and then fail to alleviate the economic problems. It is a vicious circle.
Solving the current crisis will not be easy. The angry citizens will hardly accept another series of promises. Suspending the finance law may help calm the streets, but it will slow down the economy even more. The government might be sacked and Caid Essebsi and Ghannouchi might agree on appointing another prime minister, but that would mean perpetuating the vicious cycle.
Moreover, this dead-end may bring back the old practices from the dictatorship era and trigger the rebuilding of the police state. The UN OHCHR and Amnesty International have recently warned the Tunisian governments against such attempts.
There is, therefore, an urgency to find a solution, perhaps by forming a government of technocrats similar to the one that led the country to its 2014 elections in order to organise the May 2018 local elections and the late 2019 legislative and presidential elections.
The country’s hope is that these elections will bring in fresh blood and different, more representative and able politicians.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.