Tunisians deserve better leaders


THE first round of Tunisia’s presidential election has passed off peacefully. Tunisians had the opportunity choose a replacement for the late Beji Caid Essebsi, their country’s first freely-elected leader since it triggered the so-called Arab Spring revolts in 2011. Unfortunately, less than half of the electorate bothered to take part. Moreover, the two candidates destined for the run-off to be held before November are both anti-establishment figures.

These two factors combine to demonstrate that the majority of Tunisians have lost most of their faith in the political process and the personalities who have led their country since the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Tunisians seized democratic government with both hands. But the problem from the outset was there were too many figures trying to climb the greasy pole to political power. The bickering and factionalism have not yet gone away, as evidenced by the extraordinary fact there were no less than 26 candidates in the first round of this election. Tunisians were able to unite around their desire from freedom from a deeply corrupt and brutal dictatorship. But thereafter, they were unable to embrace a clear political vision, in large part because the people they elected were not clear themselves.

All the same, Tunisia might have hoped for better times until Daesh (the so-called IS) reared its ugly head with the 2015 mass killings at the Bardo Museum in Tunis and the coastal resort of Sousse. Overnight, the tourist trade, arguably the key economic sector, dropped dead. Tens of thousands of Tunisians lost their jobs and tens of thousands more who had benefitted from flourishing tourism lost their incomes. Unemployment, already high among generally well-educated young people, rose to its present 15 percent.

But Tunisia is no stranger to terrorism and the poverty and misery on which it feeds. It the western governate of Kasserine, on the border with Algeria, around half those of employment age are without work. Most youngsters drop out of high school. Only around two percent have any sort of university education. The Ben Ali dictatorship neglected development in the this region. The result was that Al-Qaeda spawned a local offshoot, the Uqba ibn Nafi Battalion and later Daesh established the Jund Al-Khilafah. At least 4,000 Tunisians, mostly from this region, went to Syria and Iraq as eager recruits for the terrorist ranks. It is estimated a further 1,500 went to Libya to join terrorist groups there. In Tunisia itself, these bigots have carried out a series of attack, the majority of them in Kasserine.

For whoever becomes the next president and regardless of the make-up of the government formed as a result of the upcoming general election, there must be two over-riding priorities. The first is to put the long-term interests of the country before personal political ambitions. The second is to ensure that Tunisia’s poorest regions, not least Kasserine, are given the rigorous policy attention and investment to lift them out of their present sullen misery. Unless the new batch of political leaders can govern for all Tunisians, not simply those citizens living in the relatively prosperous and fertile coastal belt, the country’s democracy will be in danger. The lackluster voter turnout on Sunday demonstrates deep disillusionment with endless political failure and provides a condign warning.