Tunisia's Jasmine revolution: A story of short-lived success?

Tunisia's Jasmine revolution: A story of short-lived success?
5 min read
02 Aug, 2017
Comment: Tunisia's 'Jasmine' revolution was heralded as a model for democratic transition in the Arab world. But crackdowns, poverty and corruption are back on the rise, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
The government provides little support to young people hoping to start businesses [AFP]
Tunisia has a significant claim to fame. 

Not only did it ignite the revolutionary flames of the Arab Spring, it was the only nation to make a triumphant transition from dictatorship to a flourishing democracy within this series of uprisings.

Prior to travelling to the country, I myself held similar misconceptions about the success of the transformation.

It is now more than six years ago that street vendor Mohammad Bouazizi's act of self-immolation inspired disenfranchised Tunisians to take to the streets and demand the resignation of autocratic leader Zine al-Abadine Ben Ali.

While Tunisia has not suffered the fate that other Arab nations did, such as Libya, Syria and Yemen, profound difficulties still persist. Many Tunisians feel that the revolution is incomplete, that while one corrupt regime has been abolished, another has simply replaced it.

Progress has undoubtedly occurred. Tunisians prevented a greater Islamist presence from penetrating the nation's politics. Many had feared that under the Ennahdha party - elected to power in 2011 - Tunisia could have followed the same path as Iran in 1979. Similarities were stark, after all - both entailed the toppling of an authoritarian, secular dictatorship at the hands of a popular uprising, with political Islamic forces capitalising upon the frustrations of the masses.

Even those with years of experience and appropriate qualifications struggle to find consistent work that pays well

Yet the Tunisian people were adamant. They made clear that they would not tolerate any such transformations - as shown by the uproar against Hamadi Jebali's initial suggestion that Ennahdha would implement Tunisia's "sixth caliphate", forcing him to retract his statement. Likewise the protests against making Sharia the constitution's primary source of law.

Ennahdha was repeatedly been forced to pragmatise, and moderate itself - and was forced into a coalition with the secular Nidaa Tounes party in 2014.

This itself can be considered a successful element of the revolution. The Tunisian populace fought for a government representative of its ideological values.

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Yet speaking to a wide range of range of Tunisians across the country during Ramadan iftars, in cafes or other social settings, many consistently voiced the same concerns.

Job prospects remain dismal. Even those with years of experience and appropriate qualifications in their fields struggle to find consistent work that pays well. This is evidently more severe among the younger generation, with youth unemployment at a staggeringly high 40 percent - much worse than under Ben Ali. 

Many Tunisians feel that the revolution is incomplete [AFP]

Others have become so desperate for employment they have resorted to paying 2,000-3,000 dinars (approximately $820-$1230) to bribe officials, just to secure employment. As this amounts to several months' salary in full-time work, it is clear how young people can become entrapped in such situations.

Many of the Tunisians I spoke to relayed a sense of hopelessness, concerned that there is no future for people in their country. Mohammad, 27, brims with entrepreneurial flair and interest in his design business, but tells me how - as with many other small businesses - it is extremely difficult to make progress, as the government does not provide much support.

While Mohammad is one of the few still striving to make change, others feel defeated. Rather than hoping to accomplish their dreams in Tunisia, many simply aspire to escaping the country.

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Ennahdha has often been lambasted for mismanaging the economy, and critics have said the party lacks fiscal credibility. Furthermore, social disparity is still an issue, with a considerable rich-poor divide. 

To make matters worse, the regime remains authoritarian, riddled with corruption. Mass protests calling for better living conditions recently took place in Tatouine - a city disproportionately hit by unemployment. Instead of listening to the public's concerns, demonstrators were met with brutality from security forces, leaving one dead and many others injured.

Social disparity is still an issue, with a considerable rich-poor divide

Detainees face barbaric treatment, as attested to by numerous reports from organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which document torture, arbitrary imprisonments and other forms of violence on the part of the authorities.

The government has acted, often illegally, to curtail freedom of speech and individual liberties. During Ramadan this year, many arrests for eating, drinking and smoking in public were made. This kind of crackdown clearly violates Tunisia's democratic constitution, which makes no provision for punishment of this sort.

Prominent and outspoken critics of the government will be tackled too: Journalists and bloggers have been arrested for "offending" the army and the police force.

It is reasonable to say that though the years immediately after the revolution did usher in some positive change, this has not endured, and Tunisia now finds itself slipping back into old ways. Some believe that the revolution is still not complete, and they are right to say so.

Throughout history, other revolutions - genuine strides for progress and change - have been hijacked by self-serving movements, acting on their own interests. Tunisia is seemingly no exception.

Establishing democratic elections in Tunisia was an outstanding achievement. It shows progress can be made, if enough people push for it. But as long as energy is diverted towards to attempting to leave the country, and disenfranchisement with political participation grows - little will change.

Only repeated pressure from the bottom up, and people making their voices heard, can ensure that lasting change will occur.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a History and Politics student at the University of Exeter. He is also a freelance writer and blogger, with a special interest in political and social issues in the Middle East and North Africa where he has travelled extensively. 

He writes a political commentary blog.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.