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Is Tunisia heading for a second Arab Spring?

Tunisian protesters confront security forces blocking access to the governorate's offices in Tunis during a demonstration over price hikes and austerity measures on January 12, 2018. Photo: SOFIENE HAMDAOUI/AFP/Getty Images. - Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Tunisia provided the spark for revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East. As PAUL KNOTT reports, tensions are rising once again. And the West is among those to blame.

Tunisia is a small, mostly quiet and often ignored corner of the Middle East and North Africa. It burst into the international limelight in 2011, when its overthrow of the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali sparked popular revolts across the region.

Tunisia remains the only ‘Arab Spring’ country where much has gone right since then. But recent mass demonstrations showed that dangerous pressures are building again.

The Tunisian revolution was triggered by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in the struggling, rural town of Sidi Bouzid.

Bouazizi was tipped over the edge when a public official confiscated the fruit and vegetables he was selling as a street vendor.

This was just the latest episode in a catalogue of harassment by corrupt officials.

Bouazizi had left school early to work full-time to support his ageing parents and sick uncle. He was helping to pay for his younger siblings’ education, in the hope that they would be able access the opportunities denied to him.

Lacking the connections to obtain one of the rare formal jobs available and having been rejected by the army, Bouazizi alighted on small trading in the market to eke out a living. His life of struggle and ultimately intolerable frustration struck a chord across the country, then the whole region.

A series of uprisings followed. The outcomes proved disappointing in Egypt, lethal in Libya and catastrophic in Syria and Yemen, as the old elites fought ruthlessly to reassert themselves.

Tunisia has turned out better. The former dictator Ben Ali quickly faded into irrelevance in exile. A new constitution was adopted and is widely admired as a model for countries in transition from dictatorship. Free elections have taken place and democracy has taken root.

The two main political parties have cooperated in building the new democratic system. Nidaa Tounes is a big tent of various secular, broadly mainstream views. Ennahda is an Islamist party committed to democracy. In more closely resembles a European-style Christian Democrat party, rather than one of the Muslim Brotherhood offshoots that predominate around the Middle East.

Despite these positive developments, many Tunisians now bridle at the description of their country as a ‘success story’. This is because their economic problems that fuelled the revolution are still acute.

The unemployment rate is 15%, of whom 40% are university graduates. The rate is even higher amongst the young and in some areas of the country, particularly in inland towns like Sidi Bouzid, the source of the Arab Spring.

Since last year, the cost of living in Tunisia has risen steeply due to the devaluation of its currency, the dinar. In a country which needs to import many essential items, this step has increased the price of many foodstuffs and other basic goods. The cost of imports has unfortunately coincided with a slump in the price for phosphates, one of Tunisia’s main exports, on the world market.

The economic situation was worsened by a new law enacted in January aimed at reducing the budget deficit. This law increased VAT, a regressive tax that impacts the less well-off more than the rich because it takes a greater proportion of their income. The law also squeezed the country’s public sector by imposing recruitment and wage freezes.

By putting many people in a desperate financial situation, these measures are generating disillusionment with the democratic political system and massive – so far, largely peaceful – street demonstrations.

Successive Tunisian governments have made some mistakes. But much of the blame for these policies lies with the West, in the guise of the G8, IMF and World Bank. In exchange for the loans needed to keep the country afloat during its transition period, it was they who compelled the Tunisian government to allow its currency to devalue, impose the VAT increases and take a hatchet to public spending.

Austerity proved to be folly at times of struggle in stable Western democracies such as Britain – where it was an underlying cause of Brexit – and, even more damagingly, Greece. It is utter madness to inflict such measures on a vulnerable country like Tunisia, struggling valiantly to transition from corrupt dictatorship to democracy.

That Tunisia will eventually need to allow its currency to reach its true market value and trim its large public sector is broadly accepted. But right now it needs policies to improve the lives of its people by boosting employment and the country’s infrastructure.

This will give it time to develop into a strong and secure democracy. Measures that weaken its already struggling economy and push people beyond the breadline are a recipe for political and security disaster.

Young people with no prospects are at increased risk of recruitment by violent extremists. This is a tragedy in a country with a culture of moderation and tolerance. It is also a vicious circle. Previous terrorist attacks – such as at the resort of Sousse, in 2015 – have badly damaged Tunisia’s crucial tourist industry and further worsened the economic outlook.

Many people are leaving the country. According the European Council on Foreign Relations, there was a four-fold increase in Tunisians migrating informally across the Mediterranean to Europe in 2017. These people can be added to the ongoing brain-drain of tens of thousands of skilled and well-educated Tunisians that the country can ill afford to lose to formal job offers overseas.

It is no surprise that corruption is increasing again too when salaries for public officials such as policemen are stuck at about 250 euros, despite the rising cost of living. Bearing in mind the tense current situation and the spark for the 2011 revolution, this is hardly the moment to be putting a further squeeze on public sector wages.

Politically, as the academic Sarah Feuer wrote in Foreign Affairs recently, there are signs that consensus between the main political parties has gone too far. Such cooperation was essential during the early post-revolutionary period to create stability and produce the new constitution. But it is now all starting to look too cosy to many Tunisians, with important decisions being taken behind closed doors by the ‘consensus committee’ instead of debated openly in parliament.

Some fear a slide back into authoritarianism. The 91-year-old president Beji Caid Essebsi’s high-handed approach, increasing reliance on old-regime associates and apparent grooming of his son as a successor are encouraging such concerns. As is the repeated postponement of Tunisia’s first-ever local council elections, currently scheduled for March 2018.

Worst of all, Essebsi has driven through a controversial law granting amnesty to public servants involved in corruption during the Ben Ali era. This law enables the government to override the Truth and Dignity Commission that was established to investigate such crimes. It has understandably reinforced public cynicism about the government’s good intentions.

Despite these difficulties, Tunisia still offers the best prospect of leading the way in the region once again. Europe has more economic, political and security reasons than any other outside party to support Tunisia. It would benefit greatly from having an exemplary liberal democracy and thriving economy just across the Mediterranean.

Rather than getting bogged down with neighbouring North African trouble spots such as Libya, Europe must focus more on helping Tunisia to succeed.

Most urgently, Tunisia’s people need to feel that democracy is directly improving their lives.

This means the EU exerting its influence to encourage the IMF to change course. At this stage of Tunisia’s development, IMF loans should be conditioned against continued democratic governance and anti-corruption policies, not ruinous ‘reforms’ and cuts.

It also means the EU fast-tracking its proposed free trade deal with Tunisia. This agreement should be backed by an increased aid programme to encourage investment and business development, particularly in the parts of the country with the worst unemployment problems.

Tunisians have good reasons to be sceptical about whether their country is really the Arab Spring’s sole success story. But it still could be, and quite quickly too. Especially if Europe takes charge of providing the assistance Tunisia needs, rather than backing the international financial institutions attempts to batter it into submission.

Paul Knott is a former British diplomat and the author of The Accidental Diplomat

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