How is the Tunisian revolution going?
Two years after the exodus of dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the revolution is a work in progress, marred by violence and accusations of political sabotage and human rights violations, but no doubt blessed with freedoms never enjoyed before.
The ruling Islamist party, Ennahadha, claims that the country is already a functioning democracy that needs a few more tweaks to get right. The secular opposition parties claim that the Tunisia’s Arab Spring has stalled because the Islamists, in their view, are bent on setting up a theocracy.
What is certain is that the Tunisian revolution has been an economic dud for the millions of poor people in the regions beyond the buzzy capital, Tunis. While the country is no longer officially in recession, growth is so weak that the jobless rate continues to rise.
Nationally, the unemployment rate is about 18 per cent, but it is double that in some of the regions. Mohamed Mselmi, joint secretary-general of the UGTT, the country’s biggest union, with 850,000 members, says some of the poorest regions suffer from 80-per-cent unemployment.
The cruel irony is that the Tunisian revolution started in the regions but it is the regions that have yet to benefit from it. “There is a feeling that the revolution has been stolen from them,” he said through an interpreter this week.
The crucial moment in the revolution came on Dec. 17, 2010, when Mohammed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Sidi Bouzid, deep in Tunisia’s arid interior, set himself on fire in protest of his never-ending humiliation and harassment by the police and municipal officials. Mass protests and riots broke out, killing some 300 Tunisians, and the Arab Spring was suddenly rolling. Mr. Ben Ali loaded his jet with treasure and fled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, 2011.
The revolution shut down businesses, killed off tourism and scared off foreign investors. The economy fell off a cliff in 2011 and unemployment soared. The worst seems to be over, but not for those in the regions, where the people are angry and bitter. “The political and social malaise has notably worsened this year , and an increasing number of Tunisians feel that the government has betrayed the ideals of the revolution,” the Economist Intelligence Unit said in a report published earlier this month.
The (few) employed and the unemployed are starting to fight back, away from the eyes of the international media. The UGTT in late November called a general strike, one that turned violent in the city of Siliana, in Tunisia’s northern interior. About 200 protesters were injured in clashes with police, resulting in a United Nations report that criticized the security forces for heavy-handed behaviour. The strike was called off on Dec. 2, the day after the local governor, an appointee of the ruling Islamist party, agreed to resign. “The issues highlighted in Siliana are present throughout the country – especially the deprived interior regions – and so sporadic outbreaks of violence are likely to continue,” the Economist said.
Indeed, Tunisia saw more violence this week when another strike called by the UGTT, this time in the country’s northwest, turned ugly. The police station was attacked and crowds were dispersed with tear gas. “If this situation does not improve, the people who revolted against Ben Ali will revolt against this government,” said Mr. Mselmi, who says his union has always played a highly political role in Tunisia’s affairs.
For the unemployed, things are bound to get worse before they get better. Tunisia has entered political limbo. The drafting of the constitution is long overdue and, until it is finished, the elections that had been scheduled for June will not happen. In the meantime, the non-Islamist parties and businesses run by secular Tunisians are complaining of harassment, some of it violent, from the ultra-orthodox Salafist movement and the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution. Set up to protect neighbourhoods during the revolution, the leagues are the Islamist parties’ small roving armies of thuggish enforcers, according to the secular opposition parties.
The Tunisian revolution can never be considered a true success – even if it creates an all-inclusive democracy – unless it lifts the country’s standard of living . If the economy fails, and the regions erupt in violence, as some have, the message to the rest of the Arab Spring nations – Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain – is that freedom to vote does not necessarily come with economic freedom.
“We have to succeed,” says Mohsen Marzouk, a senior official and human rights activist in Tunisia’s main opposition party, Nidaa Tounes. “If we succeed, it will have a domino effect on the whole Arab Spring region.”