Keeping the light bright in Tunisia ten years after the Arab Spring

EPA-EFE/MOHAMED MESSARA

Ten years ago, anti-government protests began in Tunisia, leading up to the toppling of the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regime in January 2011, the country’s transition to democracy, and the start of the Arab Spring that saw the ousting of autocratic rulers across the Maghreb.

“There are many political accomplishments, but many challenges to face, socially and economically,” politician and lawmaker Naoufel El Jammali told EURACTIV around the time of the tenth anniversary.

However, there is fragility alongside the democratic institutions. A succession of weak governments: eight prime ministers in nine years, combined with a sclerotic economy has resulted in growing public discontent that risks going beyond the falls in voter turn-out at successive elections.

El Jammali, a lawmaker and former minister for Ennahdha, the Muslim democrat party that has been the largest single political force in the country since the 2011 revolution, said that economic reform and growth is key to sustaining the country’s democracy.

For the moment, there are few green shoots of economic recovery. Youth unemployment remains stubbornly high, as does migration to Europe, another sign of the scarcity of jobs.

Repayments on a $2.9 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund are now due and the economy has been hampered further by the COVID-19 pandemic and is set to shrink by 7% in 2020 following several years of slow growth.

“There is a lot of unhappiness in Tunisian society. The same level of unhappiness was there before the Revolution but with the difference that back then we had no right to speak about it. Now people have the right to voice their unhappiness. I think it is normal,” El Jammali told EURACTIV.

There is still some appetite for reform of the electoral law to reduce the level of political fragmentation that has led to a series of weak coalition governments. Lawmakers say this would not mean re-opening the 2014 constitution, though it would mean more political battling about institutions at a time when most Tunisian are desperate for better economic prospects.

“We have a lot of parliamentary groups in the parliament, which makes it very difficult to set up a coherent government, a strong coalition,” said El Jammali.

“I think we must think seriously about changing the electoral law to allow Tunisia to have a strong government,” he added.

Despite having topped or come second in the polls since 2011, Ennahdha has seen a decline to its support, winning 24% of the seats in Parliament at the 2019 elections compared to 32% in 2014 and 41% in 2011, with analysts blaming the concessions it has made in government.

“We have no ministers but for the sake of the country, we choose to support this government,” said El Jammali.

It was corruption, economic hardship, inequality and high unemployment that drove the Arab Spring, and the persistence of many of these problems has prompted concern that public support for a return to autocracy could increase, as has been seen in Egypt. It is a risk which El Jammali acknowledges, though he is confident that Tunisians will not lose hope.

“The most important thing is strong economic growth. That is what will help us deal with social problems and the struggle against the nostalgia for dictatorship,” he says.

“The Tunisian people know the difference between dictatorship and democracy and they realise that they have the right today to speak up for themselves without fear of the police or jail. Those things are very precious. I don’t think we will go back there.”

In the meantime, El Jammali urges EU leaders to maintain political and economic support for Tunisia.

“If, God forbid, this experience failed, then it would have bad consequences across the region. Europe must stand for Tunisian democracy and continue to support us,” he said.

While the Arab Spring proved to be a false dawn in many countries, Tunisia is still seen as the main success story despite the country’s current economic difficulties.

“Compared to other countries we are the only one that has survived. The light always comes from Tunisia, historically speaking,” said El Jammali.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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