Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters
A supporter of the Islamist Ennahda movement shouts slogans during a campaign event in Tunis on Friday. Tunisia is set to hold parliamentary elections on Sunday and a presidential ballot in November.

Tunisia elections: at source of Arab Spring, a focus on jobs, not jihad

Voters in Tunisia, where an uprising in 2011 triggered the Arab Spring, are heading to the polls today. The country's tough economy, including high unemployment, is the dominant issue.

A line of new campaign posters on a wall in this western city helps explain why Tunisia is looking increasingly like the Arab world’s best hope for peace and democracy.

But photocopied diplomas above the posters – in which unemployed graduates have added the words “They have forgotten us” in pen – are a bitter reminder that Tunisia’s 2011 revolution remains, for many, a work-in-progress.

On Sunday, Tunisians lined up early to elect a new parliament to replace the current transitional body, which took office following the uprising that toppled former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and triggered similar revolts across the region in what became known as the Arab Spring.

Tunisia’s democratic transition, including a presidential election due later this year, is a powerful counter-example to stagnation and crises elsewhere. 

In Egypt, a military coup last year against an elected Islamist president led by General – now President – Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has upended attempts to build democracy. Libya’s post-Qaddafi transition is mired in conflict between militia-backed rival governments. Syria is gripped by civil war, while Islamic State jihadists massacre and loot their way across Syria and Iraq.

Tunisia is not untouched by such tensions. The country is home to a small but dangerous jihadi movement whose members occasionally clash with Tunisian security forces and, more often, turn up on battlefields in Syria and Iraq. In Kasserine, nights are sometimes punctuated by artillery fire directed at nearby Mount Chaambi, where authorities say jihadists have holed up since 2012.  

And in the run-up to Sunday's elections, travel across the country was slowed amid tightened security.

But in Tunisia, the main battles are electoral. The moderate Islamist Ennahda party and its secularist rivals fought 2011 elections on identity politics, but now face voters more concerned with jobs than ideology. The next parliament is expected to put Tunisia’s new constitution to work as the basis for reforms to establish an open, democratic society.

Power sharing on the table

Already, that challenge has major parties talking coalition. Ennahda, which formed a coalition government with two secularist parties after finishing first in 2011 elections, has seen its support plunge to 31 percent, according to an Oct. 15 report by the Pew Research Center. Last year opposition parties boycotted the interim parliament to force Ennahda to cede power to a caretaker cabinet.

Ennahda says it favors a big-tent government across ideological lines, plus consulting trade unions on governance. Its main rival, the secularist Nidaa Tounes, says it can share power with like-minded parties but has not reached out publicly to Ennahda.

Those fault lines are likely to persist. Mahmoud Ben Romdhane, chair of Nidaa Tounes’ economic and social commission, says his party and Ennahda represent opposite sides of a regional struggle between Islamists and secularists. Abdelhamid Jlassi, Ennahda’s vice president, rejects that notion, distinguishing instead between “forces of democracy and social justice, and forces of regression.”

Still, Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes cut a deal to end last year’s crisis, and may find ways to cooperate again. Tunisia needs to overhaul state institutions, scrap old repressive laws, try and punish those responsible for past abuses, and combat the jihadi movement.

The economic challenge

Meanwhile, Tunisia’s economy is ensnarled in red tape that chokes investment and job creation while maintaining a Ben Ali-era economic system that empowers a small elite and concentrates wealth in coastal cities, says a Sept. 17 World Bank report. Wealth gaps, unemployment, and sheer oppression helped trigger 2011’s revolution.

Tunisia’s international partners “need to help Tunisia tackle the structural problems that have created economic underperformance and social tensions,” says Antonio Nucifora, the World Bank’s former lead economist on Tunisia. “Tunisians are calling for fundamental changes.”

In particular, they’re calling for jobs. Unemployment and economic problems top public concerns, says a poll by the National Democratic Institute released Aug. 19, while 65 percent of Tunisians say political parties are mainly interested in power.

Just ask Laabidi Ghodhbani, who at age 36 lives with his parents and two of six siblings in a four-room house on the outskirts of Kasserine, beyond a vacant patch of land sprinkled with trash.

Mr. Ghodhbani has a friendly but nervous air, and a scar on his forehead from the night in January 2011 when he says he joined protests. In the course of detaining and beating him, he says, police threw him violently against their van, fracturing his skull. In 2013 he got a job answering phones at a government office as compensation, but his 460-dinar salary ($255) plus his father’s 270-dinar pension barely cover the family’s basic expenses, he says.

“If I had more money, I’d do some farming, maybe keep a few animals,” Ghodhbani says. And he would marry his fiancée of four years. For now, he says, he will sit out Sunday’s vote. “Because [politicians] have done nothing for us. As a citizen, if I don’t have faith in someone, why should I give him my vote?”

No jobs for graduates

Ghodhbani’s frustration is shared by many in Kasserine, a city on a plain flanked by mountains, where unemployment stood at 23.4 percent last year, according to state figures, and nearly double that for university graduates.

Mohsen Boutheuri, secretary general of Ennahda’s Kasserine branch, says better infrastructure would attract investment. Abdellatif Rhimi, a local Nidaa Tounes candidate, agrees, and proposes freer cross-border trade of some currently restricted goods.

Ghodhbani’s father, Mohamed, shares his son’s disenchantment with what he calls decades of neglect by leaders in Tunis. Yet he will be voting on Sunday, he says.

“Things are better now than with Zine,” he says, referring to Ben Ali. “Now we can speak, now we can breathe. If things go well, good. If not…” And he casts his eyes toward heaven.

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