Nine years ago, Tunisian street seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid, setting off the Arab uprisings.
This year, as Tunisians commemorate the events that ushered in a democratic transition, the country is embarking on the next phase of that transition with a newly elected government that is determined to finally deliver on the promises of the 2010-2011 revolution.
However, the patience of many Tunisians – particularly those who brought about the revolution – is waning and should this new government fail to bring about economic growth and social change in the marginalised interior and southern regions, the country could find itself in one of two equally troubling situations: massive unrest akin to the uprisings of 2011 or a return to authoritarianism. Thus it is crucial that the new government find a way to push forward with politically risky but necessary economic reforms that in the long term will bring about real improvement in the lives of Tunisians.
While the revolution brought tremendous political progress and created relatively effective democratic institutions as evidenced by the seamless handover of power following the death of President Beji Caid Essebsi in July, most of the original goals of the revolution have yet to be met. When Tunisians took to the streets in 2010 to demand change, it was economic and social change they were seeking first – with demands for political change coming later. But the various leaders who have governed Tunisia since 2011 have failed to deliver the positive economic and social progress the people are seeking, leaving many Tunisians frustrated.
In a recent Arab Barometer survey, 66 per cent of Tunisians said they believe the government does a “bad” or “very bad” job at limiting the economic and social disparity between the regions and only one-third of respondents believe the economic situation will improve in the next two to three years. Furthermore, trust in the government is abysmally low. Three-quarters of Tunisians say they do not trust the government or the council of ministers, 78 per cent say the same about the parliament and 84 per cent say they do not trust political parties.
This frustration has manifested itself in a variety of ways. Tunisians continue to migrate to Europe in high numbers both through regular and irregular channels, and have become the largest proportion of migrants arriving in Italy by sea. The suicide rate has almost doubled since 2011 and the rate of self-immolations has tripled. Most recently, in early December, another young man self-immolated in the town of Jemla, in the same region as Bouazizi, setting off a wave of protests against poor socio-economic conditions in the region. And Tunisia remains one of the largest contributors of foreign fighters to ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that this autumn Tunisians elected a fresh slate of faces to represent them at the national level. President Kais Saied is a political newcomer who ran without the assistance of a political party and who has vowed to root out the persistent corruption that continues to plague the country despite the removal of autocratic president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. And prime minister-designate Habib Jemli, who also lacks a significant political background, was selected by the Ennahda party over several more seasoned political figures and has pledged to give the major ministries – interior, justice, defence and foreign affairs – to political independents.
There is tremendous pressure on the new government to deliver on what those before them could not – reducing youth unemployment, levelling the playing field for those in the south and interior of the country, increasing economic growth, reducing inflation, improving the investment environment and driving out corrupt businesses who both restrict the space for entrepreneurs and small businesses and take much needed funds out of the state’s coffers.
While in Tunisia during the presidential elections, it was clear to me that voters, particularly youth, see corruption as one of the most damaging issues to Tunisia's progress. Mr Saied campaigned on an anti-corruption platform and won an overwhelming victory (73 per cent of the vote) over his appoint Nabil Karoui, who was jailed for the bulk of the campaign on corruption charges. But whether Mr Saied will be able to deliver on his election promises depends largely on his relationship with the parliament, who have jurisdiction over domestic issues. And while the previous prime minister, Youssef Chahed, came to power declaring a war on corruption, he was largely stymied in his efforts by powerful elites who had little interest in uprooting or reforming a system that benefited them and their business interests.
There is some hope that Mr Jemli, who, if he succeeds in forming a government, will be the first high-level official from the interior, may be more cognisant of the needs of those from the traditionally-marginalised regions. But with a government that is quite fractured with the largest parties receiving less than a quarter of the seats in parliament (Ennahda with 24 per cent and Qalb Tounes with 18 per cent), and responsible for delivering on many varied interests, finding consensus may be difficult, resulting in watered-down policies and few risky decisions.
While democratic transitions can take generations to succeed, for Tunisians who are seeking a better life for themselves and their families, nine years is a long time to wait for meaningful change. Thus, if this new government cannot change the economic course of the country, over the next several years we are likely to see further declines in support for democracy and an even more drastic turn away from formal political channels such as elections and civic activism, to demand change. This could bring Tunisia to the brink of another 2010 – with mass protests starting in the interior and resonating throughout the country. Or it could build support for political actors like member of parliament Abir Moussi and her Free Destourian Party who have been vocal in their opposition to the 2011 revolution and the desire for a return to more authoritarian practices and who won a surprising 17 seats in the 217 seat parliament, showing that there is a growing constituency for a return to the past.
Either outcome would be damaging to a country that needs stability to survive. For many of the economic challenges to be met requires a growth in tourism as well as international private sector investment and lending – all of which are harmed by violence and chaos. Thus, it is incumbent upon the new government, once it is in place, to take on an incredibly difficult task: to quickly develop clear and effective economic and social reforms that will bring about the positive change needed, while simultaneously finding a way to prevent the short-term pain that is likely to occur as the country achieves long-term gain.
Sarah Yerkes is a fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Programme, where her research focuses on Tunisia’s political, economic, and security developments as well as state-society relations in the Middle East and North Africa.