When Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi petitioned his local municipality to get his vending license back after a predatory police officer took it away, he had neither the funds for “baksheesh” (a bribe) nor the appropriate “wasta” (connections), so he was dismissed. As he left the building in anguish, he had a simple cry: “How do you expect me to make a living?”
What Bouazizi did next has become familiar to us all by now: He went home and retrieved a canister of gasoline, then stood before the municipal building and set himself on fire. When young Tunisians heard of this extraordinary act of self-immolation, they understood Bouazizi’s rage.
Many young Tunisians operating in the informal economy were one illness or one police confrontation away from near economic ruin. And they were the lucky ones, who had some means of making a living. Other young Tunisians were frustrated by the lack of opportunities, the corruption of the ruling elite, and the impunity of local police and other officials. So, in Bouazizi’s hometown of Sidi Bouzid and beyond, they took to the streets, battling police, federal authorities and history.
Impossibly and improbably, the Tunisian autocrat Zine El-Abedine Ben Ali departed the country in early 2011 without much of a fight. Seven years later, Tunisia is widely credited in the West as one of the “success” stories of the so-called Arab Spring, owing mainly to its relative freedom in the political sphere.
Indeed, in 2015 the Nobel Peace Prize Committee awarded its highest honor to the group of Tunisian civil society actors known as the National Quartet Dialogue for “its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia.”
Tunisians themselves, however, could be forgiven if they are having a hard time enjoying their “success.” The economy is stagnant, youth unemployment stands at 30 percent, inflation remains stubbornly high, foreign currency reserves have hit an all-time low, corruption remains rampant in business and politics, and their democracy has given them nine governments in seven years with roughly the same meager economic outcomes.Bouazizi’s cri de coeur — “how am I supposed to make a living?” — remains as relevant today, if not more so, than on the eve of the Jasmine Revolution.
Last month, Tunisians took to the streets to protest a series of austerity measures imposed by the government, including taxes on gasoline, some food items, phone cards, and internet access, among other things. The government is tightening its belt to staunch its fiscal bleeding after the IMF urged it to cut its deficits and control debt and inflation. The deteriorating economic situation has left many Tunisians deeply conflicted about their revolution. Indeed, in a Pew poll taken last year, Tunisians proved to be among the most pessimistic in the world. When asked if life was better today or 50 years ago, a full 60 percent opted for the past.
Nation can win all the plaudits in the world for its democratic transition, but it will not amount to much if the country cannot get its financial house in order.
Tunisia’s growth sputtered at 2 percent in 2017, up from a feeble 1 percent the year before. With figures like these, Tunisia can hardly meet its most pressing short-term and long-term challenge: Youth unemployment. If there is one lesson we all learned from the Arab uprisings, it is that large swathes of unemployed and underemployed young males pose systemic threats to existing orders. Beyond the politics, however, persistent unemployment represents a great squandering of a nation’s potential, and millions of individual tragedies.
So what must be done? The IMF has pointed to Tunisia’s bloated public sector as a key drag on growth. It is right about that, but austerity measures and continued economic deterioration threaten to create another generation of Bouazizi's living on the edge, scraping by, seeing their potential squandered.
What’s needed today is the same kind of pragmatic and far-sighted thinking that went into the creation of the National Quartet Dialogue. In fact, the same actors that came together to support Tunisia’s democratic transition — the trade and labor unions, the business and industry groups, human rights organizations, and lawyers syndicates — should demonstrate the same unity and resolve to tackle Tunisia’s economic woes.Tunisia has many of the foundational elements required for economic success: A sophisticated and literate middle class, skilled labor, enviable commercial geography on the Mediterranean, and easy access to European markets. Continued political instability and terrorist attacks have combined to spook foreign investors. Europe’s slow post-financial crisis recovery has also hurt Tunisia, as more than three-quarters of its exports head to the continent.
Europe’s economies have now recovered better than many expected; this recovery presents an opportunity for Tunisian exporters, from aerospace parts manufacturers to handicrafts makers. European political leaders should continue to integrate Tunisia broadly into their trading networks and push harder for completion of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) agreement with Tunisia. If Europe wants fewer migrants turning up on its shores, it needs more prosperity in North Africa. The DCFTA would support this goal.
Tunisia can win all the plaudits in the world for its democratic transition, but it will not amount to much if the country cannot get its economic house in order. And we have learned that instability in one country or region rarely stays contained: Our world is far too interconnected for that.
Afshin Molavi is the co-director of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact. He is also a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.Twitter: @AfshinMolavi