Tunisian Democracy in Danger

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

Thousands of Tunisians gathered on the streets of Tunis in January 2018, to mark the anniversary of the ousting of President Ben Ali, who went into exile to Saudi Arabia in January, 2011. This has been the country where 2011 Arab Spring against a tyrannical rule actually started.

Right now, the country is running a fragile government. They have promised that the common people will reap the fruits of prosperity mainly from foreign investments, but Tunisians don’t believe their leaders. Infact, there were protests in 2016 regarding unemployment, in the Kasserine region. Then, in 2017, there was Kamour movement in the south, which ended after government accepted demands.

Since 1956, Tunisia has followed an economic model that has focused entirely on cheap exports to Europe and on budget mass tourism for Europeans.

The prime minister, president and the senate hold equal power. At the same time, social activists are active in civil society organisations and labour unions. There has been a paradigm shift but it is not worthwhile, as there are security threats coming from jihadists, from illegal migration and from smuggling.

Press reports have shown stories where even 50-year-olds have joined the protests for freedom and dignity.

Backers of an Islamist Revolution party called Ennahda that took power for several years, after the revolution, have called for its return to power. Since a couple of days, they have been dominating several concert scenes, where episodes of loud music have been reported. Vendors have been busy selling Tunisian flags to the public.

A new law increasing prices of daily commodities, including an increase of value-added tax, has fueled the unrest. Economists believe that suspending the finance law may help calm the streets, but it can likely slow down the economy even more.

Many children were also among those waving flags, singing and dancing and their parents have been unusually unconcerned about the prolonged violence in the past. The consequences may seem harsh and alarming, but Tunisians are continuing to fight for their ideals.

There is a perceived anger in Tunisia because of low employment prospects, dwindling economy and corruption. Many factory workers have flared up the sentiments of trade unions who are also joining the protests. The powerful UGTT labour union has demanded a call for pay increases and a higher minimum wage. It seems that Tunisia is in a boiling pot again.

In 2015, terror attacks ruined the tourism in Tunisia, where an ISIS trained gunman had been trained for the plot in Libya. Tourism industry makes only 8 percent GDP in the country, but more than 440,000 British tourists travelled annually to Tunisian beaches and archaeological sites before the Sousse attack but in its aftermath, there has been a 90% fall. This makes the situation in the country even direr.

Prime Minister Youssef Chahed decided to reimburse around 100 million dinars (about $40 million USD) to help 200,000 of the neediest Tunisian families, plus free health care for the jobless.
An aid fund for poor families to acquire housing also was created, but the Popular Front, a leftist coalition, denounced this move, stating that unless and until the buying power of people doesn’t improve, no such welfare measure could become successful.
Journalists from Tunisia have reported about dozens of police cars that have been damaged. There were two police stations have been burned and eight others have been ransacked. Arrests have been put at nearly 780, including 16 religious extremists, for vandalism and looting.

The Tunisian Revolution in 2011 was sparked by the death of a fruit and vegetable seller in the central town of Sidi Bouzid who set himself afire in apparent anger and despair over mistreatment by police who upset his cart. These wounds of social mistreatment are still fresh amongst the Tunisians.

Since then, a four-way peacemaking group, known as the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet had been tasked to initiate dialogue in an attempt to build a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia.

The entity was later awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize “for its decisive contribution”.

But it seems, some hard work needs to be done if the stakeholders want to achieve some practical means to initiate the peace process. It is because the political protests have started again. On the grassroots level, the Tunisians seem to be unhappy.

In the past, the dictatorship that was established in the 1950s, which transformed Tunisia into a police state later, banned politics and pushed Tunisians away from their public affairs.

A recent poll published by the International Republican Institute has found that an overwhelming majority of Tunisians consider the economic situation “very bad”.

Current austerity measures and tax increases drafted by the government have been actually demanded by the IMF, which is Tunisia's biggest lender. It has granted the country €2.4 billion ($2.93 billion) in loans up to 2020. The government aims to reduce its budget to less than 6 percent.

It might reflect Tunisia’s lending capabilities as well. In Tunisia, bank loans are often available only to public servants or others with stable salaries.
Other ordinary individuals are sometimes required to give highly demanding guarantees. These important concerns rising might bring the old ways of dictatorship seen before the 2011 Jasmine Revolution back into their political scene.


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