Eight years after the Arab Spring, Tunisia still has work to do

Originally Published in the December 2019 Journal, Breaking the Silence, Pg. 6

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although the current discourse touts Tunisia’s success in the Arab Spring, the nation’s recent election results have proved this narrative to be an oversimplification. While the 2011 movement did lead to the ousting of longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the implementation of democratic reforms, Tunisia’s democratically elected leaders have failed to fix many of the systemic issues which plagued Tunisia under Ben Ali, including corruption and economic weaknesses. Political outsider Kaïs Saïed’s landslide victory in the 2019 presidential election highlights the animosity many Tunisians have for the nation's current ruling class, and indicates that many citizens remain deeply disgruntled with their reformed government. In a broader sense, the 2019 election calls into question whether the Arab Spring really reformed Tunisia’s underlying socio-political structures thoroughly enough to ensure the long-term change which Tunisian citizens demanded.

While the Arab Spring was unsuccessful throughout most of North Africa, Tunisia initially appeared to be the lone exception. Propelled by massive protests, the movement pressured Ben Ali, who had been in office since 1987, into giving up power. Initially, he promised free elections after the end of his term, although he soon abdicated power and fled the country weeks later. Having successfully enacted the mechanisms for creating a democratic government, the nation held its first elections of the post-Ben Ali era later in 2011.

However, a great portion of political discourse in Tunisia’s democratic era has focused not on addressing economic or social concerns, but rather on continuously debating the role of Islam in the nation’s governance. The debate began immediately after the initial 2011 elections, when the Ennahda Movement, an Islamist party modeled after the Egyptian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, won a plurality of seats. Initially, the Ennahda Party stood as a beacon of hope for Tunisians. The party was largely free from any of the elites who had worked with the Ben Ali regime, a phenomenon which helped propel them to victory. However, after forming their government, Ennahda attempted to implement a host of Islamist policies, much to the dismay of rival secularist parties, some of whom were even in Ennahda’s governing coalition. In the years since the 2011 election, both Ennahda and their primary secular rivals, the Nidaa Tounes Party, have failed to address the major, underlying problems which still plague Tunisia, and the political establishments of both wings are now seen as self-serving and inept.

This anger was reflected in the 2019 Presidential vote, which saw unheralded anti-establishment candidates perform exceptionally well. Kaïs Saïed, a law professor and center-right candidate, came in first with 19 percent of the vote while running a distinctly anti-establishment campaign; Saïed is not affiliated with any political party. Nabil Karoui, a media tycoon and fellow outsider, came in second with 15.5 percent of the vote, despite currently being held in jail on corruption charges. Meanwhile, Ennahda’s candidate, Abdelfattah Mourou, finished third. In the runoff election between Saïed and Karoui, Saïed won the presidency with a commanding 72.7 percent of the vote.

Saïed’s successes highlight the Tunisian democracy’s general inability to grapple with major political issues, most pointedly corruption and economic stagnation. Corruption has been an issue in Tunisian politics for decades, and large-scale corruption was a central feature of the Ben Ali regime; he famously used government connections to further his personal wealth. Unfortunately for Tunisians, there are signs the nation has become more corrupt since the installation of a democratic government. Although the Tunisian parliament has successfully passed several anti-corruption measures which, in theory, equip the government to fight this issue, there are many auxiliary problems which have not been effectively ironed out, hindering these efforts. First, there is the growing scope of corruption: under Ben Ali, the entire government was highly centralized, so corrupt practices were largely carried out by and for his inner circle’s personal benefit. However, democracy has decentralized the government, making corruption harder to track down and stymie efficiently. Additionally, while Ben Ali was successfully forced from office, many corrupt government officials who benefitted from his reign were left unpunished, allowing them to act with impunity. This low turnover has spawned another problem for the Tunisian government, which is divided over whether to focus on prosecuting individuals who were major players under the Ben Ali regime, or on corrupt businessman who have risen to prominence since the creation of the democratic government in 2011. These problems are all compounded by the selling off of lucrative assets to members of the business elite by Ben Ali in 2011, who created an informal economic oligarchy to maintain power.

In tandem with corruption, Tunisia suffers from economic stagnation. Since the start of the 21st century, Tunisia’s unemployment rate has never dropped below 10 percent, and today it stands at 15.5 percent. Additionally, annual economic growth is equivalent to population growth, leading to very few opportunities for wage increases. These problems are even more pronounced among young Tunisians, for whom the unemployment rate is currently 34.8 percent, never falling below 30 percent since the revolution in 2011. This is coupled with government bureaucracies which are often underfunded and cannot provide for their workers, which ties back to corruption; since a great deal of business occurs off the books, it remains largely untaxed, preventing the government from raising revenue.

Extensive corruption and economic stagnation suggest that Tunisia’s democratic government is unable to effectively handle some of the problems which contributed to widespread discontent with Ben Ali to begin with. Although Tunisia’s government is naturally better structured and more transparent today than it ever was under Ben Ali, the Tunisian revolution is still a work in progress. Thanks in large part to the failure of any major parties to address these problems in the democratic era, a sense of frustration is palpable among Tunisian citizens.

For many Tunisians, Saïed represents a potential manifestation of the 2011 revolution’s goals. Citizens see him not as part of the political machine which has governed Tunisia since the revolution, but rather as an outsider who is willing to stand up for the people and fight corruption. This feeling was particularly prevalent among young Tunisians, 90 percent of whom voted for Saïed. Whether Saïed will be able to realize the goals of the 2011 revolution or not is unclear, but what is clear is that Tunisians feel there is still substantial work to be done.

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