The mass protests that followed the Jan 2018 commemorations of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia have proved that that country is facing a new revolt. Tunisia is known not only for the ruins of Carthage and sea resorts. After 2011, that small North African state acquired the reputation of the birthplace of the Arab Spring, a movement that has changed the Arab world unrecognizably. And now too, that country may give rise to a new wave of political and social shocks.
Once again, it smells of jasmine in Tunisia. In Jan 2018, the commemorations of the fall of Ben Ali’s regime in 2011 grew into mass protests against unemployment and corruption and the authorities that are not able or are just reluctant to solve those problems. Just like in 2011, the demonstrations started in villages and small towns and spread over to big cities and the capital. They were not the first protests since 2011, but this time, initially peaceful, they ended in furious clashes with the police.
The pretext for the protests was the government’s law raising VAT on many food products and imposing a new 1% social tax on businessmen and companies. The authorities are cutting their expenses in hope to be able to cut the budget deficit. They are denying jobs to jobseekers, encouraging old employees to retire and freezing wages in the public sector. Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef al-Shahed has promised his people that the difficulties will not last for more than a year.
The law has already pushed up food and fuel prices, and this is just the tip of the iceberg: the rest of it is years of bitter disappointment with the work of the previous governments (there have been as many as nine of them since 2011). The major disappointment is the inability of the government to give jobs to hundreds of thousands of young Tunisians.
As a result, seven years after the Jasmine Revolution, the Tunisians want new changes. Just like seven years ago, the authorities decided to be tough. They sent police and even armed forces to stop the demonstrators. As a result, one man was killed, dozens were injured and over 800 arrested – quite a lot for a country with a population of 11,000,000 people.
Tunisia is not only the birthplace of the Arab Spring. It is the only Arab state where that movement has succeeded: de facto, Tunisia has established democracy, unlike the other revolting states, which have either fallen prey to civil wars or gone back to dictatorship. And even though Tunisia’s road to democracy was not all smooth, western mass media preferred reporting only the smooth parts. This is why, the West was surprised to see new protests in Tunisia.
The current events are very much like the Jasmine Revolution: the key force is the youth and the slogans are quite radical, like “Employ us or kill us!”
One of the protesting groups called “What are we waiting for?” seeks to revive the spirit of the Jasmine Revolution and its basic slogans: employment, freedom and dignity.
Youth is a dangerous thing
Today even the most venturous experts are playing it safe: they just say that the chances for a new Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia are high. There are lots of reasons for them to be worried about Tunisia’s future: a huge army of jobless people, stumbling economy, very high inflation and very low national currency rate, thriving corruption and tourism declining because of high extremist activity. But not everything is bad: Richard Cincotta, the director of the Global Political Demography Program at the Stimson Center, says that one of the best things about Tunisia is its slowly ageing population.
“The link between liberal democracy and [a country’s] age structure – the balance between young and old – is political demography’s most tested relationship,” Cincotta says.
According to Observer, years of studying this link had prompted him to predict in 2008, three years before Ben Ali’s fall, that a North African nation would become a stable democracy in little over a decade, with Tunisia the most likely candidate.
The policies of Ben Ali and his predecessor Habib Bourguiba encouraged women into education and work, helping to push down the number of children in most families. As a result, the Tunisian population is slowly getting older, with an average age of nearly 30.
It is no coincidence that this matches the point at which countries including Portugal, Taiwan and Chile made their shifts into democracy, and makes Cincotta cautiously optimistic that Tunisia’s new constitution will survive even the latest unrest.
“No one can be certain of Tunisia’s future as a democracy. However, political demographers are betting that [a collapse of the democratic system] won’t happen, or that if it does backslide, Tunisia’s government will soon restore its democratic institutions,” Cincotta says.
He notes that as age structure matures, countries tend to encounter fewer years of civil conflict. Demonstrations may occur. “Governments may be unpopular. However, civil war is statistically uncommon in countries that experience a median age over 26 years,” the demographer says.
For the other Arab states, where the average age is lower than in Tunisia, the future is not as bright. The average age of the Egyptians, the Syrians and the Yemenis is 20. Youths were the driver of the Arab Spring. But they have also proved that stability is a very volatile thing, especially after the fall of an autocratic regimes. Even if Yemen and Syria manage to put an end to their civil wars, they will face years of political and social instability.
Besides, stability does not always mean democracy. China is also stable. The key threat to democracy in Tunisia is very high unemployment rate among young Tunisians. This very problem was one of the sparkles that kindled the Jasmine Revolution. Today we see that nothing has changed.
Over the last seven years, most of the headlines about Tunisia have been about changed regimes and extremist attacks. The Jasmine Revolution had three basic goals: freedom, employment and dignity. For most of the Tunisians, only one of the goals has been achieved - freedom. As regards employment, there are so many jobless graduates in Tunisia that they have even created a union for protecting own rights.
According to the head of the union Salem Ayari, as many as 900,000 Tunisians are seeking jobs for the moment and almost half of them are young people with certificates and diplomas. Today this figure is twice as high as it was in 2011.
The key factor that took people to the streets was the authorities’ failure to keep their post-revolution promises to reform the economy.
Ayari hopes that the January demonstrations will force the Tunisian leaders to focus on political and economic reforms. While democracy in Tunisia thrived, economy staggered. As a result, today the middle class is poorer than it was under Ben Ali. Corruption and red tape prevent enterprising people from opening own businesses. The education system is no longer able to serve the economy and prefers training public servants while companies need engineers.
But even public servants are on tenterhooks. After the Jasmine Revolution, the authorities tried to keep their promises. As many as 80,000 people were given temporary jobs. But nothing has changed in their lives since then: they still work without leaves for just $100-120 a month and are constantly afraid of losing their jobs. Unemployment is especially high in villages and small towns, where employed is only each tenth resident despite general secondary education and a whole army of youths with university diplomas.
The other nine jobless men have nothing else to do but to sit in cafes and to make plans, but those plans are hardly practicable under existing circumstances.
One more big problem is Islamic radicalism. Tunisia is the biggest supplier of Jihadists to Syria. According to the local authorities, as many as 28,000 Tunisians have tried to join different extremist groups since Mar 2013. Almost 3,000 of them have managed to get to trouble spots, 900 men have been trained how to wage Jihad and have gone back home. Some of them have already hit a heavy blow on Tunisia’s tourist sector: in Mar 2015, a group of extremists attacked the Bardo National Museum and just three months later, an armed man shot down 38 tourists in Sousse.
But not all young Tunisians want to be terrorists. Many of them are dreaming of emigrating to Europe.
In the meantime, those in the streets want the authorities to actually fight corruption. In the framework of their “new Tunisia” program, in Sept 2017, the Tunisian parliament adopted a law amnestying people imprisoned for corruption, particularly, some of Ben Ali’s men.
The protesters also want the authorities to invest more money in young people wishing to have their own businesses. One of their requirements is a tax reform that will make rich people and companies pay more. The Tunisian authorities say that the new law was adopted under the pressure of the IMF, who promised them new loans. But that law will hardly benefit young people. The examples of some of Tunisia’s neighbors show what a government’s inability to solve youths’ problems often results in growing extremism, emigration and chaos…
Myths and sober reality
Of course, the West is also to blame for Tunisia’s current problems. In 2014, the western community welcomed the country’s peaceful transition from despotism to multiparty democracy, a new constitution and truly competitive elections. It was then that the western politicians qualified Tunisia’s transitional model as unique.
In the same way, they praised Ben Ali for protecting women’s rights while they closed their eyes to his actions against human rights. The Tunisian leader enjoyed the patronage of Paris and Brussels, who kept applauding him for turning Tunisia into “a stronghold of stability and peace.”
Today the Tunisian authorities are using the same idea for convincing their people that drastic reforms are dangerous for stability and progress.
Their fiscal austerity policy is very much like the policy of Ben Ali. Today, just like in early 2000s, this IMF-sponsored policy has caused mass poverty in Tunisia.
The West’s compliments about Tunisia’s “uniqueness” encouraged the new Tunisian authorities into not only avoiding reforms but also going back to the times of Ben Ali. Today the Tunisian MPs are considering a law authorizing the police to act toughly. If approved, it will free law enforcers from any responsibility for the use of arms. Even more, the law even prohibits anybody from criticizing the police.
The European mass media are aware of this but keep praising Tunisia for its stability. They ignore the country’s social and political problems and the protests they regularly cause. They prefer news about the opening of an LGBT radio station or initiatives to let Tunisian women marry non-Muslims.
In 2014, a poll by Arab Transformations showed that the hopes of the Jasmine revolutionaries had quickly turned into fury about alternating governments and their inability to carry out economic reforms and to create new jobs. Quite unexpectedly, during that poll, as many as 11.5% of the Tunisians said that their country was democratic against 14% saying that it was ruled by a dictator regime. The key problems were corruption and unemployment. The Tunisians did not believe their leaders – be they political or religious. Most of them said that their economy was worse than it was in 2010. They were afraid of terrorism. As many as 60% of the youths were focused on finding a job. Today things are no better.
Polls by Arab Barometer and Arab Reform Initiative have shown that the Tunisians have become even more disappointed. Before the revolution, the IMF commended Ben Ali for his economic liberalism but the consequence of that policy was high unemployment.
Last year, the IMF suspended its $2.8bn credit line and required the Tunisian authorities to be even more economical. All that resulted in a law on higher taxes and protest actions.
The G8 summit that took place in Deauville in May 2011 gave start to the Tunisians’ problems. The world’s eight biggest states discussed with Turkey, the Gulf monarchies, the IMF and the World Bank how to react to the Arab Spring. They used the instability in revolution-stricken Arab states for imposing their requirements on them. Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Yemen and Egypt were offered big loans in exchange for neo-liberal reforms.
As a result of those reforms, Tunisia’s debt grew to 71% of GDP in 2017 against 41% in 2010. In 2018, the country will have to spend 22% of its total expenses on paying foreign credit interests.
In 2012 and 2016, Tunisia received two IMF loans against promises to cut its budget deficit and expenses.
“As long as Tunisia continues these deals with the IMF, we will continue our struggle. We believe that the IMF and the interests of people are contradictory,” one of the leaders of the protest movement Warda Atig said.
Tunisia’s stability and uniqueness are a myth. Though facing no civil war, Tunisia has proved unable to solve the problems that provoked the Jasmine Revolution. The Tunisians want wider political freedoms and rights. The Tunisian authorities’ decision to suppress the protests have made things even worse. The consequences can be very different: either a new revolution or return to dictatorship. And this is the key lesson of the Arab Spring...
The Tunisian authorities have managed to calm down the protesters by promising them support for the poor. But this looks more like a lull before the storm. On Jan 21, the police were forced to dispel demonstrations in the towns of Metlaoui and Mdihla.
“Tunisia is at a crossroads,” said Messaoud Romdhani, a veteran campaigner against Ben Ali and president of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights. “We need to keep the pressure up, most of our social and economic rights have not been delivered.”