Tunisia: Arab Spring gone full circle?

Yousef Teclab Middle East/North Africa, Tunisia, World Politics

Tunisia – a country several politicians and commentators in the West were quick to label as the success story of the Arab Spring. Whether in the media or among the corridors of power in London, Paris and Washington, the North African country was hailed and fawned over as the shining beacon of light in an Arab world currently plagued with war and instability.

In all fairness, such optimism and celebration to those unaware of Tunisia’s internal state and deep divide between the coastal and inner regions, not to mention the huge disparity between rich and poor, appeared justifiable. When the authoritarian government of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was kicked out of power in 2011, a genuine democracy did emerge. Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that swept to power during the interim elections in 2011 following Ben Ali’s fall, relinquished power peacefully to Nida Tunis, led by President Beji Caid Sibsi, which secured victory. In a continent renowned for post-election instability and coups, this was most certainly a welcome change.

However, five years after Tunisia heralded the birth of the Arab Spring, things appear to have now come full circle. Just as the self-immolation of the market trader Mohamed Bouazizi led to the downfall of Ben Ali there have been disturbances across the country, triggered by the suicide of a protestor who electrocuted himself after climbing a pylon in Kasserine in protest at having his name removed from a list of unemployed youths that were to be employed by the public sector. The story goes that his name was replaced by someone who had contacts higher up, adding to the sense of despair.

Protests – some of which turned violent leaving dozens of protestors and police injured – have spiralled and spread throughout Tunisia. In Kasserine, one of the poorest areas in the country, as well as the capital Tunis and various town, protesters have taken to the streets with reports of skirmishes with security forces. Molotov cocktails have been thrown at police while looting has occurred even in the capital. Such is the force of the protests quickly reverberating across the country that the Prime Minister Habib Essid cut short his trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, the government declared a nationwide curfew and President Sibsi saw fit to deliver a nationwide address calling for action to be taken to alleviate the problems of the unemployed. More demonstrations have been called for this weekend by protestors, and in response a nationwide curfew has been announced by the government.

This has been a rude awakening for those in the West who comforted themselves after the wreckage of Libya, Syria and Egypt that Tunisia was doing OK. This was not supposed to happen – the sole success story of the Arab Spring falling back into the depths of protests and violence. But this has been coming for some time.

There is one reason why Tunisia finds itself in this position: chronic unemployment.

Firstly, despite the Arab Spring promising so much, things seemed to have gone worse in terms of employment figures. In the final weeks of the Ben Ali regime, unemployment was at 12%; now it has RISEN to 15%. Looking into these figures in more detail, an incredible 30% of the youth are unemployed. Some people in Zaghouan described not having found a job for 12 years, whilst a woman in Gafsa described how she had been unable to find employment for 13 years. Both have university degrees. Moreover, the terrorist attacks in Tunis’ Bardo museum, as well as the coastal resort of Sousse, has hit the tourism industry hard, only adding to the woes of the unemployed.

With unemployment rising instead of decreasing, a sense of hopelessness among youths is visible and reflected in the 500 suicides since 2011. Progress may well take time, but it appears the patience of the people has run out.

What the future has in store is anyone’s guess.