The light has dimmed in Tunisia’s shining beacon
One of Tunisia’s many jobless graduates detonated a home-made suicide bomb in the capital last month. This was not a Daesh attack, it was a desperate and tragic act and an important reminder to politicians and government about what is at stake in this young democracy.
One of the most remarkable achievements of the ill-fated “Arab Spring” was the relative success Tunisia had in transforming its society despite extreme mistrust, heightened polarization and surging terror-related incidents. It was neither a bloody civil war nor protracted negotiations that brought an end to the two-decade Ben Ali regime. It was the careful work of pragmatic politicians and their skillful consensus-building that kept Tunisia far from conflict, beginning a new era of what should have been transparent, accountable, responsible and inclusive government.
Now, however, that ray of optimism is all but faded. Each new iteration of government, each new appointment to the highest offices in the land and every scandal or controversy has failed to impress Tunisians and external observers. The highest echelons of power that should be knee-deep in crafting and implementing crucial reforms seem more content with political squabbling and infighting. These controversies make light of the positive achievements of post-2011 Tunisia, such as free and fair elections in 2011 and 2014, which even the defeated parties accepted cordially, as well as the pursuit of transitional justice. All of it is rendered meaningless when precious political capital and will is spent on cloak-and-dagger maneuvering, strategic positioning and re-alignment in preparation for the 2019 presidential election. This is the root cause of the testy relationship between President Beji Caid Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.
The even more troubling aspect to the tension in Tunis’s corridors of power is that the worsening economic situation (and its underlying causes) are now fodder in this mudslinging. Meanwhile, mass street protests have become a daily occurrence, rising from 1,000 protests to more than 11,000 between 2014 and 2017. Even more alarming, despite Tunisia’s relative economic stability and better standards of living than MENA counterparts, in 2018 about 4,000 Tunisians boarded migrant boats headed for Europe. The cause of the protests and forced migration are the stubbornly high unemployment rate, with 1 in 3 youths unemployed and most underemployed due to skills mismatch or lack of better options. Inflation remains high, peaking at nearly 8 percent in half-year 2018. Combined with the prospect of mass layoffs in order to reduce public wages that comprise 14 percent of GDP for fiscal year 2019, at the behest of the IMF, a nasty trifecta is seemingly conspiring to grind Tunisia to a halt.
Tunisia needs leadership and the kind of consensus-building that can stabilize the country and energize its economy.
Chahed announced this week his Cabinet line-up, which included an Israeli-Tunisian Minister of Tourism, in the hopes that it would inspire much-needed change and place Tunisia on the path to economic recovery. What Tunisia needs now are wide-reaching reforms starting with rationalizing its public budget, cutting the 690,000 strong public services and immediately privatizing most of the government’s holdings.
Tunisia needs leadership and the kind of consensus-building that can stabilize the country and energize its economy. After all, the biggest obstacle to achieving most of the reforms that the IMF requires to disburse more funds run counter to the Tunisian General Labor Union. In fact, a civil service strike is planned for this month to oppose any austerity measures the government may pursue in order to improve the economy. If labor unions are opposed to the reforms that are needed to improve the fortunes of its myriad members, the buck stops at the government’s door to reach out and make these influential organizations a part of the process. The same applies to addressing the chronically high youth unemployment that was a catalyst for the 2011 protests.
No amount of cabinet reshuffling or political musical chairs will deliver what Tunisians desperately need. If anything, the municipal elections with their dismal voter participation numbers have already demonstrated that any faith or confidence in Prime Minister Chahed’s government and President Essebsi’s leadership is largely gone. Only a third of eligible voters cast a ballot in the municipal elections, continuing a trend of decreasing voter turnout that began in 2014.
Short of a miracle or radical maneuvering, the Tunisian electorate is likely to remain in torpor, uninterested and increasingly at odds with what was supposed to be a new era and a shining beacon to the rest of the Arab world.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.