Where has Tunisia's 'renaissance' gone?

Popular uprisings a decade ago promised effective government and economic empowerment, but have delivered neither

epa08601103 A student supporter of the Free Destour Party (PDL) attends a party to celebrate National Women's Day in Tunis, Tunisia, 13 August 2020. Tunisia celebrates on 13 August the National Women's Day which coincides with the 63rd anniversary of the Promulgation of the Personal Status Code which marks the break with archaic practices devaluing Tunisian women. Tunisian women celebrates Women's Day twice a year, 08 March, International Women's Rights Day, and 13 August, anniversary of the Personal Status Code.  EPA/MOHAMED MESSARA
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In the first half of this year, migrant reception centres in Italy saw the arrival of at least 4,000 Tunisians – around a third of the total number. Unlike many of their counterparts from Libya, West Africa or the Horn of Africa, they are not fleeing widespread violence, but rather widespread unemployment.

Nearly a decade ago, a series of uprisings rocked Tunisia and upended its entire political system. The catalyst for the uprisings was the self-immolation of Muhammad Bouazizi, a street vendor pushed to despair by the bribes demanded of him from local police officers. Bouazizi, like the Tunisians arriving in Italy today, saw his income evaporating when all he wanted was a meaningful livelihood.

epa08608882 Tunisian President Kais Saied (R) stands moments before receiving Italian Foreign Affairs Minister Luigi Di Maio and Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese (both not pictured) for a meeting in Tunis, Tunisia, 17 August 2020. Italian ministers Di Maio and Lamorgese are on an official visit to Tunisia.  EPA/MOHAMED MESSARA
Tunisian President Kais Saied (R) met with an Italian delegation in Tunis on August 17, 2020 to discuss migration, among other issues. EPA

The movement that gripped Tunisia after Bouazizi’s death ushered into power a coalition of political parties under the Islamist umbrella of Ennahda, on promises of democratic accountability and economic prosperity.

“Ennahda”, Arabic for “the renaissance”, is comprised of self-styled “Muslim democrats” – many of whom are closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ten years on, it remains the ruling party, though economic prosperity remains elusive and the democratic system is becoming shakier. Young people escaping Tunisia today had high hopes for change, but they have been dashed.

Even before the country took a double blow to its manufacturing and tourism sectors from the coronavirus pandemic, Tunisia’s economic outlook was downbeat. Last year, the economy grew by just one per cent – more than three times lower than the year before the uprising.

The current Tunisian unemployment rate is slightly above 15 per cent, where it has hovered for the past seven years. Most daunting for the generation that grew up in the thrall of the revolution, unemployment is nearly twice as high for those with university degrees.

The fact that graduates have more trouble finding work in the Tunisian labour market than their less lettered compatriots is astounding. It is a sign that the economy is not only stagnating, but perhaps even fundamentally degrading. The flight of both capital and talent is a certainty – many of the Tunisians in Italian reception centres are from the middle classes – and it is difficult to say how the country will recover from the pandemic without them.

epa08595835 Tunisian Prime Minister-designate Hichem Mechichi briefs the media about his proposed government list in Carthage, east of the capital Tunis, Tunisia, 10 August 2020. Mechichi was tasked with forming a new government following the resignation of Elyes Fakhfakh's cabinet on 15 July 2020. Mechichi has until 25 August to form a government and present it to the Assembly of People's Representatives.  EPA/MOHAMED MESSARA
Tunisia's new Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi briefs the media about his proposed plans for government, in Carthage, east of the capital Tunis, Tunisia, August 10, 2020. EPA
Young people escaping Tunisia today had high hopes for change, but they have been dashed

Those who are willing to remain in Tunisia are finding more reasons to grow cynical about the country’s young democratic order. This is because the elected leadership has done little to make the system look sustainable. The prevailing story in Bardo Palace, where the legislature convenes, has been one of successive party deadlocks and power games between parliamentarians and the executive. A prospective economic recovery deal with the IMF was scuppered by the resignation of the prime minister in July, and his successor, Hichem Mechichi, is seeking to replace a party-based government with a technocratic one.

The sense of frustration is compounded by the lack of dynamism within Ennahda. Parliamentary speaker Rachid Ghannouchi has been Ennahda's leader for five decades. Now, he wants to change party rules to extend his reign further, putting him at odds with the spirit of his own revolution.

Beyond domestic worriess, it is also concerning that Ennahda’s Islamist administration and the President, Kais Saied, have recently solicited overtures from Turkey, which is entrenching itself militarily in Libya. An affinity between Ennahda and Turkey is understandable, given that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party also came to power on a similar platform. But since then, Turkey has gradually morphed into something resembling an Islamist dictatorship with a gravely mismanaged economy. For Tunisians still awaiting their “renaissance”, that is a cautionary tale that ought to give serious pause.