Tunisia , Five Years Later
Written By Guillaume Decina-Halmi
While there was much talk about Tunisia during the Arab spring uprisings of 2011, public interest has declined since, with said uprisings turning into civil wars in Syria and Libya. Today Tunisia is at a turning point in its history, and may well become a beacon of democracy shining through the Arab world, or fail to overcome the various challenges it faces today.
Tunisia’s problems aren’t all that new; while ISIS rose in Libya in 2015, filling the power vacuum left after the overthrow of Gaddafi and thereby becoming a Tunisian security issue, corruption and poverty are problems that the Maghreb countries (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) are familiar with and struggled to deal with for decades. The 2011 overthrow of Ben Ali has been fueled by the inability of the government to solve these problems; they however remain present today.
Tunisia’s new political class failed indeed to solve the underlying corruption and unemployment issues that impoverished the youth under Ben Ali: an unemployment rate of 15% (= 2011) hides the heavier divide between the impoverished western half of the country, and the rich resorts of the East; in addition, Transparency International gave Tunisia a score of 38 points (= 2011) on the Corruption Perceptions Index, where higher is better. In comparison, neighboring Algeria, struggling with heavy corruption and military dictatorship, went from 29 to 36 in the same time period. This situation is produced by the lack of will from Tunisian lawmakers to deal with this issue, which results in low means given to the public authority to face this issue.
The 2011 overthrow of Ben Ali has been fueled by the inability of the government to solve these problems; they however remain present today.
Meanwhile political institutions got a lot better. With the new constitution, put into effect in 2014, several political parties emerged and pluralism became the new norm in Tunisia’s culture. Associations and unions are guaranteed freedom of expression, and now play an important role as well. However, parliamentary stability became an issue in November 2015, with 32 deputies from the secularist Nidaa Tounes resigning upon internal divide inside the majority party. This event made the Islamist Ennahda party the new majority in the Tunisian parliament.
Above all of this, IS and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb came to defy the young republic, with the former threatening its eastern border (Ben Gardane attack, 03/16) and the latter conducting operations in the struggling western side of the country. Between 6000 and 7000 Tunisians joined IS and terrorist groups use southern Algeria and Libya, effectively lawless areas, to prepare their attacks. Tunisia responded to an attack on a presidential bus in November 2015 by enforcing a state of emergency, which thus far contributed greatly to improving the security of the country.
From border control and security to social and economic policies, Tunisia has a lot of work to do but is as close as it can be from its new democratic values
The terrorist threat has badly hurt the tourism sector. The GDP growth of Tunisia was 2.7% in 2014; however, the IMF and the World Bank forecasted a 2015 growth rate of only 1%. The two major attacks that occurred in 2015 and the loss of tourists that ensued explain this drop in economic activity, as tourism accounted for 14.5% of Tunisia’s GDP in 2014 and employed 400,000 people.
In the future, Tunisia may well become the only functioning, stable democracy in the Arab world following the turmoil of the Arab Spring; it however has to overcome the challenges it faces today to become so. From border control and security to social and economic policies, Tunisia has a lot of work to do but is as close as it can be from its new democratic values, and only time will tell if its experience will inspire other Arab countries, as it did in 2011.
Cover photo credit: Reuters/Anis Mili