The cradle of the ‘Arab Spring’, Tunisia’s 2011 Jasmine revolution secured a hard-fought democratic transition. However, unemployment rates remain high and frustration lingers as economic progress has yet to materialise.
On December 17, 2010, a twenty-six-year-old Tunisian fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi set fire to himself in protest outside a government office in the dreary centre-west town of Sidi Bouzid, after a policewoman humiliated him while confiscating his wares, claiming he had no permit to engage in street vending.
In a matter of days, his act of defiance set off a revolutionary movement that rippled across the Middle East and North Africa, toppling authoritarian regimes in what became popularly known as the ‘Arab Spring’.
On January 14, 2011, nationwide protests led by collective actions by workers ousted Tunisia’s long-serving autocratic president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in what was dubbed the Jasmine revolution. In Egypt, crowds forced Hosni Mubarak from power after three decades as president. Uprisings shook Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen.
Though its path to democracy has been far smoother than in places like Syria, Yemen and Libya – where bloody civil wars continue to this day – its economy has deteriorated and political leadership has been beset by paralysis.
Leila Bouazizi, Mohammed’s sister, admitted that the revolt that followed in 2011 has done little to substantially solve the economic issues that pushed her brother over the edge.
“Everyone thought the government would do something,” she said from Quebec, where she moved to study in 2013 and has lived ever since.
“Unfortunately, it did nothing,” she added, saying she was “very disappointed” in the outcome of the uprising, even though it brought down the country’s long-time ruler and installed a fragile democratic system.
She criticised the lack of solid measures to reform the country’s failing health system or fix its decrepit infrastructure. And despite some political progress, young people in marginalised regions such as Sidi Bouzid still face unemployment three times the national average.
With rising prices, stagnant incomes and few opportunities even for the highly educated, “the situation might even be worse now” than before the revolution, Leila said.
Democracy isn’t built in a day
Tunisia holds the distinction of being the sole democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring, and since 2011 there have been six elections across the country at the municipal, parliamentary and presidential levels.
Last autumn, the country’s second democratically elected president Kais Saied took over in peaceful transition of power after parliamentary elections came forward following the death of former president Beji Caid Essebsi.
What made the Tunisian experiment with democracy more effective in comparison to states like Egypt for example, was its powerful trade union confederation (UGTT) – which has long acted as a "third force" in Tunisian society – and a segment of its working class that maintained independence from the state.
It was nationwide strikes, pushed by the rank and file supported by UGTT, that eventually helped force a democratic transition.
But as history shows, democracy isn’t built overnight. The creation of a multi-party democracy across every governance level requires people who are trained to understand how democracy functions and to build a resilient institutional infrastructure, something that the Centre des Etudes Mediterraneennes et Internationales (CEMI), a Tunis-based research institute that focuses on democratisation, is attempting to do.
Economic angst persists
While now able to freely choose their leaders and publicly criticise the state, many Tunisians remain dissatisfied that the democratic process is yet to yield the socio-economic advancements they expected, leaving them as angry as they were a decade ago.
Since 2011, outbursts of popular rebellion demanding jobs and economic development have erupted periodically.
Most recently this year, while celebrating the ninth anniversary since Ben Ali’s ouster on January 14 in Tunis, several hundreds gathered in the square in front of UGTT headquarters, chanting “Work! Freedom! Dignity!” – suggesting those goals have not yet been achieved.
UGTT secretary-general Nouredinne Taboubi addressed the crowd, lamenting the lack of progress since the start of Tunisia’s democratic transition and said: “The revolution will go on until the real republic has been established.”
Mongi Merzgui, secretary general of the national union of sanitation workers, mirrored those same concerns: “I’m really disappointed…we have freedom of expression, but that can’t create jobs or feed us.”
The OECD’s 2018 Economic Survey of Tunisia confirms those anxieties: economic conditions haven't drastically improved for the country’s youth and women, especially in the western and southern regions.
Real wages across most sectors have declined, while annual GDP growth has hovered around 1.7 percent since 2011. Capital investment has sagged, the national unemployment rate is over 15 percent and youth unemployment is at 30 percent.
Furthermore, a $2.9 billion IMF loan in 2016 pushed a wage freeze and devaluation of the Tunisian dinar, which drove inflation up to an annual rate of 7.6 percent by 2018.
Added to that was the collapse of the phosphate mining industry, the country’s largest source of income, which was severely impacted by the revolution. Before 2011, it was producing 8 million tonnes annually, making it the world’s fifth largest phosphate exporter.
Following the Jasmine revolution in 2011 and in part to persistent labour disputes, mining output drastically fell by over 50 percent, hitting rock bottom by 2018. While phosphate production still accounts for around 2 percent of Tunisia’s GDP, the industry’s struggles have been emblematic of the country’s structural issues.
As swathes of the country’s marginalised fail to realise any material improvement in their livelihoods, many are illegally trying to leave the country and attempting dangerous sea crossings to Europe, while alienated and jobless youth are increasingly lured by extremist recruiting.
Not to mention dozens of young people have continued to set themselves alight every year since the revolution began – a misery that lingers a decade following Bouazizi’s fatal act of defiance – and indicates that despair is far from being alleviated.