Tunisia: The Arab Spring’s only success story?

By Kit Roberts

IN 2011, street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated in the street to protest against falling standards of living. 

This moment went on to spark widespread protests – known as Al-Thawra Al-yaazmeen, or the Jasmine Revolution – in his native Tunisia, which ultimately spread to neighbouring Libya, then Egypt, and to Syria.

Longstanding governments which had been in place for decades came crashing down, whilst others went to increasingly extreme lengths to maintain their grip on power.

This was politics of extreme consequences. The gruesome fate of deposed dictators spurred their neighbours on to hunker down behind an ever expanding shield of state-sponsored violence. 

The violence and instability fed itself, forcing millions to abandon their homes and flee. The humanitarian crises continue, with refugees – forced by abhorrent EU policy – taking increasingly risky measures to escape. 

Over ten years has passed since this extraordinary moment, and Redaction Politics will explore how these events unfolded, and they continue to affect four countries at their centre.

In our first piece, we will go back to the very beginning to Tunisia, the literal spark that began everything.

Tunisia, despite many difficulties after the deposition of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has ultimately proven to be a rare success story in the Arab Spring. It now has a relatively stable pluralist democracy with an established written constitution – no small feat. 

Many even believed Tunisia to be the only country which has seen any real success from the Arab Spring.

Nonetheless, it is not as rosy as it might first appear. There remain large problems with freedom of expression and a socially conservative streak which creates significant problems for progressive policy and human rights. 

Ten years on, Covid-19 has crippled the country’s tourism industry and caused a severe economic downturn.

The Associated Press has reported that the pandemic has increased unemployment in Tunisia from 15 to 18 percent, with its GDP shrinking by by 9 percent in 2020, and a staggering one third of young people now unemployed. 

So far, Tunisia has recorded 180,090 cases and 5,692 deaths from the virus. 

The combination of years of political paralysis as the fledgling democracy finds its feet and the severe economic repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic have also led to riots erupting in many Tunisian cities, with tear gas being used and over 600 protestors reported to have been arrested. 

Unfortunately, the Tunisian economy was not performing even before the pandemic, with critics of the government highlighting that the newly formed democracy has so far failed to undo the years of division and inequality that plagued the country under El Abidine. 

Many remain frustrated that so little appears to have changed for most Tunisians. 21-year-old Wadii Jelassi, involved in one of the enduring images of the revolution, is now embittered by the apparent lack of change, telling France24: “Ten years after the revolution, nothing has happened. 

“In fact, it’s the opposite. We’re poorer and even more marginalised. There’s more unhappiness, the country’s heading for the wall. The powerful are still stealing from us.”

Parliament itself is not beyond unrest. Last December a violent brawl broke out between representatives of Tunisia’s parties during a session of the women’s committee, which left one person unconscious. Four MPs have since undertaken a hunger strike in protest.

But despite the frustrating paralysis and behaviour in parliament, the institutions created in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution have already survived multiple political crises, including terrorist attacks and assassinations. 

The biggest challenge so far to the newly formed democracy came in 2013, when several high profile political figures were assassinated, including leftist leader Mohamed Brahmi. The ensuing political crisis resulted in the self-described “moderate islamist” Ennahda Movement stepping down from the governing coalition.

The Ennahda Movement caused significant problems with Tunisia’s cultural distaste for mixing religion and politics. Despite describing itself as ‘moderate’, there were nonetheless accusations of connections to Egypt’s more hardline Muslim Brotherhood. 

Thanks in large part to the efforts of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a formation of four civil societies including the General Labour Union, the Confederation of Industry, the Order of Lawyers, and the Human Rights League, a constitutional settlement was passed on February 10 2014. 

The Quartet was even awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts in creating a written constitution for Tunisia. 

Given the state of other Arab Spring nations, including neighbouring Libya, the endurance of the newly formed state, though still carrying the deep set inequality and an unsettling strain of social conservatism, may represent the first step towards a functioning democracy. 

The terror of dictatorship is no longer hanging over the people, emboldening people not only to activism, but to try and enter politics themselves.

There still remain significant challenges. A worrying trend of attacks on freedom of speech is increasing in the country, and many socially conservative ideals continue to dominate political discourse. 

Nonetheless, in comparison to other principle participants in the Arab Spring, it is difficult to see Tunisia’s result as an outright failure. The rare successes following the Jasmine Revolution, are a starting point that must meet the next generation of economic and political challenges. 

Featured Image: Pixabay

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