Tunisia’s economy before and after the Arab Spring

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The 2011 Jasmine Revolution ousted Ben Ali’s autocracy and introduced full democratic rule in Tunisia but, since then, it’s been commonly argued that the country’s economic performance has worsened – particularly with the significant depreciation of the Dinar, and the worsening of the external debt.

While high unemployment (especially amongst the youth) had been a key structural economic problem that prompted the regime breakdown, the post-revolutionary period has not yet brought the economic benefits and reforms that Tunisians hoped for. As such, a segment of Tunisia’s population decided the economy was better off under Ben Ali’s regime, however fallacious this is when you only consider the imbalances that deteriorated after the revolution (in terms of the government budget deficit, as well as the balance of trade) and not the performance of the ‘real economy’ (with the slow growth, and high unemployment, not varying significantly).

To discredit the aforementioned fallacy further, one only needs to delve deeper into how economic performance is usually measured. Traditionally, these are the key macroeconomic measures and variables used to assess economic performance: growth (measured by a static or growing GDP per capita), employment indicators (including unemployment as a percentage of total labour force), and inflation (measured by consumer prices). If we were to evaluate Tunisia’s economic performance using solely these three indicators, we would be able to conclude that the economic performance, overall, did not worsen significantly as compared to the period prior to the revolution. 

In economic parlance, cases like the Tunisian economy are often described as “sluggish”. A sluggish economy is one where performance and growth tend to be relatively slow, stable, or on a gentle decline. Tunisia has faced – and continues to face – a period of economic stagnation, with a prolonged period of slow economic growth accompanied by high unemployment rates.

From a macroeconomic perspective, if we were to assess the Tunisian performance over the past two decades, it would be possible to highlight a certain strength in the Tunisian economy that willing or unwilling propagandists for the Ben Ali regime could level at the Jasmine revolutionaries. But, again, if we were to inspect that bigger picture more closely, it would become clear that this track record has, since the end of the Cold War, not been as strong as one would’ve expected.

High unemployment among the youth, lack of private investment, weakening purchasing power and slow growth were all pivotal factors which lit the spark of the 2011 Arab Spring.

All in all, over the past decade, growth has not changed significantly in comparison to the years leading to the revolution. GDP per capita growth was only recorded negative during the year in which the revolution sparked, and had actually managed to recover afterwards. On average, figures remained relatively consistent and stable, and the Tunisian economy could reveal its true potential if it was freed from the burden of escalating debts and the vicious cycle of long-term or inter-generational unemployment.

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