Ten years after a young street vendor’s self-immolation helped catalyze the Tunisian revolution that toppled its authoritarian leader and inspired protest movements across the Middle East and North Africa, Tunisian democracy is at a turning point. Although Tunisians are now free to choose their leaders, have held numerous elections, and can openly criticize the government, the dreams of the uprising remain unfulfilled a decade later as inequality, unemployment and poor services persist.
Notwithstanding an encouraging democratic course, the economy has stagnated, corruption remains a serious problem, and political leaders are deeply divided, paralyzed in decision-making that could improve the lives of an increasingly alienated, apathetic populace. Ominously, Tunisia continues to be afflicted with the same fissures that sparked the revolution.
Questions remain in particular as to whether the government can deliver “the goods” to the public. Despite an ambitious decentralization plan with potential to improve service delivery and empower local governance, little has been accomplished in the short-term on this front, making it difficult to showcase progress, not just in devolving power, but with more equitable resource distribution or local decision-making, which are at the heart of Tunisia’s divisions. And people are angry about it.
Citizens’ trust in the political establishment is at an all-time low with 87 percent of Tunisians seeing the country as headed in the wrong direction. (This is a 20 percent increase from prior to the 2019 elections–and the most pessimistic Tunisians have been about the direction of their country since 2011.) The electorate remains deeply disaffected with reigning parties. When asked about the national government’s most important achievements in 2020, 75 percent of Tunisians said it accomplished “nothing” and over 50 percent want to see new political parties in future elections.
They blame the parties for failing to resolve deep socio-economic exclusion, regional inequalities, high unemployment, corruption, and mounting debt in the wake of COVID-19. As unemployment is expected to rise to 20 percent — with youth unemployment skyrocketing to 37 percent (higher than in 2010)– the economy remains a top priority for Tunisians who are increasingly unable to make ends meet.
Tunisia had its highest budget deficit in 40 years in 2020 because of a $4 billion increase in expenditure in response to the pandemic-generated health crisis. Tunisia’s GDP is expected to have contracted by 8 percent in 2020 because of Covid-19. And politics remains divided with an outsider president, Kais Saied, who is neither connected to a party nor to a parliamentary majority, and whose effectiveness is being undermined by political infighting and divisions, including mounting rivalries with Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda Movement.
The resignation of former Prime Minister Elies Fakhfakh following allegations of corruption, the nomination of new Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and the way that the new government was formed, plus the open rift between parliament and president, have exacerbated tensions. The increasing appeal of populist counter-revolutionary figures like Free Destourian Party Head Abir Moussi, who advocates for a return to the strongman, points to a critical and more existential rift that has set in, signaling a potential change in the way of doing politics in Tunisia. Party fragmentation and polarization, together with a cult of personalities, have thwarted the bargain politics that enabled Tunisia’s young democracy to stay the course.
One of the government’s biggest failures has been confronting the issues that are still screaming for attention, namely persistent regional inequalities. Indeed, frustration is spreading in the south and center, the phosphate basin especially, where protesters continue to demand employment and investment in the area. The resulting suspension of gas, petroleum and phosphate production has paralyzed the economy. The interior regions, intentionally marginalized during the Zine Abidine Ben Ali and Habib Bourguiba periods, have been hard hit by the pandemic, which has aggravated and deepened the coastal-interior divide. This same internal marginalization was a key driver of the 2011 revolution. Overlooked, the dynamic runs the risk of perpetuating instability and creating further unrest.
Democracy is still fragile in Tunisia and challenges loom large. Prime Minister Mechichi must navigate tensions between the presidency and parliament. Parliamentary mayhem is growing, as is the citizen’s disaffection with the government. Today, only 41 percent of Tunisians believe that democracy is the best possible form of government for Tunisia, while 50 percent believe other forms of government could be or are better than democracy. The collegial-adversarial model adopted by secular and Islamic-based political formations and unique in creating a common space is facing serious strain. Without addressing this rupture, Tunisia risks heading down, for the first time in its 10 years of democratic existence, a path of no return.
Patricia Karam is regional director of the Middle East and North Africa at the International Republican Institute that works to promote democracy.