Tunisia’s Decade of Democracy

Ten years after the Arab Spring, Tunisians are discovering that political reform alone isn’t enough.

Tunisians wave national flags to mark the fifth anniversary of the 2011 revolution on Jan. 14, 2016.
Tunisians wave national flags to mark the fifth anniversary of the 2011 revolution on Jan. 14, 2016. Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

On Dec. 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street vendor in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, poured a bottle of gasoline over his head and body and set himself on fire. The act came after his goods and cart were confiscated by municipal officers and he was refused a meeting by the local governor. He died from his burns a few weeks later.

His wasn’t the first self-immolation in North Africa that year, but his act of desolation resonated with millions of other young Tunisians who, like him, lacked stable jobs and lived meager existences under the autocratic rule of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. They took to the streets in protest until Ben Ali’s 23-year rule collapsed and he was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia the next month. Bouazizi’s lonely gesture changed the course of Tunisia and the Middle East at large. But a decade later, the same flames that killed him burn today. And in Tunisia, they risk incinerating so many of the positive changes that emerged out of that singularly violent event.

Bouazizi’s self-immolation sparked unrest across the region, leading to uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the Gulf. Compared to the misery and conflict that visited other countries shaken by his gesture, Tunisia has moved toward a notably better future. But the standard by which political transitions are measured—especially those that put an end to autocratic regimes—should be higher than simply avoiding civil war or the clutches of an even worse despot. Yes, Tunisia has become a democracy. But if this is the only criterion that counts, then the victory will always be a fragile one.

After decades of being tucked away in a corner, billed as one of the Arab region’s most stable and socially progressive nations, Tunisia has gotten a bitter taste of the tragedies that have stalked other Middle Eastern countries for generations through its own revolution. At times throughout the country’s strenuous transition into democracy, it has seemed that the same forces that were unleashed by the revolution might swallow it.

Since 2011, for example, Tunisians have endured substantial economic turmoil. They have witnessed political assassinations and become familiar with the recurring threat of terrorism. Corruption, previously confined to the highest spheres of power, seems to have infected most levels of society. On the mountainous regions along Tunisia’s border with Algeria, Islamist insurgent groups—affiliated with the Islamic State and al Qaeda—have waged a low-level insurgency, killing scores of security personnel and civilians. Multiple short-lived and mostly ineffective governments since 2011 have stalled economic and political reform. In fact, Tunisian lawmakers are so rarely in agreement that a few of them got into a physical fight in parliament just last week. It was a new low for an already discredited body, prompting public calls for the president, Kais Saied, to dissolve the assembly.

But embedded in the seemingly endless chaos of the past decade, daily life has continued. A constitutional assembly was voted in by Tunisians and approved a new constitution that allowed for long sought-after freedoms. Fair and largely peaceful elections have let Tunisians choose new presidents, national deputies, and local officials. Power has alternated between religiously inspired politicians and secular parties, and when this tight balance risked toppling completely, calls for consensus were heeded and the country moved forward. The army, initially weak and unexperienced, has been an apolitical force of stability in a country surrounded by volatility. When President Beji Caid Essebsi died in office in the summer of 2019, the new constitution kicked into gear and allowed for a procedural transition period and new presidential elections. Through all of its trials, the country has traded a dictatorship for a parliamentary system and swapped the orderly artificiality of a police state for the jumbled cacophony of a dynamic society

Despite these achievements, something critical has been missing. Revolution and political freedoms have not brought economic equality. Government debt increased from 41 percent in 2010 to over 70 percent in 2019. Unemployment grew from 12 percent to 15 percent over the same period. In the southern regions, where lack of jobs affects 30 percent of the population in some towns, clashes between protesters and police often paralyze economic activity. And this was before COVID-19. The global pandemic, albeit an exceptional occurrence, is expected to shrink the economy by 7 percent this year and double Tunisia’s budget deficit to 14 percent in 2020, its highest level in almost 40 years. This will only add to existing strain.

It is this pressure, the daily toll of struggling to make ends meet, that many Tunisians associate with the past 10 years. Unsurprisingly, it is not uncommon to meet many who are unashamedly nostalgic for the orderly years of Ben Ali. The same rage that pushed Bouazizi to the brink 10 years ago has festered in many corners of society, encouraging many other Tunisians to rebel in their own ways. Those who can, attempt to emigrate abroad in search of a better life. Many have joined the ranks of the estimated 20,000 migrants who have died since 2014 trying to cross the Mediterranean, according to figures from the United Nations. Others have sought extremist groups at home or abroad. The majority of the disenchanted, a whole generation of them, are still waiting for things to get better, hoping that the events of 2011 will translate to more than a new government system, freedom of expression, and changed street names.

Ten years after Bouazizi’s death and the disorder it unleashed, it is up to Tunisians to decide whether or not it was all worth it. If there is one thing that the country’s transition underscores—especially in this age of renewed authoritarianism—is that political freedom without economic opportunity amounts to little in the long term.

Francisco Serrano is a writer and emerging-markets analyst.

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