Tunisia, Five Years Later: What’s Changed?

[Photo: VOA Photo/L. Bryant]
[Photo: VOA Photo/L. Bryant]
Five years ago, Tunisians – after weeks of anti-government protests following the self-immolation of fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi – succeeded in ousting dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. In the months that followed, similar unrest would spread across much of the Arab world, in what came to be known as the “Arab Spring.”

Since then, Tunisia has often been called “the lone bright spot of the Arab Spring,” a phrase that Western media has made the country’s unofficial tagline.[1] Yet there is a general sense of tired apprehension in the country. For such a young democracy, Tunisia is remarkably politics-weary. Nidaa Tounes (Call for Tunisia), the secular party of President Béji Caïd Essebsi, has headed a four-party coalition since winning the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2014. But the party is splintering from a lack of direction and the disillusionment of many members with an internal autocratic structure built around Essebsi and his son Hafedh.[2] In the callow world of Tunisian politics, Essebsi’s Nidaa has relied as much on its opposition to the Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) party as on any positive vision, and Ennahda’s participation in the coalition has denied Nidaa its raison d’être.

Meanwhile, insecurity has gutted the critical tourism industry,[3] linked to as many as one in five jobs in the country,[4] further saddling an otherwise anemic economy and driving nostalgic grumblings for the “good ol’ days” under Ben Ali. Among Tunisians, introspecting the strange phenomenon of longing for the formerly despised dictator forms a main topic of the country’s five-year review.

This nostalgia has been building for several years. A 2014 documentary, 7 Vies,The sentiment is most common among Tunisians over , while the youth who drove the revolution remain broadly anti-Ben Ali, relishing their freedom to post any and all ideas to social media, and their sense that they can bring about change by taking to the streets.[6] Dismissive of traditional news sources as tendentious, corrupt, or both, young Tunisians are turning to the Internet to get what they consider an unfiltered look at the state of the country.

Nawaat.org, a leader among such sites, offers content in Arabic, French, and English, indicating the cosmopolitan outlook of the cohort of young Tunisian activists who are its contributors. Its tagline captures the spirit of these youth: “Don’t hate the media, be the media.”  Such sources, while skeptical of Tunisia’s tyro class of politicians, would rather see Ben Ali return to Tunisia to serve time in prison than see him given further time in the presidency.

The lack of youth nostalgia for the deposed dictator is not an indication of faith in the current political establishment, nor of optimism for the future of the country: a recent Nawaat article raised the question of whether it was even worth voting, challenging Tunisians with a George Carlin quip: “People like to twist that around, but if you voted, you have no right to complain.”[7] The glut of unemployed recent college graduates was a major cause of the revolution,[8][9] and little has been done to release that pressure over the past five years.[10] Youth unemployment is estimated to hover around 30%, or twice the national average.[11] “They are all the same,” Osama, a 20-year-old business major, said of the parties in the governing coalition, though the coalition headed by the secular Nidaa Tounes includes the Islamist Ennahda party. Osama plans to spend a year studying in Moscow “to let things settle down,” but he does not anticipate improvement in the economic situation and believes that his future may lie in France. “Under Ben Ali, at least there was security,” Osama added, though he acknowledged that things could never return to the status quo ante.[12]

“In 2011, it was revealed that the emperor had no clothes,” observed Youssef Seddik, an esteemed Tunisian philosopher and anthropologist, in 7 Vies.[13] Ben Ali’s feared security apparatus, which reportedly comprised some 150,000 internal security agents (separate from the army) in a country of just under 11 million, was said to have infiltrated every neighborhood.[14] But he was revealed to be a paper tiger in the face of overwhelming popular anger. When army commander Rashid ben Ammar refused to commit his soldiers to crush the popular uprising in mid-January 2011, Ben Ali had nowhere left to turn.[15] For Ben Ali, a man whose name was synonymous with the security apparatus[16] – he served as Director of National Security and Interior Minister before taking the presidency from the infirm hands of the aged Habib Bourguiba in 1987,[17] – the revelation that his prize creation was ineffectual should have dealt a deathblow to his prestige.

And it has, in a sense. The longing that many Tunisians express for the security and stability of the Ben Ali era is notional, a nostalgia for a simpler bygone era rather than a true desire to see him reinstalled. Few Tunisians believe that Ben Ali, toppled by unarmed youth, could actually smother the well-armed Islamist insurgency that pesters the country’s security forces in the mountainous and desert reaches of southern and eastern Tunisia,[18] and occasionally lands dramatic blows on urban areas, such as Tunis’ Bardo Museum and the beach resort at Sousse. “Ben Ali could not put the security problems back in the box,” Osama concluded ruefully.[19]

At the heart of Tunisia’s security troubles is the chaos in neighboring Libya. Tunisian extremists easily cross the border to gain training and combat experience in the militia and ISIS-infested melée. Securing the 285-mile border against the importation of arms and explosives is a Sisyphean task for Tunisia’s overstretched security forces. The government has completed a moat and berm barrier that begins at the coast and stretches along the border for some 125 miles.[20] But smuggling across the border through official crossings is an essential economic activity in southern Tunisia, and weapons have found their way into the steady stream of goods – as evidenced by the government’s announcement last September that it had seized two vehicles laden with arms and explosives. The expansion in 2015 of the Libyan branch of ISIS is an even more sinister development for Tunisia’s security going forward, as radicalized young Tunisians enamored with the Islamic State’s ideology can gain training and inspiration right next door.

The chaos in neighboring Libya is a weight that sits on the collective conscience of Tunisia. There is a remarkable lack of triumphalism among Tunisians for the moment that this small country acted as the fulcrum for the entire Arab world. “We feel sorry for what other countries have suffered,” lamented Sihem, an architect in her thirties.[22] Educated Tunisians are acutely aware that their country enjoyed significant advantages over its regional counterparts, which made possible the compromises critical to its foray into democracy. Tunisia’s religiously homogenous population[23] is enriched by an active and broad-based civil society, and the army has a tradition of professionalism and political quiescence.[24] [25] The lack of one or more of these conditions contributed to the failure of revolutions and bloodshed in Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria.[26] Tunisians feel that they may have tempted their neighbors into moves that their societies were ill-prepared to process, creating only further frustration and violence.

It is this striking degree of national self-awareness and maturity that fosters optimism for Tunisia’s future. The mutterings of nostalgia for Ben Ali are fueled by immediate concerns over security and the economy, and while these issues will remain intractable in the near-term, there is a general recognition among Tunisians that the only path through these difficulties leads forward.

The democratic path, however, is beset by challenges from across the political spectrum. Short of the violent danger posed by Islamic extremists, secular Tunisians read into Ennahda’s willingness to subordinate itself to Nidaa Tounes in the current governing coalition an underhanded plan to dominate the next elections at the expense of the discredited secular parties, ushering in an Islamist political hegemon that may sooner or later reject the constraints of democracy. Ennahda, for its part, has reason to perceive in the nostalgia for Ben Ali a willingness among secular Tunisians to forgo civil liberties in exchange for a crackdown on Islamists, extreme and moderate alike, of the kind that Ben Ali launched in response to Islamist agitations at the time of the Gulf War.[27]

Countervailing these corrosive suspicions is an awareness among Tunisians of what is at stake. As they look around the region, they see spoiled hopes and scarring violence. It is this perspective that paved the way for the crucial compromises that defined the 2014 constitution. It is also this perspective that can keep the country united and moving forward.

References

[1]Joshua Keating, “Why was Tunisia the Only Arab Spring Country that Turned out Well?” Slate, January 28, 2015, http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2015/01/28/why_was_tunisia_the_only_arab_spring_country_that_turned_out_well.html.

[2] Sarah Mersch, “Rift in Tunisian Government Party Widens.” Deutsche Welle, January 14, 2016, http://www.dw.com/en/rift-in-tunisian-government-party-widens/a-18980902.

[3] Chris Stephen, “Tourists Desert Tunisia after June Terror Attack.” The Guardian, September 25, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/25/tourists-tunisia-june-terror-attack-economy-beach-hotel-sousse.

[4] Kenneth Perkins, A History of Modern Tunisia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 244-245.

[5] “Seven Lives,” a double entendre that refers to the Arabic saying that cats have seven lives, rather than the nine familiar in the West – as well as to a symbol of Ben Ali’s reign, which was inaugurated by a bloodless coup on November 7, 1987.

[6] 7 Vies, directed by Amine Boufaïed and Lilia Blaise (2014; Tunis: Antworks)

[7] “Should We Even Bother to Vote?” Nawaat.org, January 18, 2016, http://nawaat.org/portail/2016/01/18/should-we-even-bother-to-vote/.

[8] Perkins, History of Modern Tunisia, 218.

[9] Michael Mertaugh, “Republic of Tunisia, Second Higher Education Reform Support Project.” The World Bank, March 17, 2015, 18.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Stijn Broecke, “Youth Unemployment in Tunisia: The Need to Invest in and Activate Skills is Greater Than Ever.” Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, February 10, 2016, https://oecdskillsandwork.wordpress.com/2016/02/10/youth-unemployment-in-tunisia/.

[12] Interview with the author, Tunis, Tunisia, January 2016.

[13] 7 Vies, directed by Amine Boufaïed and Lilia Blaise.

[14] Clement Henry, “Tunisia’s Sweet Little Regime,” in Worst of the Worst: Dealing with Repressive and Rogue Nations, ed. Robert Rotberg (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2007), 301-302.

[15] Perkins, History of Modern Tunisia, 228.

[16] Ibid, 235.

[17] Ibid, 233.

[18] 7 Vies, directed by Amine Boufaïed and Lilia Blaise.

[19] Interview with the author, Tunis, Tunisia, January 2016.

[20] Tarek Amara, “Tunisia Finishes Libya Border Fence Intended to Keep out Militants.” Reuters, February 6, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-tunisia-security-idUSKCN0VF0VR.

[21] “Tūnis: 51 muᶜtaqalan biḥamla ḍidda al-mutashaddidīn,” alhayat.com, November 13, 2015, http://www.alhayat.com/Articles/12109059/

[22] Interview with the author, Tunis, Tunisia, January 2016.

[23] Tunisians are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, though there has never been an official tally.

[24] Perkins, History of Modern Tunisia, 228.

[25] Jason Brownlee, Tarek Masoud, and Andrew Reynolds, The Arab Spring: Pathways of Repression and Reform (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) 68-69.

[26] Brownlee, Masoud, and Reynolds, The Arab Spring, 214-215.

[27] Perkins, History of Modern Tunisia, 234-235.

[28] Sharia was not mentioned as a source of legislation for the country, while Article One declared Tunisia’s religion to be Islam.

 

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