Tunisia’s politicians have failed the country’s citizens

Tunisia’s politicians have failed the country’s citizens

A man holds a loaf of bread in his hand during a nationwide strike against the government’s refusal to raise wages, in Tunis. (Reuters)

Tunisians recently commemorated two events that took place about eight years ago: The self-immolation of street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi in December 2010, and the subsequent departure in January 2011 of its long-serving president, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, in the face of widespread popular protests ignited by Bouazizi’s action. 
But there were no national celebrations to mark these momentous developments. In December, the eighth anniversary of Bouazizi’s death saw large-scale street protests by “les gilets rouges” (red vests), Tunisia’s own version of France’s yellow vests. In January, the former president’s departure was commemorated by a national strike called by the Tunisian General Labour Union, which disrupted the country’s transport sector, airports, banks and schools. Both events reflect a deep nationwide dissatisfaction, even despair.
The “gilets rouges” agitators submitted to the government a 22-point list of demands including: A minimum wage, better living standards and employment opportunities, and significant improvements in national education, health, transport and infrastructure. The strikers demanded massive salary increases for the country’s 670,000 government employees. The union has warned of more strikes in the coming weeks if its demands are not met.
The revolution that brought a democratic constitution to Tunisia, several political parties, free elections, anti-corruption laws and a Truth and Dignity Commission does not, eight years later, evoke much euphoria among its nationals. The country instead presents an image of squabbling and venal politicians and deep economic malaise.
While Tunisia’s economic growth was a good 2.8 percent in 2017, as against 1.2 percent in 2016, the employment situation, the principal source of national grievance, remains parlous: Unemployment nationally is over 15 percent, but it is twice that for the educated. This has fed the country’s informal sector that now provides about half of the national gross domestic product. Surveys have shown that 72 percent of the people believe the economy is “bad,” while 60 percent think that 2018 was worse than the previous year. Other surveys have shown that the people are not impressed with the government’s efforts to combat corruption. 

Much of the blame lies with the country’s politicians, who have prioritized self-interest over national concerns.

Talmiz Ahmad

Economic failure has had horrendous consequences: The country is gripped by brain drain, with 100,000 educated youths having left Tunisia over the last eight years. More seriously, there has been a spurt in illegal migration by sea — Tunisia has outstripped Eritrea as the largest source of illegal migration to Europe. 
While over 4,000 people had crossed over to Europe by August 2018, another 6,300 were stopped by government authorities, and at least 1,700 drowned in 2017 and another 1,600 in 2018. The distinguished commentator Larbi Sadiki has noted poignantly that, in expressing anger and defiance, Bouazizi resorted to fire, while the migrants are turning to water.
The demonstrators spearheading the Tunisian revolution had demanded work, freedom and national dignity. Very little of this has been achieved.
Much of the blame lies with the country’s politicians, who have prioritized self-interest over national concerns. Central to the scenario is the ongoing feud between 92-year old President Beji Caid Essebsi and his prime minister, 43-year old Youssef Chahed. 
Essebsi, a veteran politician from the days of Habib Bourgiba, headed the ruling Nidaa Tounes party until his elevation to president in 2014. Since then, his son Hafedh has been seeking power and influence in competition with the popular prime minister. Hafedh engineered Chahed’s suspension from the party on the grounds that he had failed to revive the economy, but only succeeded in dividing his own party. Chahed obtained a majority in parliament with the help of the Islamist party, Ennahda, headed by Rachid Ghannouchi, and some small groups. 
Chahed attempted to maintain his popularity with a Cabinet reshuffle in November last year that brought in some attractive personalities. He then set out his economic vision, which envisages high growth, massive public investment and the reform and modernization of government functioning.
But this vision carries little conviction with a populace that is buffeted by high taxes, inflation and unemployment. The government took a $2.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund and is therefore subject to its rules relating to controlling the budget deficit and public expenditure, which have led to tax increases. 
Popular disenchantment with national politics was revealed by the low turnout of just 33 percent in the recent municipal elections and the fact that “independents” got the highest number of votes — 32 percent.
The agenda to take the country forward and fulfill the dreams of the revolution include initiatives to address the national socioeconomic malaise: Attending to the immediate needs of those at the bottom of the economic ladder, revamping the education and training systems, implementing tax reforms, upgrading infrastructure, realizing the national knowledge economy, and implementing a comprehensive ease of doing business programs.
These initiatives need to be government-driven, but it is here that politicians have failed the citizens. The latter have responded with protests — there were more than 700 in November last year. Sadiki has spoken of the impermanence of government and the “permanence of protest.”

  • Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.
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