Tunisia: Arab Spring turning into winter

Tunisia is the sole Arab state to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring as a partial democracy but is failing to deliver on the demands of young revolutionaries: "Work, Freedom and Social Justice." Instead, the government has stuck to the economic agenda of the neo-liberal West and its institutional lenders which have, over the decades, reduced developing countries to paupers.

Since the beginning of the year, Tunisians have taken to the streets to protest against austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund as conditions for a $2.9 billion loan. The measures impact the country's poor and working class by raising prices on essential goods, cutting public sector jobs and increasing sales tax.

The authorities have responded to demonstrations with repression and arrests as they did before the Arab Spring. While the government has pledged $70 million to support the poor, the sum is too small to meet their needs. What is required is a total overhaul of the country's economy, focusing on development and providing for the redistribution of wealth. The majority of the 11 million Tunisians are still waiting for the "revolution" they expected when they took to the streets in late 2010.

Seven years after the fall of Tunisia's second dictator Zein al-Abidin bin Ali, citizens continue to struggle against the inequities of the system, established when the country gained independence from France in 1956 with Habib Bourguiba as dictator. He strove to propel his country into the 20th century by adopting secular laws, introducing equality for women, and promoting development, particularly in tourism and exports. Although his reign was progressive, it was also repressive.

Bourguiba was overthrown in 1987 in a bloodless coup by bin Ali, who adopted Western-style economics by privatising state assets, natural resources and public institutions without accepting Western-style democracy, leaving the populace struggling against corruption, low wages, and high inflation. Bin Ali's family benefitted from the system by securing control of one-third of the economy.

In late 2011, Muhammad Bouazizi, a vegetable vendor harassed by the police, set himself alight in protest against soaring unemployment and the lack of freedom. His cause was taken up by Tunisia's youth, whose mass revolt was bolstered by the country's powerful trade union.

Following bin Ali's flight, Tunisia's exiled opposition leaders returned home. Among them was Rashid Ghannouchi, head of the moderately fundamentalist Ennahda Party, which won the first free parliamentary election and elevated a secular liberal to the presidency and shared power with the pre-revolutionary elite. Subsequently, a power struggle among Ennahda, liberals, and leftists has produced nine governments in seven years, economic stagnation and rising frustration among the youth.

In a recent interview, Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui said the country is "not yet a democracy... We are on the path of reaching a democratic system where transparency and the rule of law will be respected." However, the transition to democracy has been slow and uncertain. The authorities have focused on the deteriorating economic situation at the expense of the democratisation of the political system.

Youth unemployment brought down autocratic bin Ali and remains the greatest challenge to his democratic successors. Although Tunisia has some ingredients of economic success - an educated middle class, skilled labour, Mediterranean location, and access to European markets - Tunisians have been unable to profit from these assets.

This has driven many young men into the arms of IS, al-Qaeda and other radical groups and prompted them to travel to the killing fields of Syria and Iraq and mount terrorist attacks in Tunisia and Europe. The collapse of IS in Syria and Iraq has prompted surviving Tunisian fighters to return home where they are ticking time bombs.

It is significant that deeply disappointed and frustrated Tunisians accounted for the largest number of recruits joining IS. Today, al-Qaeda appears to be reviving in the country, particularly since the neighbouring Algerian authorities have cracked down hard on this and other jihadi organisations, driving militants across the border into neighbouring Tunisia.

Meanwhile, thousands of Tunisians, mainly young men, are hiring smugglers to convey them in leaky boats from their country's shores to Europe where they hope to find jobs and a decent living. Among the tens of thousands who made the perilous journey last year were an estimated 50 jihadis and 544 unaccompanied minors.  

While the clear and present danger of terrorist attacks continues to threaten the country's tourism sector, Europeans have resumed vacationing at Tunisian coastal resorts, forgetting the 38 victims of a gunman at Sousse and the 21 killed at the Bardo museum in Tunis in 2015.

Tunisia seeks to attract eight million tourists this year, the majority from Europe. If realised, this number would exceed the pre-attacks figure of 7.1 million. Tourism, however, reinforces resentments felt by young Tunisians who see wealthy Europeans sitting on beaches enjoying themselves while locals have no jobs and little hope for a decent future.

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