Is Tunisia the model for the successful transition from an autocratic government to democracy, or does the process of achieving a working democracy require something more than broad citizen participation that overturns the status quo? Among the lessons still being learned about Tunisia is that without addressing key issues that drove the thawra (revolution), such as corruption, economic and regional disparity, lack of job opportunities, and poor governance, continuing unrest threatens to squander the had-won freedoms of the Arab Spring.
Most commentators agree that impediments to moving ahead with political and economic reforms begin with a fractured electoral system that has no quotas for the votes needed to form a political party and participate in Parliament. This has left the country with “31 different parties or electoral lists and the top two parties, Ennahda and Qalb Tounes, each receiving only 24 and 18 percent of seats, respectively,” according to a story posted by the Carnegie Middle East Center. This resulted in a government vacuum for three months until Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh succeeded in gaining approval after President Qaïs Sa‘id threatened new elections if the new cabinet was not supported.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the economy’s fragility since tourism – Tunisia’s top revenue producer – and trade with Europe are on hold as borders are closed and airlines are shut down.
The same source pointed out the four areas for promoting economic growth and stability in the long term: education, macroeconomic stability, infrastructural improvements, and fighting corruption. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the economy’s fragility since tourism – Tunisia’s top revenue producer – and trade with Europe are on hold as borders are closed and airlines are shut down. In the past, Tunisia could count on Tunisian expatriates’ monetary repatriations, but this is rapidly dwindling as the Gulf and European Union (EU) companies where most Tunisians work, are shut down, severely limited, or victims of the drastic fall in oil prices.
Another sign of challenges ahead is that Tunisia’s foreign borrowing has risen from 50 percent of the GDP in 2010 to 99.4 percent of GDP in 2018 with gloomy forecasts for 2020 and beyond. In addition, Tunisia is still burdened with obligations of a $2.8 billion USD loan from the IMF, which imposed various austerity measures on the government at a time when it needs funds to stimulate the economy and reduce government debt.
Public confidence in the country has fallen along with its economic indicators. “Tunisian polling company Sigma Conseil’s polls on January 25 showed that 75.5 percent of Tunisians believe the country was on the wrong path.” An Al-Monitor article also noted out that “A March 4 paper by the International Crisis Group cautioned the Tunisian government of the urgent need to address the economy and rapidly improve public services if it is to regain public confidence and avoid a descent into populist extremism.”
The challenge of forming a government coalition to pass much needed legislation is becoming more of an obstacle as Ennahda, the largest Islamic party, is facing resignations by several of its leadership members, further exacerbating opportunities for collaboration among the various parties and lists. Most of the tension results from perceived failures of previous governments to address the social and economic needs of the country and what is perceived as stagnating leadership. Without several strong partners to provide leadership in Parliament, Tunisia runs the risk of further deterioration, exacerbated by the pandemic.
“Much of the public’s frustration with the political class stems from the inability of democratically-elected figures to deliver positive social and economic change to the Tunisian people.”
As the Carnegie Middle East Center indicated, “Much of the public’s frustration with the political class stems from the inability of democratically-elected figures to deliver positive social and economic change to the Tunisian people . . . Food prices have increased at a rate of 7.3 percent per year, with vegetable prices increasing by more than 10 percent and milk by more than 9 percent. Additionally, unemployment remains high, particularly among university graduates at 28 percent. Women are disproportionately affected, with 38 percent of female university graduates unemployed.”
Though Tunisia has always had a reputation for talented workers, the decline in the quality of public education and technical and vocational training schools, research centers, and universities is hindering its continued excellence. This and the continued marginalization of the interior regions of the country continue to fester as young Tunisians face shrinking opportunities at home and overseas.
One potential support mechanism would be the ratification and implementation of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement between Tunisia and the EU, which is being obstructed by the far left and the private sector concerned about market domination by European partners. However, according to the Carnegie Middle East Center: “Once implemented, the agreement would allow Tunisian products to be sold in the large European market, with its 500 million consumers or more. The agreement would also provide the Tunisian government with technical and scientific assistance from the EU to reform, simplify, harmonize, and digitize the trade procedures at customs and other trade agencies. This is likely to enhance the country’s attractiveness to foreign investors.” This assessment reiterates the difficulty of finding agreement across enough members of Parliament to take positive steps to improve the country’s economic prospects.
“Once implemented, the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement between Tunisia and the European Union would allow Tunisian products to be sold in the large European market.”
Like the rest of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic represents another obstacle that diverts resources in an already fragile public health system. While Tunisia acted more quickly than some of its neighbors, it took some time to close its air and sea routes, ironically leading to the claim that one of the sources of the virus in Italy was said to be a Tunisian returning to Italy. As of March 25, according to Reuters, there were 173 confirmed cases, and a curfew was imposed the week before followed by a general lockdown on March 22 limiting travel outside the home to buying necessities. The impact in the coming months is hard to assess as reporting mechanisms are not fully reliable and testing has only begun.
Time is short. Given lingering economic and political issues, the need to address economic stagnation and corruption, and the unforeseen impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tunisia and the rest of North Africa face significant challenges. All recovery scenarios are complex and will require the same kind of collaboration and commitment that brought the Nobel Prize to Tunisia’s revolution.