Whither Tunisia?

23 Jan, 2018    ·   5425

Amb (Retd) KP Fabian reviews Tunisia's political journey since the exit of former President Ben Ali and assesses the current state of affairs in the country

When Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali - who had been Tunisia's president for 23 years - fell from power in January 2011, it appeared that Tunisia would embark on a journey towards democracy for the first time since its independence from France in 1957. Habib Bourguiba who led the struggle for freedom wanted to be president for life. In 1987, he was deposed in a bloodless coup by his Prime Minister Ben Ali who promised to introduce democracy. Ben Ali soon reneged on his promises and crony capitalism set in.

For over two years post-Ben Ali, Tunisia appeared to be moving in the right direction. A progressive constitution was adopted, and a free and fair election delivered a government led by Ennahda (Renaissance), a reformed Muslim Brotherhood party, which had been banned for decades. However, the supporters of the old order combined with secularists who nursed an irrational allergy towards Ennahda demanded that the government step down; and, wisely or unwisely, it did step down. Currently, Ennahda is a junior partner in a coalition of contradictions led by those who were Ben Ali's accomplices in ruining Tunisia.  Today, Tunisia has its sixth prime minister since Ben Ali's exit. As recently as 8 January 2018, 770 protesters were arrested, and one killed. A recent survey found that only 11.5 per cent of Tunisians believe that the present system is democratic.

In short, most Tunisians are angry and disappointed as seven years have elapsed since their country ignited the Arab Spring that felled rulers who had held on to power for decades, through means fair or foul, in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. What went wrong can easily be listed: a mismanaged, stagnant economy not creating jobs for the young in a population with an average age of 31; an unreformed political system unresponsive to the demands of the people; unaddressed disparities between the comparatively prosperous coastal belt and the interior; rampant corruption; and over- centralisation of power in the capital begetting anger and frustration in the rest of the country. Some Tunisians have started saying that it was better under Ben Ali.

In retrospect, Ben Ali did not exactly fall. He went to Jeddah accompanying his wife Leila Trabelsi who had attracted a lot of public hatred as her family members made money by stealing from the state with impunity.  Ben Ali’s aides prevented him from coming back as they wanted power. Some Tunisians held the opinion that if Ben Ali had divorced Leila and punished those who plundered the state he could have remained in office.  In short, what happened in January 2011 was short of a genuine revolution as power did not pass from the dictator to a new leadership with popular support determined to eradicate the old order and replace it with a new democratic one.

For a while, many well-wishers of Tunisia thought that Rached Ghannouchi, co-founder of Ennahda, named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential leaders in 2012, would lead Tunisia in the right direction. However, he has not done so. He lacks the drive to lead his party with a clear goal of a democratic Tunisia embracing inclusive growth by dismantling the old order. 

With mounting public debt (US$16.38 billion as against a GDP of US$42 billion) and an ailing economy, the Tunisian government did what most governments in the third world do and approached the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2013 for a loan. A loan of US$2.9 billion was granted to be paid in tranches depending on progress made in ‘structural adjustments’. Essentially, the IMF wanted to cut down public spending, reform the tax code, and reduce the numbers on the state pay roll. Prices of essential goods including bread and grains shot up. Average family income at US$150 a month proved grossly inadequate, and the people came out on to the streets in January.

At present, Tunisia’s prospects for removing the obstacles in its desired march towards a democracy with an improving economy that will create jobs for the young are bleak. The EU, preoccupied with its own internal problems, has not done much to promote democracy. The IMF has yet to learn from its past follies. That a prescription of austerity will only add to the misery of the common people has been proved time and again and Greece's pathetic plight is obvious to everyone except to those who are willfully blind.

Thousands of young Tunisians have either joined the Islamic State (IS) or gone to Europe looking for jobs. As the IS has collapsed, some of the young will return. Will they carry out terrorist activities in Tunisia? Will there be another revolution?  There might be violent protests, but such protests do not add up to a revolution. Tunisia needs a new political leadership. President Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi, 91, who held high offices under Ben Ali, cannot take Tunisia in a new direction. Neither can the ruling coalition of contradictions deliver. What happened to Tunisia is best summed up by Shakespeare:

“O, how this spring of love resembleth
The uncertain glory of an April day,
Which now shows all the beauty of the sun,
And by and by a cloud takes all away!”