Eight Years on from the Arab Spring: A Tunisian Turnaround?

By Jackson Foltz

Eight years on from the “Arab Spring” of 2011, in which then-President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted from power following weeks of violent demonstrations across the country, Tunisia continues to struggle with questions of economy and identity.

IMF-suggested austerity measures intending to reduce the state deficit have manifested price spikes such that the average Tunisian has noticed the doubling or tripling of product costs during their typical trip to the supermarket. [1] Further, with the exception of Libya, Tunisia’s unemployment rate has recently plateaued as the highest in North Africa by at least three percentage points—around 15.5%. [2]

From this economic context have emerged recent reports that 75% of the younger Tunisian population intends not to vote in this December’s presidential election, a form of protest attributable in no small part to the more than 30% of young college graduates that are unemployed. [3] Or perhaps it has to do with the tradition of tarnished expectations at the ballot box, wherein decades of Ben Ali’s tampering provoked the Democratic Progressive party’s famous 2004 quote that the Tunisian political system was “a masquerade of democracy.” [4]

Returning to the present, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi’s visit to Malta last week addressed some of these concerns, superseding a reaffirmation of strong bilateral relations with the Mediterranean island nation:

“We in Tunisia have the irrevocable political will to continue on the road to democracy and the establishment of constitutional institutions guaranteeing fundamental freedoms and the rule of law, but we have no intention to export this experience to anywhere else in the world. Those who are interested are most welcome to look at our achievements.”

            – President Beji Caid Essebsi, February 5, 2019 [5]

According to additional statements, however, it would seem that Tunisia does have the near-term intention of exporting workers to Valletta in order to meet the Maltese labor shortage. Ideas of this nature stand out against the backdrop of shared contemporary priorities among North African states, among them: addressing the region’s ongoing concerns with illegal migration, mitigating the radical Islamic threat, and developing closer relations with the European Union. Though the last major development to come on this last point happened back in 1998 when Ben Ali’s Tunisia signed a landmark trade agreement with the EU, the state’s recent posturing has at least indicated a willingness to adopt creative solutions to longstanding problems.

One of the most recent steps in this process was the establishment of a National Commission for the Prevention and Fight against Violent Extremism and Terrorism in 2017. Hounded as the state is by international organizations, it was the United Nations Human Rights Office that made clear its gripes with Tunisian antiterrorism efforts in a visit that came almost two years ago to the day, noting Essebsi’s use of executive orders to eschew proper judicial reviews of terrorist cases, as well as the accusations of certain suspects’ torture.[6]

Of course, all of the political measures fail to make mention of the larger question of Tunisian acceptance of fundamentalist Islamic teaching. The “Regional Commission for Following and Controlling Anarchical Spaces” has succeeded in closing several Quranic schools throughout the country in an effort to stifle government opposition, which only exacerbates the public’s perception of policies of economic modernization.

In this sense, the question of whether modernization is antithetical to states where Islam is practiced by the majority of the population has never been as urgent. For Essebsi and for the time being, however, it seems to suffice that the state as a whole is yet pursuing a democratic political system, even with various difficulties’ arrival.

Jackson Foltz is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is majoring in International Relations . He is the Correspondent for Middle Eastern and North African Affairs for 2018-19.

Works Cited

[1] "En Tunisie, 8 Ans Après La Révolution, L'économie Peine à Se Redresser." France 24. January 14, 2019. Accessed February 07, 2019.

[2] "The World Factbook: Egypt." Central Intelligence Agency. February 01, 2018. Accessed February 07, 2019.

[3] "En Tunisie, Les Jeunes Des Quartiers Populaires Se Mobilisent." France 24. January 31, 2019. Accessed February 07, 2019.

[4] Chrisafis, Angelique, and Ian Black. "Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali Forced to Flee Tunisia as Protesters Claim Victory." The Guardian. January 15, 2011. Accessed February 07, 2019.

[5] Allied Newspapers Ltd. "Trade between Malta and Tunisia Still below Potential - Tunisian President." Times of Malta. Accessed February 07, 2019. https://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20190205/business/trade-between-malta-and-tunisia-still-below-potential-tunisian.701120.

[6] OHCHR. United Nations High Commission on Human Rights | Freedom of Religion: UN Expert Hails Albania, but Notes New Challenges and Unresolved Issues from the past. Accessed February 07, 2019.

Image Source: https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/tunisia-extends-state-of-emergency-amid-turmoil-1.778368