January 2018 saw the eruption of protests, demonstrations and violent clashes with police in cities and towns across Tunisia. A fitting date, as it marked seven years since the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s 23-year authoritarian reign. These protests bring into question whether Tunisia, once hailed as the Arab Spring success story, has failed its revolutionaries.
Tunisia appeared at first to be the shining light of the Arab Spring. This was predominantly due to their contrastingly smooth transition to democracy. Proof of this was shown in January 2014, as Tunisia witnessed a vital victory in the passing of its new constitution.
Admittedly, a long, arduous process, but the benefits Tunisians reap from this constitution was worth the wait. The lack of freedom to explore political alternatives, prior 2011, was a striking characteristic of the entire region. Therefore, the uprising in Tunisia can be viewed as a success in relation to achieving its aim to restore this freedom. Individuals, political parties and social movements are now able to exploit this once cavernous hole of political opposition.
On the other hand, I believe one who shares the opinion that the Arab Spring was solely based on democracy, does so with a narrow perspective. Economic issues are viewed as just as important as the corruption taking place in Tunisia. Further evidence of this was shown in the lack of trust in government; despite the progress in democratic reform. In 2011, there was a 61.1% approval of trust in the government, whereas in 2014 this had dropped staggeringly to 14.9%. This may suggest that economic policy was not running in tandem with the political transitions Tunisia was making. This may also suggest that the expectations of Tunisian people are climbing as reform is happening.
Interim governments in 2014, with the backing of the IMF, imposed a series of austerity measures. Electricity and gas increases of 10% on households had a huge impact on the poorest. With little increase in most incomes, the annual 8% rise on food prices was also having a devastating effect. Whilst the Western world was fawning over Tunisia’s transition to democracy, the fragility closer to home was spiralling out of control.
This period of instability appeared to reach breaking point in January of this year. A series of protests that started on January 1st ran for over a month. January 14th, which once marked a day of celebration, had now become the target of the largest protest since the uprising of 2011. A return of the chant ‘Work, Freedom, Dignity’, the slogan which defined the 2011 uprising, symbolised the unmet expectations that these Tunisians had suffered. With news outlets reporting that the protesters consisted of mainly the unemployed and young people, it is clear to me what this demographic consensus represents. It represents a yearning for an economic system that does not push them to the periphery of society. Perhaps this is due to the disruption of Tunisia’s lucrative tourism industry.
The Western economic consensus has hegemonised large parts of the market-let world, none more so than the MENA region. Since the 1980s, Ben Ali had willingly accepted interventions of international lenders, such as the IMF and World Bank, to help with soaring deficit problems in Tunisia. This international investment, however, entails a series of economic and social reforms set upon the nation, and also places Tunisia in a compromised position vis-à-vis its Western donors. These mainly comprise of austerity measures, which can arguably only affect the poorest in Tunisia.
One activist claimed that the international loans they had been receiving were ‘not a secondary question to the ongoing social struggles confronting the current Tunisian revolution, but at the heart of the struggle’. Adam Hanieh explains in his article that international organisations have attempted to rearticulate what their position is in relation to Tunisia. They have done this by using a discourse that focuses around social empathy. However, a closer look at the details of this shows a continuation of fiscal austerity and private-sector driven growth.
Tunisia’s ability to transition from authoritarian rule to democracy should be lauded for exactly what it is: a huge success. However, to maintain that this was the sole aim of the revolution does a huge injustice to the bravery of those who revolted in January 2011, but perhaps more importantly falls right into the hands of those who are opposing them. After all, Mohamed Bouazizi’s initial grievances had related to his payment and working conditions as a market vegetable vendor.
Burke, J. (2018) Tunisia protests: authorities accused of indiscriminate crackdown. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/11/tunisia-hundreds-arrested-violent-protests-army-deployed-cities
Burke, J. (2018) Who is protesting in Tunisia and why? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/11/who-protesting-tunisia-why-authorities-students-angry#img-1
Hanieh, A. (2015) Shifting Priorities or Business as Usual? Continuity and Change in the post-2011 IMF and World Bank Engagement with Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 42:1, 119-134, DOI: 10.1080/13530194.2015.973199
Merone, F. (2015) Enduring Class Struggle in Tunisia: The Fight for Identity beyond Political Islam, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 42:1, 74-87, DOI: 10.1080/13530194.2015.973188
Teti, A. Abbott, P. Cavatorta, F. (2018) The Arab Uprisings in Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia. Social, Political and Economic Transformations. Palgrave Macmillan, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-69044-5