Mideast

Dismal prospects shatter Tunisia’s democratic experiment

Protests over job shortages have been frequent in Tunisia since the uprising that overthrew dictator Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali, in 2011. Rising unemployment and falling living standards have fuelled disillusionment with the country’s democratic experiment among many Tunisians.

This, analysts say, explains the welcome received by Kais Saied, the populist president elected in 2019, who has since taken steps to increase his power through a new constitution voted in last month. Despite opposition warnings that it represented the final unravelling of Tunisia’s democracy, the charter was adopted by referendum on a turnout of 30 per cent amid widespread apathy.

“The absence of development has everything to do with this moment [Saied’s restoration of one-man rule],” says Monica Marks, Tunisia specialist and assistant professor at New York University Abu Dhabi. “It is not the whole story, but it is the biggest part of it.”

Since 2011, a succession of weak coalition governments has failed to deliver the jobs, or the improvements to state services and economic prospects, that Tunisians expected under a new democratic era. People in long-neglected inland provinces and the poorer neighbourhoods of coastal cities remain marginalised, facing high unemployment.

Tunisia’s President Kais Saied
Until President Kais Saied seized power, Tunisia had been seen as the only example of a successful democratic transition among Arab countries © Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

“Our demands have all been related to jobs and development,” says Khalifa Bouhawash, an unemployed university graduate and one of the leaders of the Kamour movement, which halted oil and gas production in 2017 and 2020 at the crucial Kamour plant in Tataouine, southern Tunisia, as part of a campaign for jobs.

This month, Tunisia hosts the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, led by the government of Japan and co-hosted by the World Bank and the African Union Commission. But Bouhawash notes: “Development here is very limited and the state of hospitals remains poor. Unemployment has grown and young men are migrating to Europe, leaving behind women, children and the old.”

Economic growth averaged just 1.8 per cent between 2011 and 2020, when it shrank 9.3 per cent because of the pandemic. Unemployment is averaging at 16.8 per cent, rising to 38.5 per cent among the under-25s. The value of the dinar has halved against the dollar since 2011 and inflation is at its highest level for more than 20 years.

A man stands by a Tunisian flag in front of tents in the desert, where a sit-in against the Kamour production plant took place
Protesters blockaded oil and gas production at Kamour in 2017 as part of a campaign for jobs © Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters

Although the country is already heavily indebted, the government, which subsidises bread and fuel for Tunisia’s population of 12mn, has said it needs an extra $7bn of financing this year.

Until Saied seized power, Tunisia had been seen as the only example of a successful democratic transition among the Arab countries that rose up against dictatorship in 2011.

Olfa Lamloum, Tunisia director of International Alert, a non-governmental peace-building organisation, says little has changed there in the past 10 years.

“The province of Kasserine, for instance, still has the three poorest districts in the country, where the poverty rate is above 50 per cent,” she says. “In Kasserine, Tataouine and Kairouan provinces, when the Covid crisis started, there wasn’t a single intensive-care bed or intensive-care specialist. In some parts of Kasserine town, unemployment is at 40 per cent among youths between 18 and 34.”

Bouhawash points out that the closest well-equipped hospital for anyone needing serious medical care in Tataouine is 250km away. “We produce 40 per cent of the country’s oil production, but there is no decent public hospital and, if you need an MRI, you have to travel to another province,” he says.

Protesters halted production at the Kamour plant for four months in 2020, only ending the blockade when the government agreed to provide work for 4,000 people, and loans to 120 others to buy livestock. But most of the jobs are temporary, in areas such as cleaning, security and gardening for public-sector companies.

Lamloum says such “precarious” low-paid work was also common under Ben Ali’s regime. “There was no break with the past,” she says. “These are structural problems that relate to social and regional inequalities and that require new development strategies, new public policies and a real redistribution of wealth.”

She says the temporary jobs “do not solve any problem” and are just aimed at soothing public anger. “Democracy is only real if it extends to social and economic areas,” she argues. “It’s not just about having elections every five years.”

Tunisian protesters speak with army personnel
Shutdown: protesters have twice halted production of oil and gas at the Kamour plant © Fathi Nasri/AFP/Getty Images

Marks and others are sceptical that Saied will be able to tackle the entrenched social and economic problems. He is seeking a loan from the IMF that will require austerity measures, which are likely to run into popular resistance.

Meeting expectations for jobs and development will be his “Achilles heel”, says Lamloum, pointing to the protests of the past decade.

Bouhawash, who was handed a two-year sentence by a military court for his role in the Kamour protests, says he aims to leave Tunisia once he has successfully appealed against the ruling.

“I know governing a country in these economic conditions is very difficult, but going back to one-man rule is even more dangerous,” he says. “To muzzle the press and every free voice will not be accepted by young people and the educated. They won’t accept it from their own fathers, let alone the state.”

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