Back to Square One in Tunisia as Protests Spread, Promise Fades

  • Arab Spring’s birthplace roiled again by demands for jobs
  • Lagging economy overshadows success in holding free elections

Unrest in Tunisia triggered the Arab Spring, and it’s bubbling up again. In the capital, ministers have to pick their way around the mattresses and tattered blankets of protest camps to get to work. No one here has publicly killed themselves, as an unemployed street vendor famously did in 2010. But Thouraya Ferchichi says she’s come close.

“I tried to commit suicide and cut my veins,” said Ferchichi, a 34-year-old who’s taken part in a sit-in outside the Employment Ministry in Tunis since it began eight months ago. “We’re back to where we started,” she says of the post-revolution years. “Marginalization, humiliation and unemployment.”

Sit-in at the Employment ministry on Sept. 6. 2016.

Photographer: Jihen Laghmari/Bloomberg

If that’s a harsh view of Tunisia’s democratic experiment, it’s also widely held. The North African country, almost alone among the Arab states swept by revolt, has made real political progress. It held successful elections, wrote a constitution backed by broad consensus, and transferred power peacefully between Islamist and secular parties.

But it’s nowhere near solving the economic problems that gave rise to all that rage six years ago. Demonstrations across the country testify to that; so do politicians, activists and economists. Unemployment is 16 percent and industries have been crippled by strikes and protests, leading foreign companies like Petrofac Ltd. to question their future. Tourist hotels have been emptied by terrorism. More young men have slipped away to join Islamic State or al-Qaeda than in almost any Arab country.

‘Back to Disorder’

None of that necessarily means another revolt is brewing. Still, Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s post-revolutionary president, says he’s alarmed. “The goals of the revolution were real democracy and fair development. The first part was a little bit achieved,” he said in an interview last week. The second wasn’t. “And its absence may bring us back to disorder, to square one.”

For a transcript of Marzouki’s interview with Bloomberg, click here.

Marzouki was a longtime dissident and activist, and his election by lawmakers as president of the republic in late 2011 capped Tunisia’s year of upheaval. He lost the 2014 presidential election to Beji Caid Essebsi, an old-regime stalwart who’s presided over a string of short-lived governments. The latest, under Prime Minister Youssef al-Shahed, took charge in August.

Shahed is promising to break the economic stalemate. Authorities approved a draft law, held up for about three years, to encourage foreign investment, and plan a big conference next month. They’re working to merge and then sell state banks, and set up an independent body to fight corruption.

Just before his cabinet was sworn in, Shahed said new taxes and spending cuts -- austerity measures backed by the International Monetary Fund, which is lending Tunisia $2.9 billion -- would be inevitable next year if there’s no turnaround. He’s also vowing to get tough with protesters.

“We prefer to negotiate with the people,” Mohamed Fadhel Abdelkefi, the
minister for development and investment, said in an Oct. 7 interview in Washington, citing contacts with both companies and unions. But he said the government also intends to “enforce the law.”

Nearly all of Tunisia’s 24 governorates have seen sit-ins and strikes. The most serious have been in remote inland areas where locals demand more investment and a bigger share of the wealth their natural resources provide.

In Gafsa, production of phosphates was completely halted for six months. A 28-year-old man was electrocuted in Kasserine in January after climbing a cable tower to protest the loss of his government job. His death triggered nationwide riots; they were quelled after ministers imposed curfews and also promised more hiring and training.

Kasserine is one of Tunisia’s poorest provinces. Nearby, in the Chaambi mountains, al-Qaeda militants battle security forces. Drug trafficking and smuggling are rampant. Unemployment is 26 percent, only one candidate in 10 graduates from high school, and a third of the population is illiterate.

That’s where Ferchichi is from. She earned a college degree, then married early to escape; instead she returned home divorced, with a son, soon after. There are four unemployed people in her household.

Protests like the one Ferchichi joined, or strikes at mines and power plants, may be a way to vent but they’re pushing the economy “to the edge of an abyss,” according to Tunis-based economist Wajdi Ben Rajab.

Vicious Circle

That vicious-circle dynamic is familiar from nearby Egypt, where Arab Spring demonstrators also unseated a dictator. Their protests extended into the successor regime, undercutting any economic recovery. Eventually the wheel turned full circle: the elected Islamist president was toppled in his turn, and the country is again ruled by an ex-military strongman.

Tunisia has done a better job of letting different voices have a say, but turbulent politics have still hurt the economy. Ben Rajab estimates that stoppages in phosphate production have cost 10 billion dinars ($4.5 billion), while 11 billion dinars were lost as foreign companies left the country. Add to that three major attacks by Islamist militants, including the slaughter of British holidaymakers on a beach, that frightened tourists away and forced job cuts in an industry that makes up 8 percent of the economy.

Selling chickpeas in front of a school in Tunis, 29-year-old Walid Soussim says he’s struggling to make ends meet, sees “no future” for himself, and understands the frustration that drives people to the protest camps. But he also cautions: “I just hope they don’t fall into violence.”

The government hired more people and raised salaries to keep demand afloat. It says the measures, financed with 20 billion dinars of external debt, have succeeded in reducing strikes these past two years.

Shahed still faces the same problem as his predecessors, according to Ridha Alchukannadli, a former director of the Center for Economic Studies and Research in Tunis. “Economic reforms aren’t bearing fruits because of non-economic factors,” he said: the threat of terrorism, the powerful unions, and political instability.

The latter won’t end anytime soon, said Marzouki, the ex-president. “The system now is in critical trouble,” he said. He doubts the current government will last a year.

Ferchichi, the protester, said she has little hope that it’ll be any better than predecessors. “Each government since the revolution has betrayed our dreams,” she said.

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