Tunisia: simmering discontent

Real risk of complacency about country’s democratic path

Arab Spring: seven years after Tunisians took to the streets to oust Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, crowds rallied in search of the lost promise of that uprising. Photograph: Youssef Boudlal/ Reuters

Arab Spring: seven years after Tunisians took to the streets to oust Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, crowds rallied in search of the lost promise of that uprising. Photograph: Youssef Boudlal/ Reuters

 

Seven years after Tunisians took to the streets to oust the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, crowds returned to the streets of Tunis in recent days in search of the lost promise of that uprising. Reviving the 2011 demand for “employment, freedom and national dignity”, Tunisians of various political stripes marched on Avenue Habib Bourguiba – the epicentre of the protests that culminated in Ben Ali’s departure. Some of the protests turned violent, with clashes reported in a number of towns and the interior ministry reporting 800 arrests.

Tunisia is the only democratic success of the Arab Spring. It is the one state that toppled its autocrat without triggering widespread violence or civil war, or sliding back into the grip of a tyrant. But the slow pace of economic improvement since 2011 has caused widespread discontent and gave the protesters their unifying grievance. Unemployment is at 15 per cent and the vital tourism sector has been slow to recover from the fallout from a number of terrorist attacks in recent years.

The International Crisis Group believes Tunisia is drifting back towards its old authoritarian reflexes

With the government under pressure from donors to reduce the budget deficit, on January 1st it imposed painful tax and price increases. A sudden jump in prices for fuel and consumer goods and taxes on cars, phone calls and the internet has brought a simmering anger to the boil.

After several days of protests, the government has belatedly begun to acknowledge the depth of public anger. But its hurried pledges – a $40 million fund to help 200,000 of the poorest families, free healthcare for the jobless and a housing aid fund – will do little to assuage public discontent.

More widely, there is a real risk of complacency about Tunisia’s democratic path. A recent report from the International Crisis Group argued that the country was drifting back towards its old authoritarian reflexes, partly due to the failure of the nationalist and Islamist partners in the coalition government to implement the 2014 constitution. Strengthening institutions – notably by creating a constitutional court, setting up independent oversight bodies and holding long-delayed local elections – should be priorities for the year ahead.

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