Tunisia: A Success Story?

By Malek Hamdi – Sidi Bouzid

Experts and analysts generally tend to consider Tunisia a success within the context of the Arab Spring. Perhaps when compared to Libya and Syria which continue to suffer bitter civil wars, and Egypt where some military general rules after having overthrown an elected President, Tunisia does appear to have fared far better.

However, such crude analysis fails to consider the realities in Tunisia on the ground, from the destructive and enduring divide between the Sahel and the inner regions, to the despair felt across the country among large swathes of the population.

After the tragic terror attacks in Bardo and Sousse, the decline in tourism, one of the main sources of income for Tunisia, forced the government into seeking money abroad from the developed world. This led to an increase in the already unmanageable debt, causing huge pressure on an already fragile economy, which was compounded by mismanagement of the new money pouring in.

Combined with the rapid increase in unemployment among the poor, the simmering anger reflected in large pockets of protests and an increase in suicide rates threatens to spill into a new uprising.

So what should have the government have done?

First, let us understand why it resorted to foreign aid when domestically, Tunisia hosts a number of millionaires and successful entrepreneurs. The marriage between business and power is nothing new in Tunisia. Stories of handouts during the elections were prevalent, and rumours of deals between political parties with businessmen involving agreements for looser regulation, impunity, and other government contracts were rife.

In fact, this toxic relationship has led to rampant corruption and tax evasion, that Chawki Tabib, the head of the National Authority in the Fight Against Corruption stated that “the country loses 25% of the value of public contracts as a result of corruption” and that “Tunisia will become a “mafia state” if it does not tackle these problems. In this environment, the government found it impossible to rely on the very businessmen it relied upon to maintain its power.

However perhaps the clearest example of Tunisia’s ‘failure’ is that Sidi Bouzid, Ragueb, Kasserine, Gafsa, and the other cities where the flames of revolution began have regressed. Ignored by the government, belittled by the media, and punished by mainstream politicians for not throwing wholehearted support to either of the two main parties; the Islamist Nahda and Nidaa (Sidi Bouzid gave an overwhelmingly majority to Dr Mohamed Hechmi Hamdi of Tayyar Mahabba in 2011 and in 2014), dissatisfaction is as rife as it was in 2011 with many openly wondering if a revolution even took place.

Moreover, the main television channels are dominated by artificial ‘modernity’ with shining lights, glossy platforms, ‘chique’ youth and glamorous song and dance shows, further fuelling rabid regionalism between the developed ‘Sahel’ or coastal cities, and the inner regions. In the words of one Tunisian from Sidi Bouzid who walked into Planet Pizza in Sousse; “Coming here, you would never think the country is in such chaos”.

Tataouine serves as a clear example of this dangerous bubble, which witnessed a wave of protests against the policies of economic and social marginalization manifested by the current government, and calls for an end to poverty and equitable distribution of wealth. Protestors marched on Kamour to block all the trucks belonging to petroleum companies from reaching the oil fields in the desert.

After negotiations, the government reached an agreement with protesters in June promising to employ 1,500 young men from Tataouine and to allocate 80 million Tunisian dinars to the governorate’s Development and Investment Fund. It also promised an unemployment benefit, a policy that had been mocked by the very components of the current government when suggested by Dr Hechmi Hamdi of the Tayyar Mahabba who made it a key policy in his manifesto in the Presidential election (Hamdi came fourth despite not appearing on any polls).

Despite the quantities of oil gas and other natural resources, Tunisia’s south continues to suffer from marginalization and huge unemployment. The same applies in Gafsa, the land of another natural resource; phosphate. It remains incredible that these two cities that contribute so much to the economy hardly benefit from it.

With frustration rife, unemployment at such high levels, and continued “hogra” or “neglect” by the elites, tension is simmering, and the climate of today alarmingly resembles that of the build up to 2011.