In 2011, the Arab Spring was set in motion when Tunisian fruit vendor Muhammad Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest against corruption. He became a potent symbol of the economic and political discontent felt by many others, and within months protesters had toppled the dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and similar movements had rippled across the region.
Tunisia has since made significant political progress. While other countries in the region have remained mired in conflict and chaos, Tunisia adopted a new constitution in 2014. In October, it held peaceful presidential and parliamentary elections that removed the Islamist parties that had dominated the political scene since Ben Ali's fall. But this progress in the political arena has not been matched with economic recovery, with the system still beset by many of the same problems as under Ben Ali. Cronyism and corruption abound, an high levels of unemployment remain; it is currently at 15.3 per cent – higher than pre-revolution.
The tragedy in Sousse on 26 June, when a gunman inspired by Islamic State killed 38 tourists, will do nothing to help the situation. In 2014, Tunisia's beaches and museums attracted 6 million tourists. The money they spent accounted for 7 per cent of GDP and brought 20 per cent of hard currency to the country. Tourism supported more jobs than any other industry except for agriculture. In the aftermath of the attack, thousands of tourists have left the country, and many more are cancelling trips. The attack was the second on a tourist site in just a few months; in March, the Bardo National Museum was attacked by three gunmen, who killed 21 people, mostly Europeans. Together, these incidents make a holiday in Tunisia a tough sell.
While stressing that the loss of human life is the paramount concern, in the aftermath of the Sousse attack, various Tunisian officials spoke of the attack as, partly, an attack on the country's economy. "This hit was done by those who know Tunisia's economic situation well and are intent on its collapse," said Moaz al-Joudi, chairman of the Tunisian Governors' Association. The tourism minister, Selma Elloumi Rekik, echoed his concern: "This is a catastrophe for the economy."
The recent attacks on the tourist industry are, indeed, a potential disaster for an economy already affected by conflict in neighbouring Libya and a downturn across Europe, Tunisia's biggest trading partner. But the country's economic woes predate the latest disaster. As the eyes of the world have been turned on the coastal tourist regions around Sousse, there has been unrest in the impoverished south of the country, where people are frustrated that they have not seen any economic benefits from the revolution. A recent month of strikes in the south shut down Tunisia's phosphate mining industry. Similar frustrations have flared up periodically since 2011.
Part of the problem is that the corruption that ran free and unfettered under Ben Ali was never rooted out. According to a World Bank report, in the final days of Ben Ali, firms connected to the dictator received a fifth of all private sector profits, despite only producing 3.2 per cent of output and employing less than one per cent of the labour force. Many Tunisians believe that things are actually worse now; the system that favoured Ben Ali's associates has merely shifted over to other businessmen. A major segment of the economy remains informal and therefore untaxed.
Terrorist attacks on "soft" targets like tourist sites are always more than just an attack on foreigners. These incidents are an assault on the economy, on the host country's relationship to the world. In the case of Tunisia, it is also an attack on the process of political transition. These incidents will certainly discourage tourists, who are unlikely to feel safe in Tunisia for some time to come. This will damage the economy; but that economy was already floundering and was not equipped to cope with such a fluctuation in fortunes. After two free, peaceful national elections, Tunisia can take pride in forming a functioning nascent democracy. But the government now needs to take serious steps towards reforming the economy to eliminate the systemic problems allowed to fester and grow under Ben Ali, shoring up the tourist industry – and diversifying the economy so that the country is less vulnerable to such attacks. The new government has a large parliamentary majority and significant public support: it should use this mandate to enact serious reforms that address the country's many underlying problems, not just respond to short-term disasters.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.