Tunisia’s disappointing revolution


Tunisia is once again racked by popular protests. The issues bringing crowds onto the streets in 10 towns and cities, including the capital Tunis, are painfully similar to those which prompted the 2011 revolution that ended president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s 20 years in power.

The rising cost of food, fuel and rents coupled with widespread unemployment and continuing corruption have brought despair to many Tunisians. The social security net is inadequate. Had it not been for strong family units, especially in rural districts, undernourishment would be common. As it is, not many people are overweight.

Tunisians are craftsmen. In neighboring Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi kept his people quiet by paying them for jobs that required minimum, if indeed any effort at all, Tunisians provided much of the skilled workforce. In the capital Tripoli, the plumber, electrician or construction engineer was likely Tunisian. Virtually every coffee house had waiters and baristas from Tunisia. But after the 2014 Muslim Brotherhood takeover of much of the west of the country, including Tripoli, Libya descended into chaos, contested by rival militias. Tens of thousands of Tunisians fled home, not least because gunmen attacked the Tunisian embassy and for a while held envoys captive.

Tunisia has since reopened its Tripoli mission, anxious to restore cross-border trading ties, but only a relatively small number of Tunisians have chosen to return to their old jobs. The loss of income from worker remittances was a serious blow. But even more devastating were the two 2015 Daesh (the self-proclaimed IS) terrorist attacks on the Bardo Museum in Tunis and the popular holiday resort of Sousse. Overnight the country’s tourism industry dropped dead. It employed over 400,000 people and in 2014 had represented in excess of seven percent of the country’s earnings. The great majority of those involved in tourism were thrown out of work.

The Tunisian government is struggling to control its rising debt of some $25 billion. The 2018 budget includes increases in purchase tax and social security contributions. Subsidies have been cut and import taxes increased. From an economic point of view these moves are necessary. But from a social perspective, this hike in the cost of living was always going to risk the present angry response on the streets.

A key source of public fury has been the failure of any of the nine governments that have held office during the last seven years to tackle the stain of corruption. There have been attempts by legislators and civil society activists to mount investigations into the payola from the Ben Ali regime which is widely believed to have continued, albeit more subtly, since the revolution. Last summer, the government declared a “war on corruption” and three businessmen and a senior customs official were arrested. But a real investigation into the bribes and kickbacks that characterized the old regime has not taken place.

Some politicians argued that rather than rake over the old corruption coals, the country start over with a no-tolerance approach to all future deals with the highest possible level of transparency. Unfortunately, the bureaucratic machine has seemed incapable of reforming its old un-watchful ways.

Tunisians who made the revolution feel they have been betrayed. Their high hopes for a better future were unrealistic, but there is no denying that seven years on, they have deserved far better.