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Why riots raged in democratic Tunisia

January 25, 2016 at 4:33 pm

Over the last few days, Tunisia has been in the grip of a wave of unrest that erupted from Kasserine in the centre of the country and spread to other towns and cities in the inner and southern regions, reaching the densely populated suburbs of the capital Tunis itself. Once more, the demands that brought protesters together around this north African country have been employment and decent living standards.

Ironically, this wave of civil turbulence comes weeks after Tunisia was awarded a Nobel peace prize for the success of its democratic transition, amidst a troubled region torn by wars and conflicts. The country was widely feted in Western capitals, receiving much praise and applause, but little more. Its coffers are empty, its economy is in tatters, with near zero growth levels and a once thriving tourist industry on the verge of collapse.

Unfortunately for Tunisia, the contrast between its impressive record of political achievements and the pitiful state of its economy could not be more pronounced. This is particularly apparent in the southern and central regions which had ignited the 17 December revolution and wider Arab spring, but find themselves poorer than ever today.

Little has improved for them in concrete terms. If anything, conditions have got worse, as the economy has deteriorated and state revenues have shrunk in a damaging climate of insecurity and a war raging next door in Libya, on the country’s southern borders.

What has further complicated matters for Tunisia’s succession of governments since 2011 (six in total), has been the high aspirations unleashed by the revolution, particularly among the more deprived, younger sectors of society. As their dictator fled in the dead of night, five years ago, after decades of authoritarianism, the prevalent assumption was that a dawn of development and progress would soon ensue.

As unemployment remained stubbornly high and living standards have sunk further, disillusionment set in, especially among the thousands of university graduates (223,000, or 30 percent of all graduates) torn between a sense of entitlement to prosperity and the bitter reality of poverty and closed horizons.

Few would dispute the significant advances Tunisians have made towards democratisation since escaping Ben Ali’s dictatorship in 2011. The levels of free speech, movement and organisation they currently enjoy are unprecedented in their modern history and unparalleled in the Arab world. In the midst of a dangerous crisis that risked to propel the country down the precipice of civil conflict, the country’s political elite managed, against the odds, to settle its differences through dialogue and compromise.

The constitution their constituent assembly has unanimously adopted two years ago is the most progressive in the region. They have succeeded in holding two rounds of democratic elections a year ago and of forming a coalition government bringing together parties that had once been at loggerhead. But these accomplishments have remained elitist matters, viewed with apathy by the wider population, failing as they did to have any concrete reflection in their daily lives.

As for the international community paying lip service to the Tunisian democratic exception, it has done nothing in real terms to support this nascent democracy and keep it firmly on track.

The sweet promises made at the Deauville Conference weeks after the eruption of the Arab revolutions have long evaporated without trace. And the generosity of the US Congress is such that an aid package worth a measly $134 million was slashed by $50 million, with much of what is left directed to policing borders with Libya and hardly anything to supporting the economy or democratic governance.

Neither did help come from oil-rich fellow Arab countries. In fact, the role which some of these states have played in Tunisian politics has been a destabilising one. The object has been to reaffirm the old narrative that democracy is not only impossible, but undesirable, even catastrophic for Arabs.

Tunisia has not been immune to the destructive effects of the counterrevolution regional axis that has been actively seeking to reverse the process of change using the power of money, co-opting certain groups and individuals and using the media to deepen divisions, stir up conflicts and create a general climate of anxiety and despair.

Aside from the country’s economic woes, what has deepened Tunisians’ sense of disillusionment and triggered the current wave of protests has been the state of political fragmentation within the ruling Nida Tounes, a heterogeneous amalgam of divergent political elements hurriedly convened in opposition to the Troika that had governed Tunisia between November 2011 and January 2014.

The party managed to win the elections a year ago benefitting from the post-revolution climate of disaffection. Its grand promises to resolve Tunisia’s economic and developmental problems, claims to which the concentration of businessmen and seasoned former regime officials in its ranks lent credibility in the eyes of the electorate.

Weeks after its victory, however, in-fighting set in, with its parliamentary block crumbling and breaking into small rival groups, clashing in public, in full sight of a population grown weary of politics and despairing of politicians and their petty squabbles, as a succession of polls demonstrate.

The latest eruption of Tunisia’s inner provinces, forgotten for decades, if not centuries since the Beylical pre-colonial era, which centralised wealth and power in the hands of urban notables in the capital, then in the coastal regions under Bourguiba and Ben Ali, is a warning call to the political class as a whole: that democracy is not only a set of elections, parties or parliament. More importantly, it is a vehicle for social mobility, for improving the quality of people’s lives, for providing them with opportunity, with hope and a sense of dignity.

Democracy stands on two legs: political and socio-economic. Without both it is crippled, vulnerable and prone to collapse at any given moment.

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