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Can Tunisia’s Transition from Authoritarianism to Democracy Overcome its Economic Challenges?

Tunisians continue to feel disenfranchised with political elites since democracy was established after the Arab Spring in 2011. Can it turn things around?

Tunisians continue to feel disenfranchised with political elites since democracy was established after the Arab Spring in 2011. Can it turn things around?

Tunisia took another step forward in its promising democratic transition last month when it held its second free presidential election since the 2011 Jasmine Revolution.

While this revived public faith in the political process, the new administration led by political outsider Qais Saied is now tasked with tackling economic woes, which have somewhat blighted Tunisia’s reformist path. 

Tunisia’s Prime Minister, Habib Jemli – who is linked to the soft Islamist Ennahda party which has had power since 2011 – this week began consultations with political parties to discuss the Government programme and to choose ministers.

“It will be the last chance for the revolutionary process,” he said. “Tunisians were patient enough and the youth are frustrated. It is time they can see hope and light at the end of the tunnel.” 

Tunisia is often considered the only Arab country to have successfully transitioned from authoritarianism to democracy following the 2011 Arab Spring, after its autocrat Zine al Abadine ben Ali was toppled.

But, civilians have continued to feel disenfranchised with political elites since democracy was established – particularly under the previous Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes Coalition Government.

In recent years, Tunisia’s national debt has reached 70% of the national GDP, inflation has risen to 6.7%, and the official unemployment rate has remained high at 15.5%. Jobs for qualified university graduates in particular have been scarce as past administrations have not created enough. Such conditions have often led to protests. Some have argued that the feeling of disenfranchisement among Tunisia’s youth has often led to some Tunisians being lured into joining extremist factions, feeling a sense of hopelessness in their own futures.  

“Though Tunisians decided to cut all repressive systems in January 2011, no such success can be achieved without economic setbacks,” Mehdi el Behi, an independent Tunisian researcher, told Byline Times. “We Tunisians have still shown that a transition from authoritarianism to a free country with few scars is possible.”

Tourism was hit hard after multiple terrorist attacks, particularly in Sousse and Tunis’ National Bardo Museum in 2015, which Mehdi el Behi said impacted the Tunisian economy further. Yet, tourism has gradually recovered since due to Tunisia’s improving security.

Nourhen M’sakni, a civil society activist based in Mah’dia, Tunisia, believes that Tunisians have more faith in the country and its politics following last month’s presidential election. “Often, people here distrust politicians, seeing them as stealing our money and not helping ordinary people,” she told Byline Times. “They have had no faith in the political system. Therefore, there were low turnouts in past elections. But, Qais Saied came as a political outsider with no big political alignment, so more people voted this time and supported him.”

Saied, 61, a former law professor with no previous political experience, is considered an alternative figure who many Tunisians feel can radically reform the country. He defeated billionaire Nabil Kaouri, who was prosecuted for tax evasion and money-laundering, and has pledged to fight corruption and promote social justice. Saied (pictured in the main photo) has also been noted for socially conservative views such as opposing homosexuality, and takes a harsher stance against normalising relations with Israel. 

“The very next day, after Saied’s victory, people were overjoyed,” said Nourhen M’sakni. “Civil society initiatives launched big cleaning campaigns across the country, with people of all ages and backgrounds participating to improve the country.”

Despite such a boost in public morale, she sees limitations with how Saied may improve Tunisia’s long-term political troubles. “Many people voted for Saied as an anti-establishment figure, whilst not consciously realising he had no long-term economic plan for the country,” she said. Although “he does have limited power as a President, in the context of Parliament,” she added. 

Tunisia’s legislative elections delivered a divided Parliament, with no party capturing more than 25% of seats. The Islamist Ennahda party came in first, with 52 out of 217 seats, closely followed by the Qalb Tounes party. 

“I think, by next year, we could see more protests against economic issues if these are not addressed,” M’sakni said.

Nevertheless, in recent weeks, Saied has met with youth groups from impoverished communities from the governorates of Kasserine and Gafsa, with analysts saying this is an unprecedented approach to rebuild communication between politicians and the public which could lead to greater future political participation. 

“Before the revolution, everything in the country was cleaner and more organised,” Nabil, a qualified history teacher and hotel worker in Sousse, told Byline Times. “After, the streets, cleanliness and public services had deteriorated. But there are gradual improvements and, like any revolution, it is a long, ongoing process and I think it will be better in the future. After all, look how long it took Europe to achieve stable democracies after its revolutions.”

Before Tunisia’s revolution, tourism was higher and Tunisia had utilised its phosphates mines. The latter has dropped by nearly 50% between 2010 and 2018, according to Mehdi el Behi. Boosting its production would also help revitalise the economy. 

To further consolidate its democratic transition, Human Rights Watch has suggested that Tunisia’s Parliament prioritises reforms of women’s rights including inheritance equality, while making security services more accountable and the judiciary independent. 

All those desperate for change in the country will have to wait and see as to whether any of this comes to fruition.

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