Seven years after the Arab Spring felled its first dictator – Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14, 2011 – the Arab world has largely fallen into war or more autocracy. With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the region accounts for half of the world’s refugees. Yet popular demands for individual dignity remain strong. That was made clear this past week in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began. Days of street protests against austerity measures have mostly been tolerated.
The country’s duly elected prime minister, Youssef Chahed, even went to the streets to talk to demonstrators – a type of accountability hardly imagined elsewhere in the region. He pleaded for people to accept the necessary belt-tightening. Police appeared sympathetic to the cries of youths left jobless by a stagnant economy. And the media covered the public outburst without restraint.
Such freedom of dissent may be one legacy of the Arab Spring. In a 2016 survey by Arab Barometer, two-thirds of those in the region say they could criticize the government without fear. Arabs may not have many civil liberties. Yet many more now feel a liberty of conscience.
“Arab citizens are unlikely to remain docile as socioeconomic stresses increase and welfare systems are curtailed in the years to come,” states a recent report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Citizens will increasingly use activism, albeit in forms different from those associated with the Arab Spring, to influence the fate of their countries.”
As in many democracies, youths in Tunisia resent the lack of job opportunities and a persistence of corruption. They are also upset about the long-range demands of foreign creditors who insist the government rein in subsidies. Public debt is 70 percent of gross national product. A fifth of all Tunisian workers are employed by the government, an unsustainable situation. Austerity is necessary for economic growth and the creation of private jobs.
Democratic revolutions like Tunisia’s are first and foremost about liberty for the individual. That lesson helped the country’s Islamist party, Ennahda, fully embrace democracy. Yet with liberty comes the need to define the collective good, often through individual sacrifice. The current protests are part of that process.
As it did seven years ago, the rest of the Arab world can watch as Tunisia again provides a model of reform. This time, the lesson is in how to build a healthier and more inclusive economy.