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Tunisia, Democracy, and an Arab Winter: Where are we now?

By: Martin Sigalow January 17th marked the two year anniversary of the conclusion of the Tunisian Revolution, an event which sparked a chain reaction of democratic uprisings across the Middle East. As mixed as the results of this “Arab Spring” were for the stability of the region as a whole, Tunisia’s revolution seemed to be uncontroversially a good thing: the transition to a coalition democratic government from the rule of autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was relatively peaceful and contained. Many predicted great success for this fledgling democratic, relatively secular country.

In defiance of these predictions, however, the current situation in Tunisia is hardly better than it was two years ago, almost as if the number of expert forecasts made about a political situation does not causally determine the situation to occur as predicted. The situation in Tunisia today is quite dire, and will deteriorate further unless action is taken. Two specific factors, the economy and the state of the civil/political environment, are illustrative of this general trend.

The Tunisian economy, despite being market in name, has failed to deliver the proverbial or, indeed, physical goods. This issue is of overwhelming importance since it touches the lives of the everyday Tunisian citizen. Both Standard and Poor’s and Fitch, financial rating agencies, have significantly downgraded the status of Tunisia’s economy, and for good reason. Inflation is rampant, causing soaring food and housing prices. Aggregate real wages, though, are not rising fast enough across the population to compensate for this effect, because employment is declining faster. Tunisia boasts almost 20 percent general unemployment now, as well as 50 percent employment for highly educated young people. The latter issue has cultivated a desire to leave the country in many educated Tunisians, which has the potential to cause a brain drain effect that might exacerbate Tunisia’s already acute economic situation.[1]

There are many possible explanations for the source of Tunisia’s economic maladies. First, the appearance of an enormous black market in Tunisia following regime collapse has stymied economic growth. It is estimated that the size of the black market in Tunisia is ten times the revenue of countries on the stock exchange and constitutes as much as 30 percent of overall GDP. This black market prevents money from circulating back into the legitimate economy because of diffusion to other regions, which causes monetary inputs into the economy to have a drastically diminished effect on stimulating consumption. The black market also crowds out other legitimate businesses by being subject to extra-legal rules for production, which prevents long term industry growth across Tunisia. Additionally, two of Tunisia’s biggest sources of revenue - tourism and exports from Europe - significantly diminished due to factors beyond Tunisian control, such as the Eurozone crisis. As a result, the industries that might have seen improvement and advanced the state of the economy were the hardest hit.[2]

In other news, the fledgling coalition government of Tunisia seems incapable of soaring to the heights expected by its avian fellows. Few significant reforms have occurred since the coalition government was in its inception. Tunisia’s temporary government was intended originally to be, well, temporary. Instead, it appears that it has established 2020 plans as if it was a real government with authority. This government still has established neither formal constitutional procedures for voting nor commissions to deal with judicial issues, despite two years of promising to do so. [3] Instead of meaningful reforms, the interim government seems content to make token promises and sign political accords the public has no interest in.[4] Women’s rights issues, similarly, have not even achieved token progress. Failure to establish a constitution has crippled attempts at enshrining meaningful reforms. In the meantime, there are reports that instances of polygamy are not uncommon, and laws have been passed to restrict the movement of women at night. [5]

Tunisia also suffers from elements of civil unrest that are or might become violent. A very short time ago, the government renewed the official state of emergency in Tunisia because of armed terrorist attacks and fighting with extremists. [6] Domestic Islamist extremists, called the Salafists, have created an explosive atmosphere of intimidation, contributing to violence in public places such as theatres. They have engaged in periodic spurts of violence, including a attack on an American Embassy which killed four people.[7] Furthermore, impressions of gross governmental incompetence might contribute to additional violence. High profile events that hint at the distrust and discomfort of the Tunisian people include protests, which sometimes lead to clashes with police, as well as instances where the prime minister was bombarded with stones and tomatoes at public meetings where he was extolling the benefits of a free Tunisia. According to some Tunisian analysts, the Tunisian people are particularly likely to turn their frustrations into violence.[8] This can be shown both analytically and empirically: the Tunisian people have come off the backs of an armed revolution quite a short time ago, and armed clashes that have already occurred between governmental authorities and the people themselves over impressions of governmental incompetence.[9]

The Tunisian Arab Spring seems to have been a break in the weather pattern rather than a climatic shift. The situation in Tunisia seems now to be quite frigid, which is particularly unfortunate for the Tunisians, whose comprehensive economic strategy I can only deduce must have been to pick money from trees. Only a transition to an effective constitutional government which is competent enough to solve economic issues can stop violence and economic unrest from continuing. The best to hope for is that some flavor of revelation can melt the glacial pace of reform in Tunisia before the Artic melts completely. If that happens, the only hope for Tunisians will be for them to climb as high as possible to the top of the mound of discarded constitution drafts and hope the tidal wave gets the extremists before it gets you.


[1] Pearlstine, Norman, and El-Tablawy, Tareky, “Tunisia's Transition to Democracy Is Sputtering,” Businessweek, 1-10-2013, accessed 1-30-2013, http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-01-10/tunisias-transition-to-democracy-is-sputtering

[2] Pearlstine, Norman, and El-Tablawy, Tareky, “Tunisia's Transition to Democracy Is Sputtering,” Businessweek, 1-10-2013, accessed 1-30-2013, http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-01-10/tunisias-transition-to-democracy-is-sputtering

[3] Hlaoui, Noureddine, “Is the Tunisian Revolution Sinking?” Al-Monitor, 1-18-2013, accessed 1-30-2013, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/politics/2013/01/two-years-after-tunisian-revolution-is-the-ship-sinking.html

[4] Lebbar, Sabah, “Tunisia, a Revolution that Kindled Frustration not Hopes,” The North Africa Post, 1-20-2013, accessed 1-30-2013, http://www.northafricapost.com/2282-tunisia-a-revolution-that-kindled-frustrations-not-hopes.html

[5] Alabaster, Olivia, “Despite Setbacks, Women’s Rights Activists Press Forward,” the Daily Star, 1-28-2013, accessed 1-30-2013, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2013/Jan-28/203988-despite-setbacks-womens-rights-activists-press-for.ashx#axzz2JUZR0W5G

[6] The Daily Star, “Tunisia renews state of emergency,” The Daily Star, January 31, 2013, accessed January 31, 2013, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2013/Feb-01/204546-tunisia-renews-state-of-emergency.ashx#axzz2JbWQkYVg

[7] Reguly, Eric, “Tunisia’s Revolution Fraying at the Edges,” The Globe and Mail, 1-26-2013, Accessed 1-30-2013, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/tunisias-revolution-fraying-at-the-edges/article7892309/

[8] Lebbar, Sabah, “Tunisia, a Revolution that Kindled Frustration not Hopes,” The North Africa Post, 1-20-2013, accessed 1-30-2013, http://www.northafricapost.com/2282-tunisia-a-revolution-that-kindled-frustrations-not-hopes.html

[9] Lebbar, Sabah, “Tunisia, a Revolution that Kindled Frustration not Hopes,” The North Africa Post, 1-20-2013, accessed 1-30-2013, http://www.northafricapost.com/2282-tunisia-a-revolution-that-kindled-frustrations-not-hopes.html

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